When I was a young surface warfare officer serving aboard a Navy ship, a department head once remarked to me that “the good thing about the Navy is if you don’t like your boss, you’ll probably get a new one soon.”
He referred to the particularly short length of an officer’s tour aboard a warship—usually only 18 months. Though he did not say it explicitly, his statement was aimed at the captain of our own vessel, a man I will refer to as “Captain Pinckney.”
I first met Pinckney the day I checked onboard. He appeared in the doorway of the ship’s administrative office: a small, rotund figure with a wisp of hair atop an otherwise bald head, and a seemingly permanent grimace on his face.
“Welcome aboard,” he said in a nasal voice. “You’re probably going to be the communications officer—your job sucks.”
He did not shake my hand or ask any questions, and so ended my first meeting with my new commanding officer.
Shortly after, the ship departed for deployment, and the junior officers aboard began to suspect something was seriously amiss with our captain. Though we had become acquainted by then with his generally ill humor, Pinckney’s antics underway alarmed us to a more considerable degree.
On the bridge, where officers stand watch and drive the ship, Pinckney couldn’t handle stress without his anger level going through the roof. Any deviation from his intended plan would result in ridiculous, fist-pounding outbursts in which he would scream and curse at whoever happened to be so unfortunate as to stand near him. For Pinckney, there was always someone to blame when things went wrong, and because the bridge was filled with junior officers, that someone was usually one of us.
If an ensign relayed the wrong order to a helmsman (and ensigns are the most junior officers and thus the most likely to make mistakes), he would be screamed at. If the navigator gave a suggestion the captain didn’t agree with, she would be screamed at. If the boatswain’s mates on the main deck below were taking longer than he wanted to get mooring lines on or off the pier, Pinckney would grab a radio and scream into it. If the officer of the deck couldn’t answer his questions fast enough, more yelling ensued. This wasn’t censored stuff, either. Standing watch was supposed to be our point of pride as surface officers. Instead, it became something to dread.
The captain even unleashed hell, although more rarely so, on enlisted watchstanders. I saw him on several occasions shout at helmsmen for not manning the wheel to his standard, though these were young men and women who, sometimes less than a year before, had still been in high school. Once he replaced a helmsman for not coming to course quickly enough while approaching an oiler for an underway replenishment.
“You’re making us look like fucking idiots!” he bellowed.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
Pinckney took our actions on the bridge personally, as if every mistake his young, inexperienced sailors made was a direct reflection of his own abilities as a mariner. For the ensigns, this made any situation on the bridge with him a poor training opportunity—indeed, I cannot recall a single moment when Pinckney attempted to derive a single lesson from our mistakes.
Our skipper also had a habit of making things that were supposed to be fun, well, not fun at all. One evening early on in the deployment, Pinckney decided to hold a movie night in the wardroom, the place where officers eat and conduct meetings. Our attendance, the department heads made clear, was strongly advised. The captain’s choice for a movie was an odd one, a romantic comedy starring Keira Knightley as a quirky singer-songwriter and Mark Ruffalo as her equally quirky manager. It didn’t exactly put us on the edge of our seats, and those who weren’t exhausted from watch the night before wanted to get some sleep before their watch that night.
Before the movie was halfway over, people began to sneak out of the wardroom, and Pinckney, though he pretended not to notice at first, became visibly frustrated. Suddenly, he pushed back his chair, jumped to his feet, and exclaimed, “Well, if everyone’s leaving, I don’t know why we’re even doing this!” before storming out and retiring to his cabin for the night. The few remaining officers stared at each other for a few minutes, the movie still playing, before it was silently decided this wardroom social event had come to an end.
Pinckney was notoriously quick to judge the people who worked for him, and those officers who had failed to make a good first impression found it exceedingly difficult to return to his good graces. One of these was our supply officer, dubbed “Suppo” on a Navy ship, who had the physique and facial features of a Ken doll. Tall, square-jawed, and in flawless shape even after months at sea, he stood in stark contrast to our smaller, rounder captain. Indeed, our Suppo may have been the most handsome supply officer in the Navy. It was perhaps for this reason, we jokingly surmised, that Pinckney despised him. During meetings, Pinckney jumped on any occasion to interrogate Suppo in front of the other officers, questioning why this or that piece of equipment or replacement part hadn’t yet arrived on the ship.
One afternoon as I stood watch, the captain appeared on the bridge and, through its windows, noticed Suppo engaged in one of his frequent workouts on the forecastle.
“Look at him,” Pinckney muttered from his chair, “picking up weights and putting them down. That’s all he’s doing. That’s pretty stupid, when you think about it.”
As junior officers, it was far from our place to argue with our commanding officer: We were both too low in the naval hierarchy and too ignorant in the maritime profession to make any objection when our captain lashed out at us. Regardless of our rank, the captain was lord commander aboard a naval vessel, and it was not within anyone’s rights to question his tactics or his behavior, at least not in public. Given that Pinckney’s behavior hardly changed throughout my time with him, I find it unlikely anyone broached the subject with him behind closed doors, either.
There is nothing wrong with a captain giving his officers a good chewing out every now and then, if they deserve it, but it was hard to find respect for a leader who seemed to only see the worst in others and who blamed everything that went wrong on the people around him and never on himself. Then again, bad leaders are not uncommon in the Navy. In the 1970s, a British psychologist and World War II veteran, Norman F. Dixon, even wrote a book on the subject, titled On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, a work that curiously has not yet made it onto the Navy’s official reading list.
What can we do in the face of bad leadership? I’d like to think I would have confronted him had I been more senior in rank, though I have no evidence to attest to this. Tours with competent leaders never provided the opportunity for me to prove myself.
Pinckney, though he was one man, almost completely dictated the tone of the time I served under him. I did not expect my captain to be my friend, but Pinckney seemed more interested in making me feel small at every opportunity than in developing me as a naval officer. His leadership style was no model either—no other captain I served under in the Navy was compelled to scream at their officers to run their ship.
Perhaps it says something about our culture aboard Navy ships that we are willing to accept bad leaders because we expect we’ll “get a new one soon, anyway.” Or perhaps that’s the price we must pay for the discipline that makes those ships run and keeps their young crews sane.
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
Regardless, I know now that being insufferable to the people who work for you is not the mark of a good leader, in or out of the military. I also know that leading those people to do what you tell them because they want to, not because they have to, is usually the preferable option.