Reflections on Shipmates and Leadership and Employee Engagement

This is Seymour the Sailor. We served together on 2 Westpac Cruises on the USS Okinawa LPH-3 – 1973-1975.

Back in the Day

Seymour was the sometimes straight man – and sometimes the funny man – on the Okinawa’s on-board CCTV (Closed Circuit TV) system. Seymour was created by my good friend/shipmate – Dennis McCain (and his wife Bev) for us to use to interview the XO – that’s Executive Officer for all you landlubbers. Number 2 on the ship – just after the Captain.

The XO – Commander Daley – went for it – being interviewed by a Sock Puppet that is – and sometimes being the funny man and sometimes being the straight man – as part of his responsibilities for Ship’s Morale.

Kinda like the Employee Engagement efforts of the current day. How so? In a moment.

The Okinawa in Hong Kong Harbor – 1974…

I wish I had videos of those exchanges – about a dozen or two I would guess now – always done live just after I finished the 5 minute (and no more) Newscast every evening at 6 pm when we were “at sea.”

My job, my mission, as a rated Journalist running the CCTV system along with Dennis my Engineer, as established by the prior XO – and was to keep mayhem down to a minimum on our US Navy war ship as we cruised the Western Pacific on our Westpac. You know – “mayhem/problems” when the Marines might “hassle” other Marines, the Marines hassling Sailors, Sailors hassling other Sailors. Or that’s how the my first XO laid it out to me.

When I added “and Sailors hassling the Marines” to what the first XO I served was telling me – the XO stopped, looked at me, pulled a cigarette out and lit it, took a puff and blew it out while looking aft at the rolling seas, turned back to me and said quite matter-of-factly: “Sailors don’t hassle Marines.”

I can still replay this scene in my head today. We were on the Fantail – and the Watch had been excused by the XO (something I knew wasn’t typical), with a “go take a smoke break” bark when we first invaded his watch space.

You see, the Fantail watch is the last person with a prayer of seeing/hearing any “man overboard” before the ship steamed away. I had spent 2 months on the Okinawa Deck Force prior to being sent off to my Print and Broadcast Journalism “A” School – at DINFOS in Indianapolis for 6 months – and I had stood that Watch before – and I knew what would happen if ever caught absent, sleeping or just plain skylarking. And it wasn’t pretty. Examples of some had been made early for the 50 boys/men from my 75 person boot camp company in San Diego who had been sent to this ship and served with me on the Deck Force.

So I was a bit nervous when trying to be helpful – doing a twist to Active Listening and filling in an obvious (to me) gap to what the XO was telling me. I dummied up immediately, sensing the faux pas I had just committed.

I knew better – but I was nervous (was he excusing the Watch so he could throw me overboard?) and young.

I mean – I had just been back on the ship for less than 24 hours, having traveled for 3 days – flying from Indy to KC to SF to Anchorage to Tokyo to Clark AFB and then a very long bus ride to Subic Bay in the PI – when this occurred. Dennis and 2 others back at CCTV were “freaking out” waiting for me – after the XO knocked on our locked door (expensive equipment in our CCTV studio) and I had let him in – and when he saw others there – ordered: “follow me.”

Out the door I went following him. Down the passageways and down ladders, across the hanger bay and down more ladders to the aft – to the Fantail. How could I already be in trouble!?! That’s what they were thinking back in CCTV – and me too.

There on the Fantail I was given my mission.

Note that I have used the word hassle in place of greater mayhem – which I use in place, instead of another word (kill). The type of mayhem incidents that would cause the Captain to have to write parents back home – along with their local Congressmen – explaining How the H this could have happened on a US Naval Warship. Something to be avoided. In fact, something I was charged with eliminating through entertainment. The CCTV system had been installed while I was away at school. There had been three incidents on each of the last 3 cruises – and this was to end now. From 6 pm (the time the working day would end) until late at night I and my shipboard buddies would run programming to entertain the 2400 Marines and 600 Sailors on the Oki Boat. My home away from home.

After the XO made sure I was crystal clear – using another form of Active Listening perhaps unique to the Navy back in the day – he excused me to find the Fantail watch and bring him back – while he finished his smoke. I did and then went back to CCTV, where my waiting worried shipmates wondered at my tale. Tale lends itself to “tall” and as we were in the Navy where besides Scuttlebutt (rumors and Social Learning to you latter-day landlubbers and SM practitioners) there were plenty of tall tales, sea stories and other lies, at every turn.

