A retired Navy commodore dissects how the captain mishandled the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the carrier Theodore Roosevelt.
Much has been written these past few months about Capt. Brett Crozier’s response to the coronavirus outbreak on board the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The general theme of most of the articles is that the Navy should have protected Crozier because he “loved” his crew and had their best interests at heart. As I have written previously, the question as to whether he was actually effective had been lost in nearly all of the analysis. As the Navy’s investigation has concluded, it is clear from the report that Crozier’s performance was deficient.
Here are a few lessons for military leaders from the Crozier incident, written with full awareness of the Navy’s investigation report. They don’t merely derive from the 47-page report, but include learnings that emerge from the entire public spectacle:
1. An 80-percent solution delivered on time is almost always better than a 100-percent solution delivered too late. Captain Crozier was hyper-focused on a solution he believed would meet 100 percent of the CDC guidelines for protecting his crew. Unfortunately, that solution—moving his crew into hotels in Guam’s tourist district—was not within the Navy’s ability to implement without significant local government and business help, an effort which would take days to weeks. There were other, more immediate, solutions within Crozier’s authority to direct, but he elected not to pursue them because they were not “ideal” solutions. In so doing, the report concludes, Crozier put the crew’s comfort ahead of their safety and actually delayed isolation efforts. Ask for outside help if you think you need it, but meanwhile focus on measures that are within your control.
2. Just because you aren’t an expert doesn’t mean you can’t evaluate the quality of data going into your decision. At the time Crozier was making his decisions, the probability data on transmissibility of the disease was fairly good, hence his team could fairly accurately predict the rate of infections. But what was not known at that time was how severe those infections would be. Yet Crozier’s medical staff communicated as if they had high confidence in predicted fatality outcomes. Had the data on which they made these predictions been reliable, the frenetic nature of their actions, which included a threat to leak information to the press, might be easier to understand. But the data was based on a cruise ship event where the population demographic was very different that the Roosevelt’s. In this case it would have been tempting to think, “Well, I’m not a medical officer, so I will simply hit the ‘I believe button’ on what the doctors are telling me.” But leaders are required to evaluate data outside their area of expertise all the time. You may not be a mechanical engineer, but you will be required to decide on whether the data suggests you should interrupt operations to repair that pump now. You may not be an intelligence officer, but you will be required to decide whether targeting data is sufficient to support the strike. And just because you are not a physician does not absolve you of the responsibility to determine whether certain medical data justifies your decision. You will be accountable for your decision, not “the experts.”
3. Be careful when suggesting a course of action that could shift risk from a military population to a civilian one. Crozier’s preferred course of action — moving his crew into town — could have introduced a large number of COVID infections into a community of Guam civilians who had little or no health insurance. Several of Guam’s civilian leaders, understandably alarmed by this proposal, pushed back energetically. Crozier did not give this matter the attention it deserved, instead dismissing it as a “political” problem. Hence he failed to pursue a course of action that considered holistic risk, factoring in risk to all U.S. citizens in Guam, and instead focused on just the risk to his crew.
4. Military members should be more, not less, disciplined than average Americans. I made the point in my earlier articles that the now-famous farewell celebration for Crozier very likely increased the rate of infection among his crew. The Navy’s study seems to back that assertion up, reporting that somewhere around 2,000 crew members assembled in close proximity for his sendoff. It also indicates that the Seventh Fleet staff knew that this event had “just made their job harder,” and that perhaps hundreds of the COVID-19 cases that would emerge over the ensuing couple of weeks were caused by this love-fest. With most of America following guidance during this period of time by isolating at home, this lack of discipline among the crew was inexcusable.
5. How your crew behaves, even when you are not present, reflects on your leadership. Apologists have said that Crozier could not have been held responsible for the crew’s behavior during his farewell party because he was no longer in command. That’s a cop-out. If Crozier had been effective at teaching his crew the urgency of social distancing, if his leadership lessons had “stuck” for even one day beyond his captaincy, this celebration would never have happened and perhaps hundreds of transmissions would have been avoided.
