Saturday, December 14, 2013

What Makes A Good CO?

Recently, submarine command course instructors from the United States, Great Britain, The Netherlands, and Norway, as well as senior submarine training officers from Australia and Canada (who have submarine forces but currently have no independent submarine command course) met for three days in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. While there has been a lot of beneficial engagement between the courses’ students and teachers in the past, this landmark opportunity brought all the teachers together to compare and contrast their courses, and to discuss the benefits and nature of future collaboration. The following questions were discussed:

Based on the accumulated assessment of the students you taught during your assignments, what are the common threads and characteristics that distinguish the best prospective commanding officers from the worst? What is different about those who ‘get it’ from those who don’t?

Submarine command courses prepare officers for submarine command through a process of both teaching and assessment. The price of failure can be high, and while success allows assignment to command, it does not guarantee a successful command. The Submarine Command Course is neither a warfare course nor an academic exercise. It tests leadership, professional knowledge, the desire for excellence, aggressiveness, and a hunger for submarine command. The central focus of the Submarine Command Course is to teach future commanding officers to make good command decisions. Generally there are two types of decisions: analytical and intuitive.

To make analytical decisions one weighs options, balancing risk and gain. This type of decision-making is well understood, and is used often by submarine commanding officers. While this is a necessary strength for command, it is neither sufficient, nor a good predictor of tactical or leadership performance.

Intuitive decisions are made after one detects cues and patterns that emerge from complex situations, and then chooses a course of action that likely will be successful. The action chosen is based on experience-the person has seen similar situations and draws on a “library” of responses (mental models). Based on recognizing the situation that faces him, the decider quickly converges on a course of action and runs a mental simulation of the action. If the simulation ends with success, he executes that option. If the simulation is not successful, he quickly makes adjustments to correct the difficulty or tries another model, running through the process again, until he finds a successful course of action to take. It is important to realize intuitive decisions are made quickly compared to analytical decisions, and the decider is not comparing options. If the first projected course of action works, he executes.
Chart further explained in articleKnowledge of intuitive decision-making is not well understood, but has applications in most tactical and seamanship scenarios. As a simple example, a CO may recognize the patterns emerging from a crossing situation. (“That contact has a zero bearing rate and port angle on the bow, and will collide with me if nothing is done.”) He then projects a mental simulation of his action based on
the “mental models” he has developed through his experience. (“I should turn to starboard now.”) If the projection results in a satisfactory result (“I will get off his track by 2,000 yds, and he will pass safely down my port side”), he executes his decision. If the projection does not have a happy ending (“I will run aground”), he chooses another option to consider (“I should slow and let the contact pass ahead.”). Even in this simple example, one can see that there are several correct courses of action. The CO, by virtue of his experience, quickly can converge on a mental model that will work. We have borrowed this model for intuitive decisions from Dr. Gary Klein1, which serves to provide a useful structure in enhancing intuitive decision-making.

Using the situation facing the student in the Submarine Command Course, we can identify some elements of success:

1Good COs can process a lot of data, prioritize important cues, and recognize patterns-they have good situational awareness.
  • They can sift the valuable and pertinent cues from the chaff, and maintain their focus.
  • They can then recognize patterns emerging from those important cues. This applies to concrete and abstract situations.
    • The arrival angle is getting lower; the noise-to-sound ratio is going up; I can hear him on the underwater telephone. This is a closing contact.
    • There is nobody giving clear orders, the officer of the deck and junior officer of the deck are not agreeing on contact solutions; the fire control technician of the watch keeps asking for more observations; and the sonar supervisor is reassigning trackers to all contacts. My control room party is not certain of the contact situation.
    • For the last six months, I have had to intervene personally during the execution of too many evolutions throughout the ship. My teams are not properly preparing themselves for the tasks at hand.
  • The combination of prioritizing the cues and recognizing the patterns is situational awareness.

2Good COs have a rich library of mental models from which to choose, evaluate, and then decide.

  • They can quickly converge on a successful response – a course of action that will work.
  • Their mental simulation process is robust-anticipating the complexity of the scenario-they do not oversimplify and miss important aspects of the problem.
  • Their mental models, and hence their decisions, are based on technical expertise and experience. Their “gut” is actually a finely tuned pattern-recognition instrument; they “sense” things are wrong based on very subtle cues. (This is another idea that Klein discusses well.)

3Good COs look for “decision-rich” opportunities. They want to be challenged and to make decisions. They are ambitious and enthusiastic.

  • They make the most of every situation and are not content to sit on the sidelines. Thus, their pattern-recognition ability and library of mental models grow at faster rates than more passive officers.
  • In clutch situations, they want the ball. They want to be leading, making decisions, learning, and advancing. This applies to personal development and team leadership.
  • This enthusiasm is infectious, and this spirit spreads to their entire crew.
  • Many prospective commanding officers who struggle with the course, on the face of it, have had very “rich” career histories-i.e., good commands and good operations. Our conclusion is that they struggle because they did not make the most of their tours and did not seek out experience. Things ran relatively well under good leadership, and thus it was possible to avoid making decisions. These officers have little “actual experience” and are not well suited for command.

4Good COs are honest about evaluating themselves relative to the situation. They constantly look to improve their position in the scenario. They are natural “assessors” and “learners.”

