What follows is a story about one of my worst navy bosses. After, I’ll discuss my top three takeaways and how this can help you in your career. Enjoy!
In March 1996, about five months after returning from the USS Lincoln WESTPAC, I submitted my first BUD/S package, that is, my application, along with all the necessary supporting documentation. It was quickly denied.
Instinctively, I knew that Clarin had screwed me. Only months later, I would learn in full detail what had happened.
For me to get out of my AW job and get orders to BUD/S, permission needed to come from the appropriate rating detailer, the person who controls where people transfer to or work next in the navy. As it happened, our rating detailer was a man with the mind-blowingly unfortunate name of Petty Officer A. W. Dickover. (Someone, somewhere, must have seen the humor in this and assigned him the job based on his name alone.) Chief Clarin had called Petty Officer Dickover and asked him not to approve my request for orders to SEAL training.
which meant I could do things like give annual qualification tests or test someone who wanted to become a crew chief. After failing that first check ride, it hadn’t taken me long to test again—and pass. Now my rapid advancement came back to bite me.
“You have all these quals,” Clarin said. “Sorry, Webb, but I need you for this deployment.”
The son of a bitch. Now I would have to stay with the squadron for at least another year and do a whole other six-month WESTPAC deployment.
A few months later, in July, I applied to attend a one-week pre-SEAL selection course held at the navy’s boot camp facility in Illinois called Naval Station Great Lakes (or, unofficially, Great Mistakes). This is not a pass/fail kind of course; going through it wouldn’t give me any technical qualifications. Still, depending on how I did, I could come out of it with a recommendation to the real BUD/S—or without one. In a sense, it would be an informal entrance exam. If I flew through pre-BUD/S, it would boost my chances of getting orders to the real deal. And if I couldn’t make it through the week at Great Mistakes, I could forget about surviving the seven months of the genuine article.
Calling pre-BUD/S a condensed version of the real thing would be a stretch. It is designed to give you a glimpse of what the actual BUD/S training experience would be like, but only a glimpse. I knew that. Still, it was one way to demonstrate that I was serious, and hopefully, I would come out of it with an endorsement.
There was a mix of guys in the program, some straight out of boot camp, some who were already regular navy, like me. One guy there cut an incredibly intimidating figure: a six-foot-tall, blond, Nordic-looking dude named Lars. Lars had thighs like tree trunks and could do push-ups from dawn to sunrise. He just crushed everything they threw at him. I met up with Lars again a year later when I finally made it to BUD/S and will have more to say about him at that point in the story.
I passed the program with flying colors, and they recommended me for BUD/S. But my obstacle course wasn’t over yet.
After he admitted to his duplicity in tanking my first BUD/S package, Chief Clarin and I had, for the most part, stayed out of each other’s way. However, our mutual animosity came to a head during my second WESTPAC deployment, which started in October of 1996. I had been part of HS-6 for precisely two years and was determined to make it to BUD/S before another full year went by. So I submitted a second BUD/S package and was pretty confident that it would go through. After all, I had done the pre-BUD/S course and came out with a strong recommendation.
However, I also knew that I needed to get into shape if I wanted to pass the entrance qualifications for BUD/S when I got back stateside. On the aircraft carrier, it was hard to keep up high fitness standards: I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t really run (running on a steel deck is not exactly great for the joints), and getting into a full workout routine was difficult. Six months in those conditions would really set me back.
I went to Chief Clarin and told him my situation.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll send you back on early detachment [that is, guys who were flown back early to prepare the home command for the rest of the group’s return]. In fact, I’ll send you back a month early, so you can train and get in shape before you have to qualify.”
I was surprised and immensely grateful that he would go out of his way to do this. But, as it turned out, he was lying through his teeth. He never had any intention of sending me back home early. He didn’t want me to go to BUD/S and was determined to prevent it, whatever that took.
A few weeks later, a friend in our squadron admin took me aside and told me I was getting railroaded (navyspeak for “screwed over”) by Chief Clarin on my upcoming evaluation.
Evaluations go a long way in making rank in the navy; they’re put into the mix with your rating test to yield a final multiple that determines whether or not you are promoted. Usually, you would not have a chance to see how your peers break out during an evaluation period unless you exchange notes. My friend taught me that I was being rated as low as the brand-new check-ins.
