Firsthand leadership

A retired admiral shares personal reflections on the meaning of command

July 10, 2010  |  PAST EVENTS

On Wednesday, July 7, Rear Admiral David Rogers USN, Ret., discussed the qualities of leadership and the importance of personal relationships in interagency and international operations at a gathering of IWP students, interns, and friends.

A true-blooded sailor, Admiral Rogers won the hearts of his audience by beginning his talk with several stories from his time in the Navy, including an occasion in which he received a speeding ticket in the Mojave Desert - in an aircraft - and an occasion while in command of a warship that he rammed a Soviet submarine so forcefully that the latter's propeller became embedded in his ship's hull.

He then moved on to talk about the art of leadership, and explained that one studies leadership both because it is the right thing to do and because organizations with strong leaders function better, particularly in times of crisis.

He cited three qualities of leadership which the great U.S. naval officer Arleigh Burke enunciated: Know your stuff, take care of your people, and be courageous. He gave anecdotes from his own experience, both in the Navy and the business world, to illustrate each of these qualities.

For instance, Admiral Rogers described an officer of his acquaintance who went above and beyond his duty during the Vietnam War and studied exhaustively to discover why so many US aircraft were being shot down by surface-to-air missiles. After much tedious study, and after his own plane was hit by a missile the officer finally figured out how to shoot down these missiles more effectively. This man worked hard to "know his stuff."

Admiral Rogers also described a skipper of a naval aviation squadron in which he had served; this commanding officer, Admiral Rogers said, truly embodied Burke's second quality: that of taking care of your people. After a very junior Rogers inadvertently created an international incident by flying over Soviet-controlled Albania, he found himself summoned to the carrier group's irate Admiral: never a pleasant experience. Rogers's skipper defended the young aviator in front of the Admiral, explaining carefully the circumstances mitigating the international incident. After the Admiral had excused Rogers, however, the squadron commander took Rogers to task himself!

Nevertheless, Rogers recognized that his skipper had stood up for him and probably saved his career.

Not all of the admiral's examples were so lighthearted. A particularly chilling tale of courage involved a decision about revoking an aviator's privileges to fly naval aircraft. The lady officer had had trouble landing her F-14 on aircraft carriers, and there were grave concerns that she would crash. The senior officer responsible for this decision followed his conscience and revoked her flying privileges.

The Chief of Naval Operations - the Navy's most senior officer - then approached his subordinate and insisted that he make an exception and allow the officer to continue to fly. Courageously, the subordinate - himself a senior admiral - refused to budge on the issue, for which he was fired. In so doing, this leader sacrificed his opportunity to become commander of the Pacific Fleet. The aftermath of the situation demonstrated the essential correctness of the decision to ground the aviator, however: some time later, she and her crew member were killed in a crash caused by pilot error.

The senior officer who staked his career on his decision to retire her demonstrated the sort of courage required at all times, whether in the face of the enemy or in the ordinary exigencies of service, Admiral Rogers explained.

With similarly gripping and emotionally-charged anecdotes, Admiral Rogers discussed the importance of creating and sustaining personal relationships with one's peers in inter-agency or international exchanges - even when doing so is difficult or distasteful.

IWP is grateful to Admiral Rogers for sharing his experiences and observations with its students, faculty, and friends.