That first XO left the ship a month or so later – and was replaced by Commander Daley. When the new XO came to visit I related the story (tale) to him. He concurred. That was my/our mission at CCTV. And after reviewing my Programming from AFRTS (the Armed Forces Radio and Television Services – now known as the AFN) he told me he never wanted to see a college football game shown on his system. They were months old, everyone who cared already knew the outcome/score, appealed at best to the officer group, and would not help me achieve my mission. And then he challenged me.

“What do Marines read?” he asked.

Heck – CCTV was smack dab in the middle of Marine Country on the Okinawa. You couldn’t walk down a passageway without having to step over resting Marines. Dang! What did they read, what did they read? What kind of trick question was this!?! I could just almost see it in my mind – and I was getting nervous while the XO waited. And then I knew.

Comic books.

Yes, he nodded. So what kind of programming do you have here again son?

Sir, I have cartoons, All in the Family, and then I listed some of the other “appropriate” programming on the 16mm films and 1 inch tapes in the boxes that were shared/sent from ship to ship – when possible.

He could tell that “I got it.”

And he left – only to come back on many occasions – when he wanted to speak to everyone – as we were a one channel ship unlike the big aircraft carriers I had visited at the XO’s insistence – to go get new Programming for us that they were holding on to. We tended to hold onto our Programming – holding 3 or 4 weeks worth at any one time – because exchanging those boxes between ships only happened when it was convenient – and it was not good for morale to see the same thing over and over – and I knew no one flew a helo from one ship to another for just that. So I held onto programming – despite the process/procedures in place.

Luckily we were thought of as only one step removed from the US Mail – which would be the cause to fly here and yon – as the consequences of not getting your mail – from a morale standpoint – was just under not being paid. And that never happened.

When we proposed Seymour as a prop for the new XO during these broadcasts of his – the prop originally intended to be my straight man/funny man – the XO shocked us both – by agreeing.

Yes, he would appear next time with Seymour – who would interview the XO about ship’s happenings – using questions that we cleared (most of the time) with the XO in advance. Things like: “Were we going to stop in Hawaii on the way home (unlikely). When would we be in Hong Kong next? When would we get back to The PI (Philippine Islands) – meaning Subic Bay? When would we be relieved and sent home to the States?”

I asked Commander Daley about his willingness to do this – talk with a Sock Puppet – in front of the entire crew of 3000. I mean – everyone thought it was a hoot – and they laughed their, well you know what, off. But he saw it as laughing with him and not at him.

Back to Employee Engagement

If you’ve never been there – in the Service away from family and friends for 9-13 months at a time – I certainly won’t do an adequate job explaining the Environment to you. Suffice it for me to say that managing ship’s morale for one person and a whole crew is very tricky business indeed. One false Scuttlebutt item (rumor) could send our ship’s collective mood down for the count; such as: I heard we are being extended another 3 months, as our relief (by one of the 2 sister ships to the Okinawa) is still in dry dock and will be late.

Wherever your head was at – it went immediately to another place – an unhappy place – upon hearing that – for most, not all.

Think about Employee Engagement in that context.

We had been steaming off the coast of Cambodia and Viet Nam for months – sailing in a square pattern – with a ship visible in daylight on either side of us – 16 miles to our Port and 16 miles to our Starboard – and to the fore and aft depending on which direction we were going – waiting to do a job that we would not actually do until first going back to our California home port for our spell – and then returning on my 2nd Westpac – where we would finally evacuate two US Embassies, first in Phnom Penh and then in Saigon in April of 1975. (Think of the play “Miss Saigon” and the flying helicopter at the end.)

Boring? Hurry up and wait? Life at sea is just an endless loop of “the daily routine.”

TV programming distracted us all – and sated our desires for some normalicy – something almost like being back at home. You can only play so much poker before your funds ran dry. And 15 for 20 got expensive as the shipboard loan sharks demanded. TV was cheap – and in high demand.

And the comments I got everywhere I went on board the ship – as everyone knew my smiling face from those 5 minute newscasts when at sea where my audience was indeed captive – were mixed with a high percentage of “when’s the XO and Seymour going to be on again?” Besides the, “why don’t you show any of those college football games that I know you get!?!” When I told the person questioning me about THAT – I told them what I had been told/ordered. Most of the crew were then further endeared to THAT XO. (Note: I improperly loaned out those 16mm game films to the Officer’s Mess and Chief’s Mess when they asked – but they could not play the video tapes). Part of my engagement strategy.

