In the military, leadership exists at the most basic and junior levels. Whether it’s a young sailor in charge of an individual workshop or the commanding officer of a ship, the fundamentals are the same. One of the most important leadership tenets is praise in public, counsel in private. Once I became a commissioned officer in the Navy, I was excited to put into practice all I had learned in my training, but was even more eager to learn from my superiors—to see how senior officers led from the front. However, my first tour in the Navy was fraught with experiences that contradicted good leadership. And while I wished I hadn’t been on the receiving end of poor treatment, the experience provided me with a firm footing of who I knew I didn’t want to become as a leader.
I arrived on the ship’s bridge as the late afternoon sun began to meet the horizon. Ready for an exciting evening, I began preparation for driving the ship and maintaining its safety. I reviewed the radar, the nautical charts, and the plan for the next five hours at sea, or as we say in the Navy, I got ready to “take the deck.” I felt confident and sure of myself as I relieved the other officer in charge.
Once my watch team settled in, we huddled together to discuss the evening’s mission. We had a series of special ship handling events on the schedule, including plane guard duty and flight operations to land our helicopter in the midst of several fishing and shipping vessels in the ocean. It was going to be a busy night sailing through the South China Sea, and everyone needed to be on their A game.
As a qualified officer of the deck (OOD), it was my job to navigate the ship and oversee a watch team of six sailors and officers. To do this safely, I worked in synchrony with the engineering plant and the Combat Information Center, the heartbeat of warfighting and operations onboard. I was a qualified OOD, but my captain preferred to have two qualified OODs during special ship handling circumstances to provide guidance and counsel should a situation become tricky and complicated. My captain had very little trust in us, despite her own shortcomings, which usually translated to public criticism, belittling others, and disparaging comments in front of other sailors, regardless of rank. The officer who would be on watch with me, Lieutenant Jordan, arrived. He was a much more experienced ship handler, so I was grateful for his presence. Together, we reviewed the air plan, the timeline, and the winds, and prepared ourselves for whatever would come in the next five hours.
Our main responsibility for the night was plane guard duty. This meant our ship had to position itself within 2,000 yards behind the aircraft carrier to provide landing guidance to the 30-50 planes arriving and taking off throughout the night. In order to launch and recover aircraft, the carrier positioned itself according to how the winds were blowing that night—its simple physics calculated for each launch and recovery cycle. Sometimes, the carrier relayed its intentions to us over the radio, giving us a quick heads-up to plan our reaction. Most of the time, however, it was a guessing game that required a careful eye, quick ship handling, and lots of teamwork.
We heard her familiar steps approach the interior bridge hatch, and the door flew open.
“Captain’s on the bridge,” a sailor announced.
“Good evening, ma’am,” I began as she made her way to the captain’s chair.
I briefed her on the events for that evening’s watch and reminded her that our own helicopter was presently airborne and would need to land on our flight deck during the hectic evening.
“Why’s he here?” she said, pointing to Jordan. He and I looked at each other, perplexed yet with silent resignation, knowing full well that this was just part of her routine.
“Ma’am, per your requirement, Lieutenant Jordan is here tonight to provide me backup, because we have plane guard duty for the carrier.”
“OK,” was all she said, as she climbed into her chair and settled into reviewing the pile of paperwork that she’d brought with her.
As the sun began to set, we received the official call over the radio directing us to take plane guard station behind the aircraft carrier.
“All right team, let’s go,” I said.
Everything worked like clockwork. I immediately filled with pride as I watched my team perform beautifully, especially in front of the captain. She appeared to be pleased too and headed below deck, stomping off the bridge without a word, which usually was a good sign. Jordan whispered, “Good job,” in my ear.
When she left, we got excited about the evening again. Plane guard requires fast, sharp, and sudden movements. When the ocean is clear and open, it’s fun to drive as fast as you can to chase the carrier and make your way back to your assigned position.