I was not about to take that lying down. If I had deserved a low eval, that would be one thing, but that was not the case. So instead, I had busted my ass to get every qual I could and volunteered for every shit detail to prove to my peers and superiors that I deserved a shot at BUD/S.
Here’s how the process works: After receiving your written eval and having a one-on-one debrief with whoever wrote it, you sign your name at the bottom. Then, there is a tiny box by the signature line that you check if you intend to submit a statement along with your eval. But, of course, hardly anyone ever marks a check in that box. I still remember the utter horror on Chief Clarin’s face when he saw me check the box. He knew that I knew what he was up to. He knew he had fucked up.
At the time, I took a few college classes on the ship (they even had professors on board; as I said, an aircraft carrier is like a small city) and had just finished English 1302. I thought this would be a prime opportunity to put my writing skills to use. So I prepared a formal statement, which I took great care in writing. It contained not a single whine or complaint but the facts, line item by line item.
My statement created quite a stir. After it landed on my department head’s desk, he ran it up to the commanding officer (CO). I soon got word that Chief Clarin and I were both wanted in Commander Rosa’s office.
When I arrived, Clarin was already there. I nodded at him without a word. It was evident that he was not too happy with the situation. Chiefs run the navy, and in the navy culture, it is scarce for anyone to go against a chief or question his judgment or leadership. But I would be damned if I was going to roll over and take this. Maybe this came from my time on the dive boat, when I often felt I had to prove myself to all the older guys. Perhaps it was an echo of the times I stood up to my dad—or maybe I got it from my dad, and it reflects the times he stood up to his father. Whatever its source, there is a stubborn streak in me that refuses to knuckle under what seems to me a poor decision or unfair judgment.
We were both ushered into Commander Rosa’s office, where we stood for a moment while the commander continued looking down at his desk at the eval and written statement spread out in front of him. Then, finally, he looked up at me, then at Chief Clarin, then back at me. “Look,” he said, “what’s the deal here?”
“Sir,” I said, “in block 1, Professional Knowledge, I should be rated a 3.0. I’m the
only guy in my shop who has these quals.”
The rating system went from 1.0, “Below standards,” to 4.0, “Greatly exceeds
standards.” I had been qualified as a NATOPS instructor, and at the time, I was the only third-class petty officer in the squad who had done so. It’s hard enough for a senior guy to get this qual, let alone a junior guy. And I wasn’t even asking for a 4.0, just a 3.0, “Above standards.” Clarin had rated me with a 2.0: “Progressing.”
Commander Rosa looked at each of us again, saying nothing, his face reddening. The chief looked like an idiot. It was clear that he had given me this poor rating purely because he didn’t like me.
The CO turned back to me and said, “Petty Officer Webb, if the chief can’t figure this out, you write your own eval.” He paused, then said, “That’s all.”
We were both free to go.
I did not leave the WESTPAC early but was kept on for six months. Not long after this encounter, Chief Clarin transferred out of HS-6. After that, we did not stay in touch.
Who here has had a boss like Clarin?!
The thing about having a crappy boss is that you can learn an incredible amount of what not to do from these experiences as your career progresses.
My top 3 takeaways:
- Stick up for yourself if you believe you are being treated unfairly. However, keep it fact-based and not emotionally charged. I can’t stress this enough. Let your facts do the talking.
- Keep it professional and respect the chain of command. Going over your supervisor’s head is not the first answer. Attempt to work it out at your supervisor’s level first; if not, look to your company’s policy on what comes next, then follow that. I too often see someone go over the top only to get whacked. And avoid singling out individuals for criticism in a group environment. Too many times, I’ve seen people blast someone over a group email or message. This is NOT appropriate or professional. Instead, praise in public and criticize in private. Are there exceptions for this? YES! In the SEAL Teams, we had an environment that encouraged radical candor. But it would be best if you had clear guard rails in place for this for it to work.
- Reward achievement, don’t punish it. Too many times, I see high performers who get leaned on. It always goes something like this, “I can’t let her go to this conference. I know she wants to go but she’s just too valuable on this project!” You have to reward your A players. This was something I tried to do when I was the Navy SEAL sniper course manager. We always have a few all-stars, and it’s tough to be without them, but you need to reward and praise them, or you’ll lose them, or they’ll burn out. Keep them motivated with positive incentives as opposed to punishing them as Clarin did with me.