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James Webb brings disciplined leadership, respect for ranks to Navy post

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Note: This article appeared in the Sept. 28. 1987, issue of Federal Computer Week.

James Webb looks mildly uncomfortable with the trappings of office as he leads his guests into his private Pentagon dining room. The secretary of the Navy explains: "I don't eat here often. I usually brown bag it and escape to a one-bedroom apartment I have near here so I can write."


Yes, he's chief of the Navy at a period when the service is being tested as it never has in modern times. But this 41-year-old native of the western Tennessee hills, a former Marine platoon commander who earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, writes — even if the writing in his new job, he ruefully admits, "is mostly memos."

Webb is not only the first Naval Academy graduate to serve as secretary of the Navy, he's also the first successful writer to hold this post. But there's a link between these two seemingly mutually exclusive pursuits. Webb's three novels, Fields of Fire, A Sense of Honor and A Country Such As This, draw heavily on his military experience.

A key theme of all three books deals directly with Webb's lifelong passion —the awesome responsibility of leadership, particularly military leadership.

Webb doesn't see a dichotomy between the part of himself that writes and the part that leads. After all, as a student at the Naval Academy, Webb thought "the literature courses were the most valuable of all, because they let me examine human beings in conflict."

Webb also has established a natural rhythm in a life that might seem to outsiders to be filled with contradictions. Though he switches back and forth between public service and writing, there is a pattern to these shifts.

Before his appointment to the top Navy job, Webb worked as assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs. While there, he honed the administrative skills much needed in his new job. He also worked on the Hill as counsel to the House Armed Services Committee.

He feels comfortable with this series of changes. "I have been working for three years and then writing for three years. In fact, before I took this job last February, I was all set to go to South Africa and do an article on the Boers for National Geographic."

Webb's writing helps in handling his job because of the understanding of peo¬ple that it offers him. "When you start thinking about characters, it creates in your mind the idea that everyone is important. Just because people have different ranks doesn’t make them any less valuable as individuals.”

Looking around his dining room, with its crisp linens and its embossed, heavy metal plates, Webb offers another insight into his view of command. “Authority does not mean privilege,” Webb said.

He recalled the rule of Marine Gen. Chesty Puller, “reputed to have been the greatest leader in Marine Corps history.” Puller said: “First you feed the mules, then you feed the privates, then you feed the corporals, then you feed the sergeants, then if anything is left, the officers eat, by lowest rank first.”
The strong obligation of leaders in the military to treat their troops with integrity and respect is another Webb hallmark. In a speech to the Air Force Academy in 1985, Webb told the assembled cadets that military leadership is unique.

“You don’t have any unions. The people under you can't quit if they don't like you. They are required to be in a disciplined environment," Webb said. "And you, because of those things, have a special obligation to them. The military is a coercive environment. So your obligation to the people you lead must plug that in."

In that speech, Webb recalled what happens when those obligations aren't met: "I think the maddest I have ever seen troops was when we were operat¬ing in a base camp in Vietnam," he said. "The mess hall used to bring out sandwiches at midnight. If there were 10 people working in the [operations bunker], there would be 10 sandwiches.

"We had a major who would get up at midnight, grab a couple of sandwiches and leave," Webb said. "That man was hated. I don't care how good he was, he was hated for that. It showed that he did not have respect for the people he was leading."

Webb said he had to learn the skills of leadership. He recalled that one day in training, he was addressing some troops. A higher-ranking officer came by and called Webb over. "He wanted to know why I had placed my men so the sun was in their faces. He ordered me to turn them around so the sun was in my face. I never did that again."

He brings this passion for responsible leadership, integrity and respect be¬tween commanders and troops to his new job. That's why Webb took an extended trip to visit the sailors and Marines scattered about the Persian Gulf. A good leader cannot put men in harm's way unless he, too, takes the risks and evaluates the situation, he believes.

Webb believes in firm leadership, but not vindictiveness. He prefers at the moment to make quiet changes rather than splashy public ones. He is not secretary of the Navy to "kick a few admirals in the ass," but at the same time when changes need to be made, he tries to make them quickly and with finality.

Immediately after the Navy Times broke a story about sexual harass¬ment of women sailors and Marines, for example, he ordered an investigation and said he would absolutely not tolerate such behavior.

Contractors better understand that they have an obligation under Webb, as well. He demands from them the same integrity he expects from his sailors, troops and admirals.

Asked about a procurement system that sometimes delivers weapons, ships, systems or aircraft late and not meeting specifications, Webb flatly declares this won't fly on his watch. "If it doesn't work we won't buy it... and if we get it, and it doesn't work, we won't pay for it."

In buying command and control systems, Webb said he believes that the Navy should "make sure the systems do what you want them to do in a coordinated environment."

Webb looks at these systems with leadership in mind. He said he is concerned that “the rapid evolution of communications compresses decisions and centralizes command.” He understands this requirement, but worries about the effect on the combat com¬mander.
"In combat, you don't want total centralization of command," he said. "The commander [in the field] should still be able to exercise initiative."

As far as buying equipment for the Marines is concerned, Webb seems to lean toward simpler systems that give more bang for his buck.

Though he is head of the Navy, Webb still has a loyalty to and a special warmth for the Marines. He hand-picked the new commandant, Gen. A.M. Gray, and concerns himself with many details, such as bringing back infantry training for all Marines, not just those slated for assign¬ment to infantry specialties.

Maybe that's because above all—writer, leader, secretary of the Navy--Webb is in his soul, first and foremost, a Marine. His wounds may have forced him to retire in body, but not in spirit.

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