What Do You See?

J.E. Curtis
7 min readNov 27, 2019

A Chief Petty Officer is the formal title bestowed upon those in the United States Navy (and Coast Guard) who achieve the requisite E-7 grade; and to refer to someone as an E-7 instead of a Chief is an insult. A Chief serves a unique role and has responsibilities and authorities distinctly different from similar ranking members of the other services.

From the Chief Petty Officer Creed:

“In the United States Navy and only in the United States Navy, E-7 carries unique responsibilities….More will be expected of you, more will be demanded of you. Not because you are an E-7, but because you are now a CHIEF PETTY OFFICER. You have not merely been promoted one pay grade — you have joined an exclusive fraternity, and as in all fraternities, you have a responsibility to your brothers, even as they have a responsibility to you……these responsibilities do not appear in print, they have no official standing, they cannot be referred to by name, number nor file. They exist because..the CHIEFS before you have freely accepted responsibility beyond call of printed assignment, their actions and their performance, demanded the respect of their seniors as well as their juniors. It is now required that you be a fountain of wisdom, the ambassador of good will, the authority in personnel relations as well as their technical application. “Ask the Chief” is a household word in and out of the Navy. You are now the CHIEF.”

In the Navy, the annual Chief Selection results come out in August. For those selected this is a momentous occasion and a day they dont easily forget. It also sets in motion several weeks of intense training and transition as they prepare to move into roles of much greater responsibility and accountability.

This August I had the honor of notifying four of our Sailors that they’d been selected for Chief. I knew I’d have an opportunity to have them in my office again later that morning for some initial mentoring, and I wanted to give each a small congratulatory gift. I went to the store on the air station looking for four copies of my favorite book, but saw there were only two copies on the shelf. Then, something drew me to the sporting goods shelf. I’d like to claim some level of brilliant and insightful vision, but honestly, I just found myself standing there looking at the various small tools and trinkets. Then I saw it — the most apt metaphor for a Chief, or any truly effective leader, in the form of a $6.99 multi-tool.

As I took one of the multi-tools off the shelf I noted its components: a thermometer, a magnifying glass, a whistle, and a compass — all of this the size of an average key chain. I held it in my hand for a few seconds and decided that, though the book I had I mind was impactful to me, this inexpensive piece of plastic might prove much more useful for the conversation I’d soon have with the new Chief Selects, and this was for them, not me. And, there were three more hanging on the shelf…sometimes practicality matters as much as symbolism.

A few hours later when the four wide-eyed Chief Selects arrived at my office I invited them in and handed each of them a multi-tool. I asked each of them to tell me what they saw. There was an awkward silence while they, no doubt, wondered what kind of joke or prank the old guy was playing on them. As the awkwardness and length of the silence increased, they realized that I was asking a genuine question, so they tried to come up with genuine answers…

“Skipper, I see a compass.”

“I see a tool.”

“I see a whistle.”

“I see a key chain.”

I asked them to look closer while I explained what I saw.

At its most basic level a thermometer simply tells us the temperature of the surrounding environment. In the context I intended for our newest leaders, I believe its purpose was to serve as a reminder that they’re now the thermometer. It’s critical for a leader to sample, evaluate, and understand the temperature of their organization. We need to be able to sense when things are going well, when they’re about to take a turn for the worse, and when we’re approaching extremes. In the meteorological sense, localized and short-term weather is not the same as climate. Climate is better described as long-term pattern or trends, but we can’t get a sense of our organizational climate (or culture) if we don’t take countless measurements along the way. Where they saw a simple thermometer, I saw a leader. I saw a Chief.

A significant part of any leader’s job is to devote time and energy to looking closely at what’s going on just beneath the surface; what’s going on just out of sight; what’s going on that might be getting missed by others. If there’s an issue, a challenge, or an impending failure, a leader must be willing to examine it, study it, challenge it, and address it head on. This can only happen if we’re willing to take that closer look. Taking a critical hard look requires courage. Where they saw a magnifying glass, I saw a leader. I saw a Chief.

Of course it’s not enough to simply find and study problems. Where problems exist, and when the required solutions are beyond our personal authorities or capabilities, leaders have to speak up. Good leaders speak up to their subordinates, peers, and bosses when things are wrong. Effective leaders know when to voice their concern, and how loudly or passionately to do so — and just as importantly, when to use discretion. Finding problems and communicating them; finding abuse and reporting it; holding team members accountable; and speaking truth to power all require courage. Where they saw a whistle, I saw a leader. I saw a Chief.

The final component of the multi-tool was a simple wet compass. The small needle crudely swings around always seeking North. I believe this final component is the most important of the four. The metaphorical purposes of the thermometer, magnifying glass, and whistle are lost if their use is not grounded in principle. An effective leader must never lose sight of what’s right — where their true (or in this case, magnetic) north lies. To accept less leads to significant say-do gaps, and few things will erode a team’s trust or a leader’s credibility quicker than hypocritical say-do gaps. But knowing where north is and the willingness to follow the difficult path to get there are two different things. To know where to go — to know what’s right — and actually take the steps to get there requires courage. Where they saw a tiny compass, I saw a leader. I saw a Chief.

As I explained my interpretation to these anxious and overwhelmed new leaders, I sensed that the $6.99 spent on each of them had the potential to yield a significant return on investment. More than one of them wiped away a tear as the weight of what their Navy and their teammates were now asking of them sunk in. Over the coming weeks each of them would be tested and stressed beyond points they had previously considered possible. I’m proud to report that each of them navigated the trying transition with grace and humility. Six weeks after our brief conversation I proudly sat in the hangar bay of an aircraft carrier at sea as they each donned their new uniforms, their new ranks, and their new identities as Chiefs — as leaders. Shaking their hands after the ceremony I learned that they’d carried their multi-tools with them each step of the way and routinely took time to reflect how it applied to who they were, and who they would need to be going forward.

Some time after returning home from the ship, and as they each prepared to transfer to a new organization and into their new roles, together the four of them came back by my office. This time they had a gift for me. They’d found a fifth multi-tool and mounted it on a small frame with an engraved plate that simply read: “what do you see?” I saw four highly capable and dedicated leaders. I saw Chiefs.

Views expressed are mine alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other government agency. I have no financial stake in Coughlans and recieved no compensation for this essay.