  • They must be brutally honest about acknowledging their own limitations and capabilities.
  • They are able to take criticism-of themselves and their ship. This ability is founded on a solid self-image and a confidence that they can overcome any situation, once they honestly face the truth. They are secure and confident, not arrogant.
  • They are fully aware of the limitations of the process-incomplete information, uncertainty, perceptual differences, and personal and team weaknesses.
  • They look for any input for improvement, but pride themselves on being the most aggressive hunter of good observations. They want to improve.
  • They are passionate about collaboration inside and outside the lifelines. They look to share best practices and achieve synergies of effort. Going beyond compromise, they collaborate to find the optimum position. Once the “best solution” is found, it is quickly captured and fed back into the process to eliminate bad practices and to formalize good ones.
  • They focus on actual performance not personalities.

5Good COs have strong command presence-a quiet self-confidence.

  • They pass on their knowledge and experience to their operational teams in terms that the team will understand.
  • Their “briefs” are to the point and enhance decisions and effective, efficient execution. These briefs are “to” their team, not “at” their subordinates.
  • This ability to communicate, in combination with the situational awareness, honesty, and confidence mentioned above, forms command presence.

6Good COs possess endurance and fortitude.

  • They know the most important changes require tremendous investments of personal time and energy and can take months or years. Short- and long-term fatigue are anticipated and accommodated.
  • They know that even in this environment, there will be times when things go wrong-even badly wrong. Only an eternal optimist believes that everything always will run smoothly. Good COs know that a plan is complete only if it recognizes it may go all wrong.
  • They must bounce back when things go wrong. It is in these situations that
    commanding officers’ assessment skills and fortitude will be most brutally tested. These qualities are absolutely non-negotiable if the commanding officers are to retain their positions because if they fail to inspire their crews in the aftermath of a disaster, they will lose their sailors’ trust immediately and irrevocably.
    Many of those who struggle in the Submarine Command Course demonstrate a clear pattern of characteristics. They include the following:
  • They cannot see the way ahead in complex situations. They do not prioritize cues, recognize patterns, or develop responses. They appear to be overwhelmed.
  • They are intolerant of uncertainty and are unable to act without “all” the information. These officers are often solid analytical decision-makers, because there is perceived “certainty” with methodology. These officers tend to look for “checklists” even in situations in which checklists do not cover all the bases.
  • They are unable to apply past experiences to new situations. This is a form of low pattern recognition, because they cannot see the similarities with past situations and have a small “library” of mental models from which to draw.
  • They have weak assessment abilities. We have found the insecure prospective commanding officers are defensive and resistant to inputs. Thus, a downward spiral emerges: the individual is weak, therefore insecure, therefore resistant to input, therefore becomes weaker. . . .
  • They tend to go it alone when challenged to produce answers. Collaboration is unnatural to them.
  • They have no passion for command. We have asked students who are struggling: “Do you want to command?” Even at this late juncture, many answered “no.” Clearly in these officers there is no drive to get the experience required to command.
Only an eternal optimist believes that everything always will run smoothly. Good COs know that a plan is complete only if it recognizes it may go all wrong.
This is an incomplete list of some qualities of successful commanding officers. These qualities are inherent in some more than in others. It is possible, by having a structured understanding of intuitive decision-making, to detect natural command potential and to foster it in all junior officers (even those without strong natural abilities). We believe professional development and training that focus on building confident decision-makers can grow these qualities where they are weak, more quickly identify those officers who may not have what it takes to command, and help the naturally gifted officers to soar.

Editor’s Note: All these officers are submarine officers involved in the training of prospective submarine commanding officers and executive officers.

Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright (c) April 2005 U.S. Naval Institute/
1.) Klein, Gary. The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. New York: Currency, Doubleday. 2003.


Al Kinney said...

This is such a rich article. It is one of those pieces that should be read upon every promotion in your career - to include promotions received in your post-Navy career. Every reading brings a new perspective to the forefront as you begin to see anecdotes from your experiences emerge from the page. While this is truly a masters' level thesis on leadership under stress, it also points directly back to the fundamentals of integrity, setting the example, and competence.

Anonymous said...

I'd want the other 95% qualities in a good CO first. One that prioritized maintenance and made sure what needed doing got done. One that was always ready to sail on schedule. One that could remain on patrol with working machinery and equipment and no personnel casualties. One that could steam the plant safely and recover from all casualties.
I'd want one that was a good ship handler and could not only get the vessel underway and alongside but could also train his subordinates how to do it too. I'd want a CO to have the qualities to motivate his crew to meet commitments and deadlines and train their subordinates to do their jobs and make sure that all the necessary unsung parts of the job get done.
I'd want a CO stayed on top of the admin pile and kept up with the endless reports and streams of information that flow on and off the vessel and could separate the wheat from the chaff and prioritize what needed to be done from what some jackass thought needed doing and take the minor admin hit himself for blowing off things that didn't make the cut.
I'd prefer the CO who stood up for his crew when the powers crapped on them for things that were not theirs to answer for. "We're not going to allow you to take the advancement exam because you did back to back deployments and shipped over to help out and missed that slot at E6 LMET school."
That tactical game stuff comes with playing the game. It's keeping the boat alive and able to play the game that makes a really good CO.