Peer Review

The term “Peer Review” is often used in a scientific context. It describes a process whereby a scientific paper is reviewed by other scientists. The process is designed to point out errors, non sequitors and other pitfalls. Scientists and other writers have a perfectly human weakness (and perhaps defensivness) toward criticism, even so-called “constructive” criticism. It is always good to have a second pair of eyes, so to speak (I am reminded of the aphorism that God gave us two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth. You usually learn considerably more from listening than talking).

Way, way back in the day, I was enrolled in 90-day wonder school, aka Naval Officer Candidate School. There, we were to learn seamanship, navigation, engineering and gunnery (and be ready to lead men in these pursuits aboard ship – you gotta be kidding…). Even more important was to master people (leadership) skills. One of the tools for this occurred near the end of the course – an exercise in “peer review”. As I recall, we were instructed to rate the five best, and five worst, officer candidates in our 40-man company.

I was rated the worst of the worst. I well remember several of my classmates telling me I wasn’t all that bad, but somebody had to be worst. The company was comprised of a typical cross section of college educated young men from all parts of the USA. I was counseled by the company officer, a regular Navy lieutenant, who pretty much told me that being from New York City, I “came on too strong”, probably because I had the New York trait of talking too loudly and interrupting people. One of his more helpful suggestions: “back off”.

I don’t know if this is still part of the OCS course, but in retrospect, it was an epiphany. A very useful lesson in management, among the many things I learned during my Naval service. I served my country, but got much more back on a personal level.

At the end, I was comissioned Ensign, USNR. I’ll always remember the Chief Petty Officer assigned as Assistant Company Officer telling me that I had been assigned as a Deck Division Officer to the USS Aeolus, hull number ARC-3. After a pause, he looked at me and said. “What the hell is an ARC”? Turned out this was a cable layer, one of only four in the entire fleet.

I reported for duty in March 1963, while the ship was undergoing a “yard overhaul” at the Boston Navy Yard. The ship’s mission was to lay acoustic cable on the ocean floor, to track movements of Soviet submarines. Part of the function was carried out by civilian engineers of Western Electric, who had developed the technology. Ship’s company’s part was a highly intricate laying of the cable, itself. As the deck division officer, I “supervised” the process.

So, here I was, a wet-behind-the ears ensign, telling a group of talented, senior enlisted men how to do their jobs! As it happened, the guy I had replaced coped with this by pulling an all-nighter and studying the process, When his shift started, he proceeded to issue direct orders to the sailors. The chief and first class boatswain mates simply gave the man enough rope to hang himself (Aye, Aye Sir), and he had to be relieved to straighten out the ensuing confusion. The captain contacted the Bureau of Personnel and told them to make him go away (don’t go away mad, just go away…..).

Knowing this at the time, I pretty much told my two senior underlings, in effect, you take care of me, I’ll take care of you (in the current idiom, I’ll have your backs). Worked like a charm. Much of my focus as division officer was to do what I could to make sure they got whatever they could out of Uncle Sam. Important: Develop your people, clear as many obstacles as you can as they do their thing, the rest will take care of itself.

Perhaps my peers were right. I never considered myself as admiral material. I would not have been in the Navy at all if there had been no draft. Looking back, I would have missed out on a priceless learning experience, and so much more. In many ways, it’s a shame we don’t provide this opportunity to our youth the way we used to.

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