As we maintained our station, we ticked off the first few rounds of aircraft launching and recovering. Suddenly, without warning, the carrier turned sharply. We acted swiftly, turning aggressively away from it and bringing up our speed. Just as soon as our ship began to lean and the engines roared, the phone rang. I knew it was her.
“What in the actual fuck are you doing?” she screamed.
“Ma’am, the carrier turned to reset her course,” I answered, calmly.
“All right, well, get on station,” she said. Click. Her signature ending to every phone call.
It was common for her to lose track of where we were and what we were doing, and her confusion and lack of awareness typically resulted in a verbal lashing, either over the phone or in front of the watch team. It didn’t matter if you were the best or worst ship handler; we all received our fair share of reprimands. At first, I thought being cursed at was devastating. But after days, weeks, and months of her scoldings, I became numb to them. Sometimes our team considered being chewed out as some twisted badge of honor.
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About halfway through the watch, we prepared to recover our helicopter. When all of the checklist requirements were met for the landing, I called the captain, per regulation.
“Ma’am, request green deck to recover Warlord 706.”
“What the fuck, Ali? What happened to plane guard?” she screamed into the phone, followed by a stream of obscenities.
I reviewed the plan with her, yet again. Though she never apologized for losing it on me, she gave me the green light to proceed. My team landed the helicopter and we returned to our station just as the carrier prepared to recover another round of aircraft.
I looked at Jordan and could feel both of our pulses beginning to rise. The captain’s erratic antics and unknown expectations made the evening so stressful. While I tried to shield my team from my stress, they all knew what was going on and could see right through the smile I plastered on my face.
We maintained our station for another cycle of launching and recovering aircraft. On cue, a sailor announced that she was turning the ship. The interior bridge door flew open.
“Captain’s on the bridge,” someone announced.
She stomped around taking in the situation, huffing and puffing.
Lieutenant Jordan and I were with a junior sailor, coaching her on how to track the movement of the aircraft carrier and giving course directions. As we settled into our position for the second to last launch and recovery cycle, I said, “Good job,” to the rest of the watch team, acknowledging their hard work.
“Lieutenant J.G. Derr and Lieutenant Jordan, bridge wing, NOW,” the captain yelled to me and Jordan. I knew my team had done an exceptionally good job that night, but in an instant, all that disappeared.
“You two are fucking unbelievable,” she started. Jordan and I looked at each other, completely in shock. She proceeded to flame spray us, saying how we were terrible officers and leaders, and that we were an embarrassment to the ship. My heart sank, and what upset me more was that she chewed us out in earshot of the rest of my team, who also instantly felt defeated, despite having done an excellent job.
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For the remainder of that night, the tension was as thick as the August humidity. The captain ridiculed every decision I made, barked questions at me in the midst of my giving orders to my watch team. Once the final aircraft landed, orders came over the radio telling us that the aircraft carrier had recovered all of its airplanes and we were released from plane guard duty. A huge wave of relief came over me and everyone else. But despite having executed a great watch, we were deflated, exhausted, and drained. While I tried to commend each sailor and officer for doing a great job, the knot in my stomach grew because of the way the captain spoke to me.
“Well,” she said. “You royally fucked that up, but I guess you’re at least done for the night. I’ll be in my cabin if you need me.” And she left the bridge.
That captain was eventually relieved of command shortly after I transferred to my next ship. The underlying cause was abusive behavior. It was a very sudden and public firing that landed her on the front page of military and civilian newspapers, magazines, and media outlets. It gave those of us who served under her validation that we weren’t crazy or wrong to think that something wasn’t right.
I went on to serve another tour as a surface warfare officer on a different ship with a vastly different leadership experience. When I arrived, I did my initial meeting with the executive officer, second in command, and also another woman. She said, “I know what ship you just came from, and I want you to know that I’m not her.” Her leadership and counsel breathed life back into me and gave me hope. Yet the public chiding and verbal lashings I endured on my first ship will forever serve as a reminder to always praise someone in public and counsel them in private.