(Silverdale, Washington; Jan. 14, 2021) – Welcome back to my regular Thursday column! My original intent had been to open 2021 with a column on the meaning of freedom. To prepare, I did an informal poll of my Facebook friends, asking them to submit a one or two-sentence definition of what freedom means to them.
The stunningly wide scope of responses I got made me realize I need to take some time to really think about how to organize that discussion. I will be addressing the meaning of freedom, but I need some more time to do it right.
Instead, I decided to share another story from my days on the proverbial waterfront! A story of intrigue! Adventure! Exotic foreign lands! The insecure, back-stabbing 2nd Class Petty Officer who tried to derail my work ethic because he was an insecure twit!
I joined the Navy in 1997, becoming a yeoman (a Navy administrative clerk). For my first assignment, I received orders directing me to report to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two (VQ-2), forward deployed to Naval Base Rota, Spain, in April of 1998.
When I reported to ‘The Q’s’ admin shop, we were still using typewriters, legal paper, and Windows 98. The transition to eliminate legal-sized paper and shift to Windows NT began during this time. A new-fangled application called ‘PowerPoint’ was revolutionizing presentations (and, as we all know now, enabling substandard presenters to put us all to sleep, but, that’s another column…). I quickly discovered PowerPoint allowed me to use clip art and simple graphics to jazz-up documents. I also had the good sense to not overuse clip art as I realized it made the document look cheesy.
Enter a shipmate I’ll call ‘YN2 Narcissus.’
YN2 Narcissus was one of the mid-level YNs in the shop, and had been one of the guys to show me the ropes after I got there. I’d only been on board three months when he showed his true colors.
We had a communal bank of computers along the back wall (remember, this is 1998 and the Navy was still in the early throes of transitioning to digital technology). YN2 Narcissus sidled over while I was working back there, telling me he wanted to talk about my work. I thought I was about to get praised; instead, he told me I was making him look bad. He said it just didn’t look good for a young seaman to waltz in and perform better than more senior YNs. When I pointed out that all my graphics were on the shared drive so anyone could use them at will, he said it was meaningless since everyone knew I was the creator. He concluded by telling me to cool it if I “wanted to fit in” (I still remember that phrase).
I didn’t quite have a spine yet (that grew in later), but I was intelligent enough to recognize how vile, low, despicable, and selfish YN2 Narcissus was. I admittedly was terrified by the implied threat from a sailor senior, but I was also obstinate enough to do something about it. I made two resolves at that moment: do even more as a graphics guy, and drop YN2 Narcissus into a pothole he couldn’t get out of. His actions taught me one of the Great Leadership Lessons of my career: put your own ego on the back seat and build up your junior people!
I ramped up my graphics work hard, volunteering to do basic layouts for anyone…and turned the screws by telling everyone (enlisted and officer) that it was YN2 Narcissus who encouraged me to do more since, as he ‘said,’ I was clearly capable of exceptional work. Everyone praised him for being such a good leader, and I got the most amusingly dirty looks from him every time. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t touch me because I tied his reputation to my success…meaning he couldn’t sabotage me without destroying himself.
Still, I have to thank him, and I mean that. His little attempt at sabotage was one of the three events at VQ-2 that literally led directly to my successful Navy career.
Event 1: By ramping up my work to rub YN2 Narcissus’ face in his inability to crush me, I accidentally tipped my hand as a photographer (well, ‘shutterbug’ is more apt) by going out and getting specific images we could then scan in and use as digital files and even graphics.
Event 2: When the squadron leadership learned how extensive my photo talents were, they put me in VQ-2’s public affairs office doing nothing but photography and writing under our public affairs officer, Lt. Terry Dudley. Terry was the kind of officer you think only exists on TV shows: he was creative, innovative, and humble. He always asked for, and accepted, my input. He even gave me full creative control over the production of our quarterly squadron magazine.
Event 3: When then-Commander (now retired Rear Admiral) John C. Scorby, Jr., took over command of The Q, he didn’t follow the normal custom putting in a new public affairs yeoman. He left me in the office working under Lt. Dudley for the remainder of my tour. This, in turn, led me to go to photo school and convert from Yeoman to Photographer’s Mate.
Photo school led to many opportunities, including teaching photo, writing, graphics, layout and design for over seven years. I later helped found a new, intermediate-level Navy public affairs school in 2013 (it’s still operating today) before becoming the senior military editor for the Navy’s biggest annual public outreach: Fleet Week New York. I capped out my career by working as a civilian staff writer for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Division Keyport, following my retirement from active duty. During that federal civilian term, I became the single most prolific writer (active duty or civilian) in the Navy in 2019.
That whole resume’ can be traced to the three events I listed above…and all of it was kicked off by an insecure, narcissistic nitwit who cared only about himself.
Oh, yeah: I also learned I really don’t like bullies, and that I’m vengeful enough to find creative was to thwart them.
I faced my own ‘YN2 Narcissus’ moment not long after. The year was 2001, and we were fighting in Afghanistan following the horrible 9/11 attacks. I was working on the flight deck of USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) as day shift supervisor of the recon camera shop for my second squadron, VF-213. One morning in October, we were gathered on the flight deck with our flight deck chief. Each supervisor reported their shop’s plan for the day, and I, of course, took my turn. I listed out a plan for my team that would complete all our morning tasks on the F-14s within two hours.
Right after I finished, one of my airmen spoke up. Photographer’s Mate Airman Shawn Hussong had been with us for less than three weeks at this point, but still piped up, timidly saying he thought our shop could complete all those tasks in 45 minutes (instead of two hours) if we did things differently.
The rub: he was right.
The whole gathering looked at me, and I could feel my ego turning red. I could easily have quashed him right then, but my experience at The Q in 1998 was still with me.
My ‘YN2 Narcissus moment’ had arrived. Being accidentally one-upped by a brand-new kid in front of my peers was embarrassing and unpleasant. In that moment, I actually did find a shred of empathy for YN2 Narcissus, but only a shred. You see, I was a big enough man to get over myself.
I looked at Shawn, looked at our chief, swallowed my pride (took a spoonful of sugar, but I got it down), and said, “We’ll do what he said!”
That was one of the hardest moments of my life, but that kid saved us an hour of work. It was difficult, but I put my money where my mouth is and did for Shawn what I wished had been done for me.
So, wherever you are, thank you, YN2 Narcissus! Your attempt at sabotaging me backfired spectacularly. Instead of crushing me, you motivated me to excel, do great things, and have the wisdom to swallow my pride. Happily, a number of my former sailors are doing things that exceed anything I ever did, and I’m proud to have been one of the leaders encouraging their success!
Never attempt to sabotage those beneath you. Seniority imparts a moral imperative to build up your people and help them succeed. People who hitch their own success to the development and success of their subordinates are leaders. People who see their subordinates as threats are toxic narcissists.
Be a leader!
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