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Friday, February 25, 2011

U.S. Naval Academy - Senior Enlisted Leaders (SEL) - (Excerpt)

Sailors aboard ships, ashore, and in combat zones throughout the world know when they need guidance they can always “ask the chief.”

When a Sailor puts on chief’s anchors for the first time, they generally do so with many miles of walking the deck plates behind them. That is why chief petty officers are often referred to as the backbone of leadership in the Navy. This holds true not only for enlisted Sailors, but for junior officers as well. When a recent academy graduate stands his or her first watch in the fleet, the new officer does so, standing in the shoes of a leader. This is why strong relationships with senior enlisted shipmates are extremely important to their success on the job, for the command and the Navy as a whole.

Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), learn to appreciate that relationship early on through the tutelage of senior enlisted leaders (SELs). These SELs are typically the future ensign’s or second lieutenant’s first interaction with senior enlisted personnel.
At the USNA, the term brigade refers to all of the midshipmen. Within the brigade there are two regiments, within those regiments there are six battalions, containing five companies (totaling 30 companies). Every company has approximately 150 midshipmen, one company officer and one SEL (company chief).

Senior Chief Aviation Electronics Technician (AW) Jason Wood checked aboard the USNA in May 2009 and currently serves as the chief of the 28th company up through the ranks are what prepared him for the job. “I’ll never take for granted the fact that I am a chief, and in being that, have gone through so many experiences, dealt with so many issues,” Wood said.

“When you try to convert a civilian into a military professional, I think they apply.” Wood said the qualifications or experiences any chief or senior enlisted person has are invaluable and can be related to issues the midshipmen might be facing as they transition into the fleet. By sharing these experiences, Wood helps prepare midshipmen to be better decision makers and leaders. “It’s real easy for anyone to say do it because the book said to; but it’s hard to put into perspective for them, why they’re doing it,” said Wood.

Midshipmen 4th Class Maxwell Johnson said as plebes (first year students), he and Johnson and his peers are constantly learning from the SELs around them things like military bearing and people skills. He said Wood is not hard on the midshipmen in the traditional sense of laying into them, but has a way of “quietly demanding” perfection. “Seldom do you hear him raise his voice, but whenever you go past his office you want to look your best,” Johnson said. “And that’s obviously just him having a fantastic leadership style.”

According to Johnson, the direction they get from the SELs is not just about uniform inspections and room inspections, but also everyday life. He said the SEL provide a nurturing and constructive criticism. Johnson learned one his most valuable lessons from Wood on his second day of plebe summer. At that stage, midshipmen often don’t yet understand how things work and tend to feel overwhelmed.

“It’s bad enough starting out not knowing anything, but also your brain just sort of turns off and you go into robot mode,” Johnson said. “I was running and had just seen several first class midshipmen whose names I was supposed to have memorized [and called out], but couldn’t. With all of those names going through my mind, I ran past Senior Chief Wood and completely blanked out his name. As I stopped he said ‘Mr. Johnson, I understand that you are going through a hard time right now, but so is everyone else. When you are out in the fleet you will have people [working] underneath you and above you. If you don’t have the determination or common decency and respect to learn their names, they are never going to work for you.’ Needless to say, I never forgot his name again, but that was all he had to say to teach me a very valuable leadership trait.”

Wood views the role of an SEL as that of a facilitator, standing behind the midshipmen. The midshipmen have their own chain of command. The SEL tries to guide them toward finding the right answer and running their chain of command as it would function in the fleet, rather than giving specific direction. “I don’t think that helps midshipmen in forming their own leadership style,” Wood said.

Wood said helping develop their leadership style is a priority, because there is no on/off switch. One doesn’t become a better decision-maker by simply graduating from the USNA.

Excerpt from AH
Story by MC1(AW) R. Jason Brunson

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