The XO had everybody where he wanted them: in front of one of the 75 TVs spread out in the 20+ sleeping compartments, and various working quarters and offices on our ship. And to keep it from being too boring, to keep everyone engaged, he was willing to be a little silly – on camera – and be interviewed by Seymour, the Sock Puppet Sailor. I mean – who was going to miss that (Guy did not do replays/reruns). And we went live with only a loose script – where anything might (and often did) happen. I did take advantage of him – occasionally – as I thought he was encouraging me to do.

The XO gave as good as he got from me – me the man with the hand behind the puppet (actually inside the puppet). I routinely hit him with the left-field questions my shipmates would suggest everywhere and every time I wandered the ship, say to get a meal, or a haircut. But he would get me too: “Wallace, isn’t it time to trim that moustache?”

Once the XO looked away from the camera, got right into Seymour’s face and then turned to the camera and said, “Sailor, your hair is out of regulation.” To which Seymour responded, “Sir, those are my eyebrows. And, sir, according to Navy Regulations…..”

I can still see that scene in my mind’s eye today too. Although I am totally sure that what I remember today isn’t quite what happened back in that day. What I do recall today most clearly is the ship’s reaction – which we heard about for days and days.

And I remember one of the lessons I learned from my XO, Commander Daley: Never be afraid to be the butt of the joke – especially when you are in leadership. It makes you human. And it allows you to deliver the bad news to an entire ship – without everything going to hell.

It allowed the XO to be seen as more human – and that enabled him to perhaps be more honest. Or to make his honesty easier. Which made us trust him – and willing to do the job that we had been given – and to roll with the punches as well as with the rolling seas. Not that there wasn’t grousing, or disappointment in the bad news.  But perhaps it made us appreciate that we were all figuratively as well as literally in the same boat. We’d all go home together. The extended cruise affected us all. And he did it in such a way – delivering his good news/bad news – without morale going to hell.

He engaged us – and we engaged with him. I saw a few exchanges between the crew and the XO – where the crew joked with him – and he joked back. And if he saw me, he winked. He got it. Our respect and our willingness to keep doing the best that we could – even after 75 days at sea without seeing land. I know my morale was improved due to his willingness to engage with the crew in this manner.

And – that’s my sea story – and I’m sticking to it.

**** **** **** ****


I found out 2 weeks ago that my CCTV partner and shipmate on that first Westpac, Dennis, is in the hospital with incurable lung cancer. It really depressed me.

My wife was in my footlocker this past weekend reading the letters I had kept from my time in the USN 1972-1975 (wives do that don’t you know) and she came across Seymour.

Today I took pictures of Seymour – with those long eye brows – and put them on Dennis’ Facebook page – and then called him in the hospital to catch up. And we chatted for a moment about Seymour back in the day. I’m only slightly feeling better.

Here we are with another shipmate in Hong Kong in 1974.

Here we are in San Antonio after visiting The Alamo – back in 1977-78.

That conversation with Dennis about back in the day – brought back a reminder about another XO, more recent in the news, who used his CCTV system – to other ends – perhaps driven by the same need: to affect ship’s morale. But he made “others” the target for his jokes. Not just himself – although some of his antics as I understand them would indeed make him look damn silly (or worse) in the eyes of most.

I am so glad my leadership on my ship – chose another route for Employee Engagement with his crew. And gave me the chance to learn that putting yourself in a position where you can be the butt of the joke – is often the best way to loosen things up – before delivering the news, good and/or bad.

I am not sure that the label/phrase Employee Engagement really works for me. That’s one of the lilly pads to hit on the way to the ends, the goal or goals, yes. Maybe I am more comfortable with these means to those ends: Clear expectations setting, clearly enunciating the consequences (short-term, long-term, positive and negative), both directing (command and control) and empowering (again, commanding that they be empowered) as appropriate, etc., etc.

After all, I do not want my ship’s leaders to take a poll of the crew about “what to do” when the ship is on fire and/or under fire. There is a time and a place for both – directing and empowering. Both can be engaging. Especially when the one at play is most appropriate to the situation.

**** **** ****

RIP Dennis McCain

# # #

One comment on “Reflections on Shipmates and Leadership and Employee Engagement

  1. Pingback: Salute to a Shipmate | EPPIC - Pursuing Performance

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.