By Cmdr. Thomas Dickinson, professor at the Naval Leadership and Ethics Center, Naval War College, Newport, R.I.
When we reflect on the history of our Navy, a common reference point is the birth of the Continental Navy on October 13, 1775. However, few reflect on the importance of another day in naval history: Dec. 22, 1775.
On that day Congress commissioned the first naval officers, marking the inception of leadership in our Navy. Commissioned officers included Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins, and our first Commanding Officers: Abraham Whipple, Nicholas Biddle, John Hopkins, and Dudley Saltonstall. Thirteen junior officers also received commissions, to include the legendary John Paul Jones. Each of these leaders would be immediately tested, sailing their ships into battle within 60 days of receiving their commissions.
In the context of that time, selection of our first leaders was of great consequence. America was preparing to wage war against a Royal Navy far superior to its own. The achievements, failures, practical experience, and standards of our first leaders would directly impact the revolution and set the tone for the future of our profession. The level of trust placed in these leaders by Congress and the people of America cannot be overstated.
Imagine trust from another perspective; that of the Continental Navy sailor. Imagine preparing to enter into battle with the great Royal Navy, with so much at stake, and being fully aware that the odds were stacked against you. What did these sailors expect of their leaders? If their ships were out-numbered and out-gunned, the Continental sailors expected bold, honorable and competent leaders who would set the example and judiciously discern when and how to employ their ships effectively. Leadership had to be the advantage, because naval assets in 1775 certainly were not a strength for the Continental Navy.
John Adams recognized in 1775 that leadership must be held to a higher moral and ethical standard in order to earn the trust of those they serve, whether that be the Congress, the citizens they represented, or the sailors on a warship. He codified this higher standard in the “Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies of North America.” One excerpt follows:
“The Commanders of all ships and vessels belonging to the thirteen United Colonies are strictly required to show themselves a good example of honor and virtue to their officers and men…”
This may look familiar, as the “exemplary conduct statue” is now mandated by law in Title 10 U.S. Code and also found in Chapter 11 of our Navy Regulations. This standard is alive in our Navy today, and is a direct connection between present-day leadership and the very beginnings of our Navy.
So how did our first leaders fare? The leadership of the Continental Navy experienced many successes and failures. Those who failed to execute responsibilities, such as Dudley Saltonstall, lost the trust of leadership and their commands, and were held accountable. Leaders who earned trust up and down the chain of command, such as John Barry and John Paul Jones, emerged to become heroes of the war and key leaders during future conflicts.
This special trust relationship, highlighted in the examples above, has not changed over time in our Navy. Trust remains the foundation of effective leadership today just as it was in 1775. We can reflect on countless examples in the modern history of our Navy that reinforce this truth. A few heroic examples include Cmdr. Ernest Evans in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Adm. Red Ramage in command of USS Parche (SS 384) and Adm. James Stockdale leading POWs in Vietnam. Each of these leaders carried out their daily lives with honor and operated in high-trust organizations that led to victory under formidable conditions.
More importantly, the trust relationship is applicable to leaders at all levels of our Navy today as we make efforts to earn and maintain trust. The Chief Petty Officer training and mentoring sailors, the Division Officer standing the mid-watch as Officer of the Deck, or the Department Head standing watch as a Tactical Action Officer. Each day leaders have the opportunity to put the mission and others before themselves, setting the standard and earning trust. This trust is the backbone of our Navy, and determines whether we will succeed or fail. As we reflect on the inception of naval leadership in 1775, we should pause to realize that trust is our most prized possession as leaders, and to never take the privilege of leading for granted.
Cmdr. Dickinson is a 2014 recipient of the Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale Leadership Award from his tour as commanding officer of the Norfolk-based destroyer Barry (DDG 52).
The award is presented annually to two commissioned active-duty officers from commander and below who are serving in command of a single unit and who serve as examples of excellence in leadership and conspicuous contribution to the improvement of leadership in the Navy.