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    Navy Chiefs in the Joint Realm: The Evolution of Deckplate Leadership

    PACOM Commander Celebrates Chief's Birthday

    Photo By Petty Officer 1st Class James Mullen | 1700403-N-ON707-040 CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii (April 3, 2017) Adm. Harry B. Harris,...... read more read more



    Story by Chief Petty Officer Holly Gray 

    U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

    CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii - Navy Chiefs worldwide celebrated the 124th birthday of the Chief Petty Officer on April 1st, with a theme that represents them so well: Tradition, Heritage, and Pride. Terms like “Ask the Chief”, deckplate leadership, and history were shared, along with lots of excellent cake. But why does the Navy make such a distinction over their senior enlisted ranks, which receive the same pay as every other Services’ E-7, E-8, and E-9?

    This is a question many ask, particularly when serving with joint Services. It can be harder to explain than you would think, since even the Chiefs own creed states “your new responsibilities and privileges do not appear in print. They have no official standing; they cannot be referred to by name, number, nor file. They have existed for over 100 years, Chiefs before you have freely accepted responsibility beyond the call of printed assignment.”

    To help answer this question, U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris accepted my interview request to talk Chiefs and joint leadership - but not before taking the time to loan me a book from his personal collection. The book, “Ask the Chief” by J.F. Leahy, is indeed a good read, but the fact that the leader of the largest combatant command in the world took the time to loan me his own copy is an example of his passion and respect for his craft, the Navy, and the Chiefs. It also told me he understood plenty about deckplate leadership and the impact such a gesture could have.

    Harris could probably attribute this understanding of leadership to the education he received throughout his life and long career. As the joint forces commander in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Harris is careful to praise and support all Services, but admits a certain bias to Navy Chiefs. After all, he’s the son of one.

    Harris was raised on his father’s memories and experiences during World War II, particularly about his time onboard USS Lexington, one of the carriers stationed at Pearl Harbor that only escaped the Japanese attack on December 7th by putting to sea a few days prior. Harry Harris Sr. also shared stories with his son about the fate of Lexington, a controlled sinking during the Battle of Coral Sea. Based on his father’s experiences, Harris said he always knew he would serve in the Navy. He also said he was raised to believe “a Chief Petty Officer can do anything.”

    Once commissioned and serving in the Navy, Harris continued to see the truth of his father’s teachings. Recalling one of his early commands at a squadron in Jacksonville, “everything rides on the Chiefs Mess. A Command Master Chief, if he or she is a good one, can make or break the squadron.”

    These enlisted leaders have consistently been cited for their direct impact with both junior Sailors and the officers in the wardroom. Their experience, technical expertise, and shared leadership knowledge sets the tone in the workspace, division, department, and command.


    Just as this year’s birthday theme suggests, Chiefs serve as the stewards of the Navy’s tradition, heritage, and pride. However, another cornerstone of leadership is the ability to change, adapt, innovate, and evolve along with the society the all-volunteer services draw their members from.

    “The leadership techniques that my dad learned when he was a Chief Petty Officer in World War II probably wouldn’t go over too well today in 2017. And the views of most of the officers in WWII would not work today. We evolve over time as we’ve integrated over time. There have been a couple stark markers that force change, such the desegregation of the services and integration of our ships, but we’ve evolved our leadership all along,” Harris pointed out.

    Joint Training

    Sgt. Maj. Anthony Spadaro, the PACOM Senior Enlisted Leader, was also feeling reminiscent as he quietly celebrated his 32nd year of service in the Marine Corps. He, too, was able to quickly and definitively name a Navy Chief that impacted his career. “Master Chief Nelson, the Command Master Chief on USS Germantown! His leadership is what made me enamored with the Chiefs Mess and how Chiefs lead.”

    He related his experience while embarked on the Navy amphibious ship, and his goal of earning the Enlisted Surface Warfare Qualification. This qualification remains a requirement for ship’s company, but is optional for those embarked. However, Spadaro volunteered and spent six months working towards it.

    “I was frustrated, I wanted to give up; after all, I didn’t have to do this, so why was I torturing myself?!” While walking the ship’s deckplates, the Master Chief noticed the young Marine Sergeant and saw he was ready to give up. “This Master Chief, E-9, made me meet with him every night for three hours in his office to study. He helped for 10 days straight; he was responsible for an entire warship’s enlisted and he was taking all this time for me, a Marine, not even a Sailor!”

    Through Nelson’s direct intervention, Spadaro was able to earn the qualification, as well as learn life-long lessons in leadership and inclusivity. “The Navy-Marine Corps team gets it; we work together jointly all the time. Still, Master Chief took this to the next level by making sure both Sailors and Marines were on the same page, working towards the same mission.” Spadaro agrees with Harris, the Chief sets the tone for the command.

