An Open Letter to Lieutenant Butler
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
First published after leaving submarine command in June 1999, this letter addresses a female officer who stated her intent to leave the Navy because of a poor leadership environment.
I know that you are serious about your intention to leave the Navy, but as I read your letter I found myself smiling. Not because I consider your concerns frivolous. Not because I don't think the issues you raise are real. But because your arguments look curiously familiar.
You see, they are almost exactly the same as the concerns I raised in a letter I once wrote—a letter of resignation written in 1984.
You see, I too once felt exactly as you do. As a junior officer, I served on two ships under four commanding officers and four executive officers. Two of these eight guys were absolute terrors; they made our lives miserable. And in a submarine, there is no place to hide. Because I didn't like the odds—it looked like I had a one-in-four chance to serve under somebody like that again—I thought that resignation was my only option. I didn't just believe I would get out—I was sure of it. Like you, I was concerned by the fact that I wasn't having "fun."
But as I approached my terminal leave period, I faced a stark reality. I was surprised at how many of my classmates who already had resigned were wondering if they had made a mistake by getting out. Many of them were saying they weren't having any more fun as civilians than they were in the Navy. And they claimed to be missing something: sense of mission; camaraderie; the notion that they were engaged in something bigger than their boss's top line.
I also observed that many of these new civilians were working just as hard as they had in the Navy (especially compared to the average JO's shore tour). This too was a concern for me, but I thought I'd just have to take my chances as I marched closer to what I called my FDIN (final day in the Navy).
Then I ran into a friend who had separated about six months earlier. This guy was one of the sharpest people I ever had known. Not only did he graduate near the top of his class, he was a charismatic leader. We considered him admiral material, as likely to succeed in the civilian community as he was in the Navy. And yet, one day he simply showed up for his civilian job, only to learn that he had been let go. The method of dismissal was not only abrupt, it was downright uncivilized. His boss left a note on his desk stating, "Your training program has been terminated. Please see HR."
When I offered my condolences, I was surprised to learn that he was glad to leave that company. He related that his boss was worse than anyone he had worked for in the Navy. He pointed out that while every officer in the Navy goes through some kind of filtering process, none of that necessarily occurs in the civilian world. So while we in the Navy may have the occasional maniac, at least we have reasonably skilled maniacs. That is not necessarily the case in civilian life.
I did a lot of thinking that day. My wife and I had marathon discussions. The quality-of-life issue was one of my biggest concerns, but civilian life seemed to be no guarantee of a better life. We concluded that my perception of the outside world had been naively rosy. I decided to stay in the Navy.
It has been 15 years and I have no doubt that I made the right decision. It seems that no matter what your "button-pushers" are, it's hard to do better than the Navy.
For example, if level of responsibility is your motivator, then you can't do better than command at sea. This is one area where you completely miss the mark. Your statement that "command at sea is a necessary evil en route to flag rank" couldn't be further from the truth. I can tell you that short of my marriage and the births of my children, command at sea has been the most rewarding experience of my life. It was a thrill, the culmination of my career, and an experience I will never forget.
If time spent away from your family is your cause of concern, then talk to the average entry-level lawyer or doctor. They spend at least as much time at work as we do in port or on shore duty, while making relatively modest wages at that. Yes, we spend a lot of time at sea, and yes we spend too much time trying to maintain the ship when we are home. But this is better than when I was a JO, when we would routinely have to spend in-port time tearing our ship apart to cannibalize parts so that someone else could go to sea. (That is why the number of spare parts is a quality-of-life issue.)
If job satisfaction is your motivator, talk to my nuke school classmate who is working at an electric generation "co-gen" plant, burning garbage to make electricity. Is that really what you see as your life's work? Or those who are beltway bandits, doing the same jobs for the rest of their lives that those of us on active duty find mind-numbing after only two years in the Pentagon. Or the guy who is second-level management at the chain-saw distribution plant. Or the insurance salesman. Or the physician who works 16-hour days and comes back into the Navy anyway because he couldn't afford medical malpractice insurance. Do you see any of these as your life's work? If not, then what do you see? Is it really any better than what you are doing now—serving your country in a position of honor, integrity, and trust?
I'm not saying, "Life's tough all over—get over it," because I understand how you feel. In fact, I have kept a copy of my letter of resignation with me over the years to remind myself of how I felt when I was in your shoes.
Instead, I believe that it doesn't have to be this way. The real issue is leadership. The one point that you make that I believe is exactly right is the observation that your commanding officer has the greatest impact on the emotional environment of your ship. But the concerns you outline are caused by an exaggerated sensitivity to things that don't really matter—things that would be prioritized appropriately except for the notion that, when the larger mission areas are pretty much equal across the fleet, an officer's standing will be determined by the marginal issues. Said differently, if everybody shoots about the same, then the "training assist" determines the break-out performers. From your experience with assist visits to your concern about administrative drudgery, it's your chain of command's focus on advancement over mission that causes the negative pressures you have experienced. This attitude is a symptom of excessive careerism.
So it is careerism, not the Navy, that you should be railing against. You may feel that it is the Navy that creates the environment that causes careerism to thrive, but I contend that I haven't met a thinking boss yet who really determined his officers' standing by the outcome of that command inspection. The CNO doesn't cause careerism, our own self-perceptions do.
This means that if the Navy is going to be "fixed" (you say it is "broke"), then we have to take action at our level. It will have to be fixed from the bottom up—starting from the commanding officers. So you are closer to being part of the solution than you might think.
This also means that you have to learn how to be a good CO today, so you don't have to unlearn bad habits later. If you are timid in demeanor because of fear of failure, or weak in execution because of fear of leaning too far forward, or are primarily motivated by covering your behind, the morale of your crew and your ship's performance will suffer. On the other hand, if you decide to enjoy your tour by leveraging the warrior spirit, both attitude and performance will improve, and your career will take care of itself. I think you understand this. You have to learn from the negative examples you have been exposed to, as well as the positive.
But above all, it is important for a commanding officer to remember that you have to be willing to let go. A confident officer should feel that there is life after the Navy, and do what is right for his people without fear of future instability. You always must try to do a good job, but overcoming careerism means you have to be willing to say, "This has been fun, but it's time to move on."
In the end, the commanding officer has to set the mood, and has to be engaged in the lives of his crew. If you care enough to invest your personal capital, that is the greatest legacy you will ever be able to leave your ship.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel—and it is not a train. But if you punch out now, you will never know what lies ahead. In the end, when you look back on your life, I can't imagine any profession that could induce a greater level of pride and satisfaction than you will have derived from your service in the Navy.
Will you be part of it? Or will you be one of those timid few who always will wonder about what could have been?