6. Properly inform and properly engage your chain of command. The report indicates that Crozier limited certain information to aviation community leaders rather than fully involving his operational chain of command, failed to use proper methods to communicate the severity of his concern to operational leaders, was inconsistent in communicating the degree of his concern depending on who he was speaking to, and used unclassified email to make operational recommendations. Apologists have suggested Crozier did this as a matter of expedience, but the way he approached the problem did nothing to accelerate a response. In fact, it had quite the opposite effect.
7. Don’t presume you know more than you do about what’s going on outside your command. When a leader asks for help, supporting commands will spin up, but they have to judge how much information is enough to update without overwhelming the supported command. Sometimes they will judge wrong and provide less information than you would like. It is fine for the supported command to validate progress, but you should not assume you know more than you actually do. Crozier’s email with the attached letter created an incorrect picture of progress made in establishing the conditions to move his crew into town. When it went public and staffs had to deal with the fallout, it made things worse by consuming their effort and delaying work in progress. Before you ever represent that support is insufficient, make sure you are absolutely certain you have a good picture of what is going on outside your command.
8. Everything will leak. The Crozier investigation does not conclude who leaked his letter. But it indicates that the ship’s medical staff threatened to leak a letter. In the modern world, assume everything on the unclassified network, and too much of what exists on the classified network, will be released far beyond what was intended. Whatever you write, assume it will get out, and play out scenarios of what will happen when it does, before you hit “send.”
9. Many of your crewmembers will use social media as their primary source of information. Despite the existence of Snopes and other fact-checking services, much of what flows around social media sites is false or misleading. The more breathless a report is, the more it will propagate. Imagine if those sites were your primary, or even your only, sources of information. Unfortunately, that state is true for too many in our country, including many military members. In the modern age, the issue will not be whether what the crew “knows” is wrong, the question will only be the degree to which it is wrong. In a world where information is constantly modulated, commands must do what they can to implement “truth campaigns” that are honest and effective.
10. Social media “campaigns” will create a new dynamic that can quickly spread off the ship. Regardless of whether it is wise for commands to communicate to crew and their families via social media, that is what is happening today. The problem begins when incorrect information (or disinformation) is injected into those social exchanges, as it almost always is. In the case of the Theodore Roosevelt, Crozier created an inaccurate picture of the degree of progress on getting his crew off the ship, which spun out of control into a social media campaign driven by media outlets. At that point, the truth no longer mattered, and Navy lost control of the narrative.
11. Another danger: decision by “Twitter mob.” The tool of “creating a false narrative then get the public to amplify that false narrative” has existed for some time, but the military was thought to be somewhat insulated from it. No longer. Once the report of Theodore Roosevelt’s status began spinning out of control, the “Twitter mob” phenomenon began, where a large number of media outlets, “influencers,” and members of the general public became outraged by the inaccurate status and demanded action. There was even concern that this social media pressure might influence senior defense leaders, which would be worrisome in any situation, more so in an operational event. There is extreme risk that ill-informed, or well-informed but malign, social media forces will intentionally or inadvertently drive a decision in the wrong direction. This is a matter that must be understood and dealt with at all levels of command, and the higher up you get, the more critical the response likely will be.
12. Supporting staff is just that: supporting staff. You are the leader, and the fact you may have received bad advice from supporting staff will not protect you, nor should it. Challenge assumptions. Cross-check supposed “facts.” Make sure the information you are basing your decision on is correct. It is your responsibility.
13. Panicked activity never helps. In a crisis, there will always be a temptation to “do something.” That “something” must derive from reason and logic. Yet, in the case of the Theodore Roosevelt, it appears that reasoned analysis had been overcome by frenetic activity directed at getting “the machine” to move faster on a very challenging course of action. Again, in the cold light of day, there were actions that could have been taken to reduce risk of exposure for the crew that would have been additive to, not in lieu of, Crozier’s preferred solution. The more serious an event is, the more important it is to slow down and think.
It is remarkable that so many people commenting on the Crozier affair got so much so wrong. The signs were there from the beginning, for those who felt inclined to look for them.
Captain William Toti, U.S. Navy (Retired)
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