Clark will leave legacy of progress
By Don Kennedy, The Flagship, Hampton Roads, Va.
Used with permission
June 22, 2000
Remember these two words: Covenant leadership.
You are likely to hear them again soon — and often, when Adm. Vern Clark takes his new post as the next chief of naval operations.
After less than a year of steering the 125,000 sailors and civilians under his command on a steady course of progress, Clark will hand over the reigns of Atlantic Fleet leadership to Adm. Robert J. Natter during a June 23 ceremony on the flight deck of the nuclear- powered aircraft carrier Enterprise.
Clark assumed command nine months ago as Hurricane Floyd battered Hampton Roads in September, causing his change of command ceremony aboard the general-purpose amphibious assault ship Saipan to be set aside for a more subdued change-over at his new headquarters in Norfolk.
But there was more than harsh weather on his mind as he began his journey at the helm of the Atlantic Fleet. Recruiters were having trouble getting people to join the Navy, and the fleet was having trouble keeping sailors. Commanding officers were talking frankly about deficiencies in readiness. Facilities were deteriorating under the weight of massive budget cuts.
Clark embarked upon his new challenge armed with the concept of covenant leadership.
"What I believe more than anything else," Clark said, "is that we make commitments to one another. Leaders promise and commit things to subordinates, and subordinates promise and commit things to the bosses.
"In our case, our people promise to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. They commit to serve."
Service, Clark said, is a concept dear to his heart.
"The people that make up our military decide that they are going to give of themselves. Every human being who puts on the uniform ... makes tremendous sacrifices.
"There should be a commitment from the leadership for the promise sailors make to us. I believe that promise has to be kept by people like me — to make sure people have the tools that they need to succeed. We've got to offer to them a chance to make a difference. They want us to give them a chance to show what they can contribute. They want a chance to grow and develop.
"A young person in the Navy can get more experience in leadership than they can get anyplace else in the world. ... I'm convinced that if we make this a meaningful experience for them, the numbers will continue to improve."
The numbers Clark referred to are those for retention and attrition. In December, 29 percent of first-term sailors stayed in the Navy in the Atlantic Fleet. Now, just six months later, the numbers have improved to 35 percent, two percent higher than Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson's Navywide goal of 33 percent.
The successes realized under Clark's tenure, he said, are the sum of many parts. He acknowledges that last year's 4.8 percent pay raise and the targeted raises designed to benefit mid-grade petty officers and junior officers that will take effect July 1 have had an impact. So, too, he said, has last year's revisions to military retirement. But, those are just pieces of the puzzle.
Clark credits his success in the past nine months with fleet leadership "having the courage to challenge every assumption."
He said all levels of the command structure have demonstrated such courage with dramatic results. Ships on the waterfront have challenged the assumptions that they need four or five duty sections. The result is that they found they did not, and sailors, in many cases, stand eight-, nine- or 10 section duty. The same process has reduced the number of times sailors must maintain certain pieces of equipment.
"The path for the future is just to have the courage to challenge the assumption and to get the data to make sure the plan is keeping us where we need to be - to be the world's best fighting force afloat."
Although Clark is encouraged with the progress the Atlantic Fleet has made, he said he is "dissatisfied with the conditions we find our people working in.
"Here in Norfolk, for example, the hangars at the Naval Station are below the standard that they should be at for our people to work in. We're going to build a hangar a year here if I have anything to say about this.
"Talk is cheap. People have to see that their leaders are going to do the right thing. We have to make quality of work a reality. This is one of those budget issues in which, every time there is a squeeze, this is the area that is affected. We have to get better in this area."
Quality of work, Clark contends, is every bit as important as the quality of life issues that are brought up so often.
"Quality of life," he said, "plus quality of work equals quality of service."
Not only, he said, do people deserve a decent place to work, but also, decent pay.
"Part of the covenant in leadership has to be a fair wage," Clark said. "I think we have to keep the pressure on to keep reaching for the fairest wage we know how to reach for. But, we also have to be careful not to put all of our eggs in one basket and think that pay only is going to solve all of our problems. That's putting our head in the sand and not acknowledging other leadership issues that we have to do something about ourselves— that we have to take care of."
Pay and retirement improvements over the past year, Clark said, "made a great statement that the leadership in Congress were in support of our people. I think there are still areas where we still need to work at remuneration challenges. I want to get it to parity. We are not there, and I want to keep speaking to that requirement."
Clark acknowledges that the Navy's budget is not limitless.
"What I do today and will be called upon to do in a much larger fashion across the whole face of the Navy, is to exercise my judgement in the best way I know how to try to balance these things. And, that's what it is. It's a delicate balance of a lot of different pieces.
"All I can tell you is that I have a bias for the fleet. And I believe that you've got to make the fleet work. Between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets are two-thirds of all the sailors in the Navy. We have to, as a Navy, apportion sufficient resources to reach toward these goals we are talking about."
The soon-to-be CNO said that he feels he has laid the foundation in the Atlantic Fleet and that he has "a sneaking suspicion that the message is not going to go away."
And why should it? A year ago, type commanders, commanding officers and enlisted leadership testified before the House Armed Services Committee at Naval Station Norfolk. They told them they believed that their ships were undermanned and their crews undertrained.
"We need to make sure we've got the people on board for the work ups, not arriving 30 days before they deploy. I got a report this morning (June 14): The (nuclear powered-aircraft carrier) George Washington leaves here in a few days with the best manning situation we've had in years. This is rewarding. A lot of people will tell you what you can't do. It's fulfilling what you can do, if you just have the courage to challenge every assumption."
Clark said he believes that if he is to affect changes Navywide like those the Atlantic Fleet has realized in the past nine months, covenant leadership will be the driving force. But, he also knows that the concept must reach down to all levels of leadership.
At his May 16 Senate confirmation hearing, U.S. Sen. John Warner, R Va., introduced Clark to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Warner told the story about the first time he met Clark.
"I asked him about his early career, "Warner told the committee.
The senator listened to Clark tell him about his first couple of commands, then wanted more information.
"I asked him in my rather effuse way," Warner said, "'Do you recall who was secretary of the Navy at that time?'
"And he promptly said, 'I knew the name of my commanding officer, and that was about as high as I went ...'"
The same, no doubt, is true of many young sailors who join the fleet.
"Every leader must commit - to promise their subordinates — that they are going to help them develop," Clark said. "When bosses do that, the individuals prosper. Where people are prospering, healthy working environments exist. In healthy working environments, we are getting all the things done that we need to, to ensure that we are a Navy that is ready on a moment's notice to respond to the taskings of the national command authority."
It's a pretty safe bet that all levels of Navy leadership are going to hear a lot about covenant leadership in the coming months.
Adm. Vern Clark will take over as Chief of Naval Operations July 21 when he relieves Adm. Jay Johnson.
esent a shift from a "blue water" Navy environment to one which focuses on landward influence in the littoral regions of the world.