Leadership: Battling Bad Behavior


August 14, 2014: The British Royal Navy, like the U.S. Navy, began allowing women on warships several decades ago and now they have a few warships commanded by women. One of those captains was recently relieved of command for carrying on a shipboard sexual affair with a junior officer (number three in the frigate’s chain of command, after the captain and the executive officer). While it’s not unusual for a British warship commander to get relieved for a sexual relationship with a subordinate, this was the first time the commander in question was a woman.

Unlike the Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy rarely releases details of why the officers were relieved although the facts nearly always eventually become public. The usual reasons for relief are character flaws of one kind or another. Running the ship aground is seen as a rather obvious failing, but it is not the most common one. Rather more common are cases involving "zipper control" (adultery with another officers' spouse, or a subordinate). The British also relieve a lot of commanders and are more forthcoming with the reasons. For example one British skipper got the sack in 2009 for "bullying." In 2010 a similar relief occurred on the USS Cowpens but in that case the captain was a woman. The official reason was described as abusive treatment of the crew, and the captains' generally bad demeanor and temperament. Complaints from the crew had been coming in for some time, and the captain was relieved as she was at the end of her tour of duty on the Cowpens, and in the process of turning over command to another officer. The dismissed captain went off to her next assignment, as a staff officer.

In another ironic twist to all this is that a recent (June, 2014) captain of the USS Cowpens was relieved for having a sexual liaison with a female subordinate. It gets even stranger. For most of three months (January-March) the captain (rank O-6) was incapacitated and stayed in his cabin. He appointed his lover (an O-4) as acting XO (executive officer) and had her running the ship. When the ship was later inspected it was found to be in bad shape and the senior chief (NCO) was relieved for not making more noise about that. These incidents are not unusual but part of a trend.

The relief rate for U.S. Navy ship captains has more than doubled since the 1990s. Only a small percentage of reliefs have to do with professional failings (a collision or serious accident, failing a major inspection or just continued poor performance.) Most reliefs were, and still are, for adultery, drunkenness or theft. With more women aboard warships, there have been more reliefs for, as sailors like to put it, "zipper failure." There may have been more than are indicated, as sexual misconduct is often difficult to prove, and a captain who is having zipper control problems often has other shortcomings as well. Senior commanders traditionally act prudently and relieve a ship commander who demonstrates a pattern of minor problems and who they "lack confidence in." Britain is having similar problems.

There are also other ways of getting relieved of your command. Take the situation the original captain Bligh encountered. William Bligh was a British naval officer who, while commanding the Bounty, a ship conducting a scientific mission in the Pacific, had to deal with a mutiny in 1789. After twelve months at sea (and five at Tahiti to pick up breadfruit plants), 18 of the 42 man crew mutinied, and put Bligh, and 18 of sailors loyal to him, in a 10.5 meter (23 foot) launch and sailed away. Bligh then navigated the launch, for 47 days, some 6,700 kilometers to the island of Timor. Bligh eventually returned to Britain, and the Royal Navy. He served with distinction until 1817, achieving the rank of Vice Admiral.

Bligh was long believed to have caused the mutiny because of cruel treatment of his crew. But over the years, more and more evidence was uncovered showing that Bligh was not a seagoing tyrant, but did have some personality clashes with members of what was, in effect, a civilian crew serving on a Royal Navy ship. While armed the Bounty was not considered a warship. In fact, most of the crew remained loyal to Bligh, who was well liked by crews of the ten warships (including ships-of-the-line) he commanded after the Bounty. Alas, folk tales are persistent, and tough captains are often referred to as "Captain Blighs."

There has never been a mutiny aboard a U.S. Navy warship, although there have been some close calls. And there have been many captains who were not liked by their crews, but never to the extent where there was any risk of mutiny. Captains are expected to do whatever it takes to keep their ships safe and capable of performing their assigned missions. Keeping everyone happy is optional. That’s the main reason why ship commanders are held to a higher standard and while social customs are changing (especially when it comes to breaking the rules and generally accepted social mores) the navy realizes that misbehavior in a ship commander is not just bad behavior, but potentially fatal.






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