By Rick Fromm
By Rick Fromm

   I first noticed it when I was in my mid 20s and was serving aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer docked in Jacksonville, Fla.

I was assigned to serve onboard the ship for two weeks as part of my annual summer duty as a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve. Although I was designated a “journalist,” that didn’t matter one iota to the captain and his immediate subordinates. As a result, I was assigned to the deck crew, which served under the boatswain and basically did anything and everything the “boats” wanted us to. And that means everything.

We scraped, cleaned, swept and painted for eight hours a day, and when we got done making the ship look shiny and new, we started over again. It was endless, depressing work and the 95-degree, super-humid weather of northern Florida only added to our misery. I hated every second of it – as did most of my shipmates.

All this agony and misery only seemed to make the boatswain happier. He seemed to genuinely enjoy making us suffer, and he always did it with a sinister sneer that conveyed to us how much he enjoyed his role as the ship’s primary “boats.”

For those who may not know, according to Wikipedia, “a boatswain’s mate trains, directs, and supervises personnel in ship’s maintenance duties in all activities relating to marlinspike, deck, boat seamanship, painting, upkeep of ship’s external structure, rigging, deck equipment, and boats. Boatswain’s mates take charge of working parties; perform seamanship tasks; act as petty officer-in-charge of picket boats, self-propelled barges, tugs, and other yard and district craft. They serve in, or take charge of damage control parties. BMs also operate and maintain equipment used in loading and unloading cargo, ammunition, fuel, and general stores. BMs take charge of and supervise UNREP (Underway Replenishment) procedures and equipment. They are integral to ship’s navigation and serve as ship’s Helmsman and the ship’s Lee Helmsman. In addition, they also serve as RHIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) coxswains.”

I know that’s a lot of “Navy speak,” but you get the idea. The Boats could do pretty much whatever he wanted, and woe be it to the sailor who questioned his judgment or authority. Realizing his ultimate power early on, I never made the mistake of getting in the boats’ way.

 But during my two weeks on board ship, I quickly observed just how inept the boats was in managing and motivating the men (there were no women onboard). He bullied everyone constantly and chose to lead through intimidation and fear.

As a result, morale was extremely low and most “off hours” were spent trying to devise a way to throw the boats overboard – never to be seen or heard of again. Yes, we were a team, but for all the wrong reasons. We were united in our hatred of the boats, not because we wanted to support the mighty U.S. Navy.

So what made this demon of a man the boats? It certainly wasn’t because of his people skills – not by a long shot. He had earned his rank simply because he could pass inane tests that challenged his ability to remember minute details about the ship and how to keep it seaworthy. It had nothing to do with management skills. Absolutely nothing. In reality, he had no business leading men for any reason, let alone preparing them for service on a ship of war.

Over the next 45 years or so, I came to the conclusion there are countless people in our society – men and women – who have no business at all in management and leadership. They don’t have a clue what they’re doing, and it’s painfully obvious to anyone who observes them. It’s a detriment and hindrance to our great nation.

I’m sure if you think back on your life, you can come up with numerous examples. How many educators have you known that rose to the position of principal or even superintendent without knowing the first thing about how to inspire people to be and do their best?

How many people have been elected to a post they can’t handle because they lack the basic management and leadership skills? Lots of them. It would be like electing me sheriff of the county when I really have no idea what the job and responsibilities are all about.

I could go on and on with similar cases in point, but then so could you. What a pity. 

It’s a big flaw in our country, and we need to do something to correct it … and soon. Or perhaps a better idea would be for all of us to enlist in the Navy and become boatswain’s mates. 

“Get to work there sailor, we’re about ready to shove off.”

Or better yet, don’t assume people in power know what they’re doing … make them prove it.