    The traits he admired in Nelson, which have proved to be the case with all Chiefs Spadaro says he’s met since, were accessibility and follow-up. “Chief’s aren’t ‘one and done’ style leaders; they’ll circle back around to check on things, to see how it’s going.”

    Spadaro credits this consistency in leadership traits among all Chiefs with their ability and practice of training their own replacements. This process is called CPO 365 and encompasses a year-long dedication to training E-6s in the duties and responsibilities of Chiefs. The Chiefs’ distinctive leadership network remains open to all Chiefs, past and present, providing support to individual leaders. This proves particularly helpful when faced with tough questions prompted by the “Ask the Chief” adage. A Sailor may ask an individual Chief a question, but that Chief can ask the collective Mess, anywhere, anytime, if they don’t already know the answer. The original Google, this military knowledge support system has access to a combined working experience of hundreds of years.

    Army Master Sergeant Mary Ferguson has been a fan of the Navy senior enlisted leadership model since her early days serving with a Chief. She was able to personally experience the training in 2012 when she was approved to complete the Navy process.

    “I was raised to run toward things that scare me, because that's where growth happens,” said Ferguson. “I'm not going to lie, I was scared, but that good kind of scared, when I made the decision to take part in such a sacred and important leadership process in the Navy, as, yes, an outsider.”

    Ferguson had already promoted to Sergeant First Class at the time, but sought out this additional training as an opportunity to represent her fellow Army senior enlisted leaders. “I wanted to set the example and show the mess what it meant to be an Army Senior NCO just as much as I wanted to learn what it meant to be a Chief.”

    Now serving in South Korea, Ferguson pays her Army and Navy leadership lessons forward. “One of the greatest complements I ever get from Army Sergeants Majors, senior leaders and the Soldiers I lead every day, is that they can't place it, but I'm different. Damn right, I am. I'm a CHIEF!”

    Ferguson’s experience is not unprecedented, as other services’ senior enlisted have completed what is now the Navy’s CPO 365 program, though it is still not commonplace, due perhaps in part to the prerequisites which take most Navy personnel the full 365 days to complete. Other formalized senior enlisted leadership schools are frequently attended by other services. However, the Navy’s training for their new Chiefs offers something that can’t, and isn’t taught in the classroom. Air Force Tech Sgt. Jennifer Connelly, who hopes to join the local program, defines that ‘something’ Chiefs have in one word.

    “Camaraderie. That’s why I want to do the Navy’s training. The Air Force has NCO training, but it’s more school and classroom-based, writing papers, and tests,” said Connelly. “I’ve seen how Chiefs share their different traditions and are grooming other Chiefs into being leaders. After attending the Chiefs pinning ceremony last year and seeing their camaraderie, it was very motivating to me.”

    Call to Action

    The networking skills taught to all Chiefs, along with deckplate leadership, and their stewardship of tradition and history, are just some of the things Harris has charged his Chiefs with paying forward.

    “We need our Chiefs to be for the Joint force what they are already are for our Navy,” Harris said during remarks at the Chief birthday celebration. “My call to action for all Chiefs is to take on the challenge to lead all of our Joint forces and help synergize our operations across all the Services. Helping our Services train how we need to fight in the 21st century – jointly. Mentoring the future Joint leaders that will be ready to fight tonight and win.”

    However, other services are filling this critical mid-level management role based on their own service-specific experience, training, and guidance. Every service has a version of the Chief. For the Marines, they look to their Staff Sergeants, E-6, to begin this transition to higher responsibility in personnel management. For the Army and Air Force, this transition occurs at the E-8 non-commissioned officer (NCO) level.

    “In joint forces, the role of the E-7 is different. How the leadership in the Navy is different than other services is how they view their senior NCOs. Navy makes it a sharp distinction and stark difference,” noted Harris. He also acknowledged a broader acceptance of the role of the Chief will take time. Scenarios are already playing out in joint operations where Chiefs are managing joint troops under a non-Navy chain of command. Harris recommends Chiefs do what they’ve always done: train those joint Service junior officers.


    The impact Chiefs, and really all military senior enlisted leaders, have on a career and an individual can be staggering. Sure, maybe not every Soldier a Chief helps will be a Master Sgt. Ferguson. True, most Marines won’t become a Sgt. Maj. Spadaro. Certainly, many Sailors won’t become an Adm. Harris. However, treating every leadership moment as an opportunity to be their Chief, and all that implies, is priceless. After all, sometimes, as Harris points out, “that Ensign may one day be an Admiral.”



    Date Taken: 04.07.2017
    Date Posted: 04.07.2017 16:45
    Story ID: 229636
    Location: CAMP H.M. SMITH, HI, US 

    Web Views: 900
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