Why exactly do we have a MCPON?

Amidst all the news about the military housing children illegally entering the country (because somehow that relates to fighting our nation’s wars??), the story about the abrupt resignation of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON), the most senior enlisted leader in the Navy, seems to have received little press coverage. But it’s a big deal. He was under IG investigation for having a toxic work environment, and the resignation is seen by many as acknowledging that the charges are at least partially true. We now have a vacant MCPON seat, the first time in the positions 50+ year history.

Should we even bother filling it?

What do we expect of the MCPON? Maybe we should start with what we expect of our Chiefs, Senior Chiefs and Master Chiefs, that group of Sailors we collectively refer to as the Chiefs Mess. These mid-level leaders have grown up in the Navy’s culture and have fairly advanced technical training. This positions them to provide technical expertise and small group leadership. And this role makes sense, since Chiefs should be making a division of Sailors run, from dealing with personnel issues to ensuring they are correctly trained for their jobs. At the same time, the Chief is also mentoring junior officers, helping them understand the technical aspects of their jobs while ensuring that officer gains some critical small group leadership skills before he or she becomes more senior.

This is what we used to do, and it worked well. Our Chiefs stayed technical, still got their hands dirty doing what they loved, took care of their Sailors, and helped build good naval officers. Somewhere along the way, we decided this wasn’t good enough, and began making disastrous changes.

It started by creating department chiefs and treating the Chiefs Mess like it had its own chain of command that flowed through the Command Master Chief (CMC, the senior enlisted leader at an individual command). First manning decisions, and then evaluations on Chiefs became the realm of the CMC, with little buy in from department heads and other junior officers. This separated the Mess from everyone else, and it began to take on an identity all its own. Instead of focusing on Sailors or the mission, it became its own self-licking ice cream cone.

This couldn’t be more apparent in the whole “Chief’s Initiation” bit. Unlike the Marine Corps, which sends selected enlisted members to a 2-week course, the mess began this long, drawn out process of initiation. Chief-selects essentially disappeared for weeks, dropping off watch bills and collateral duties, while their Chief overlords had them perform a myriad of tasks during the workday. Once “initiation” became a bad term, we instead called it CPO 365, and while there were attempts to try and provide valuable training, most CPO 365 training programs are essentially “initiation” rehashed.

The effect now is that we really need to question why we have senior enlisted ranks in the first place. We seem to know what we want from commanding officers, and when they don’t rise to the occasion, we tend to fire them. But what do we expect of the MCPON? Did we expect better uniforms? A good enlisted manning system? More training time for our Sailors? A better deployment cycle so our Sailors aren’t burned out? Better manning of the Navy overall? If so, I don’t think we got it. Instead, we have a system that focuses on how important the Chiefs Mess is without asking for evidence.

The bureaucracy expanded to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.

This couldn’t be more evident in Master Chief Giordano’s behavior. I watched him visit our local region, and he had an all-call with Sailors and with my Chiefs. I asked both groups what they thought, and the reports were pretty disappointing. He was detached, didn’t have much of a plan, didn’t share a lot of guidance, and was pretty un-interesting in general. Figuring that maybe this was one off, I asked other Sailors, some retired now, who had worked with him in the past. All said similar things: he was a jerk, focused on himself and certainly not a role model. I stayed quiet, hoping to see evidence to the contrary, and was dissapointed with the truth.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have plenty of good people at all levels. There are many Chiefs that really live out the role of technical leader every day on their jobs. They should be celebrated, and they should have a system that helps refine their technical skills while also teaching them leadership lesson so that they can best lead their Sailors.

We need a new MCPON, probably more so than ever, but we need one that is willing to scrap the old system and start new. We need a MCPON that will fight for what matters to our Sailors and for the things that make us more combat capable in the future.

We need a new MCPON, and more importantly, we need a new way of thinking about our Chiefs Mess.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

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