Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly resigned from his post on Tuesday. Modly was widely criticized for removing Captain Brett Crozier from command of the Covid-stricken U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. But what actually led him to resign was a speech he delivered on Monday over loudspeaker to the thousands of sailors still aboard the Roosevelt. Modly had flown 7,920 miles from Washington, D.C. to Guam to deliver that speech, yet he seemed to have put little thought into the message those sailors needed to hear. Whether you do or don't agree with his decision to remove Crozier, that speech is a master class in what not to do as a leader.
The trouble began about three weeks ago, when cases of Covid-19 began turning up among the Roosevelt crew. Even more than cruise passengers, sailors aboard a Navy aircraft carrier are at particular risk because their service requires them to live and work in very close quarters. Alarmed, Crozier asked the Navy for help, and when spread of the disease escalated, he sent an extraordinary request to have most of the crew disembark so as to implement quarantine and social distancing procedures that are impossible to follow aboard ship.
He sent that email to a large number of Navy officials and it wound up being leaked and widely reported in the media. The wide distribution of the email, outside the direct chain of command, is the offense for which Modly removed Crozier, saying that it violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Others have called Crozier a hero for bringing the situation to light.
Whatever you think of Crozier, there's no denying that what Modly did next was all wrong. Flying to Guam to address the sailors was a great idea -- a good leader should always consider those on the front lines and address them directly during a crisis. But his message should have been something like this: We are sorry that the necessary removal of Captain Crozier for violating U.S. military rules has left you with even greater uncertainty during this difficult time. We are doing everything we can to make you safe. We know that all of you will do your duty, and your nation is grateful to you for your service and sacrifice.
"Too naive or too stupid."
Instead, Modly made a speech whose main subject was Thomas Modly and the many justifications for his own actions. We know this because audio of the speech was leaked, and both the audio and a transcript have been published online. He begins with a lengthy explanation of why he hasn't visited the ship sooner. Next comes a lengthier rehashing of why Crozier had to go. Modly explains that Crozier likely knew his email would wind up in the press, and that if he didn't he was "too too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this" -- a comment that's been quoted far and wide. It's ironic that Modly didn't seem to consider that a speech he made to thousands of sailors was even likelier to show up in the media than Crozier's email was.
After a small detour to blame China for the coronavirus, Modly returns to his main subject -- himself. He quotes his own 2018 speech to the graduating Naval Academy class. He talks about the "hate and pure evil" he and his family have experienced over removing Crozier. Finally, nearly at the end of the speech and almost in passing, he says what he should have begun with: "We will get you the help you need. You have my personal word on it." He ends, half-heartedly, with the standard signoff, "Go Navy." In 15 minutes and 6 seconds, he put a decisive end to his own career.
The lesson for other leaders is a simple one. These are trying times, and in trying times there is always a danger that your emotions will overcome your judgment. Attacked from all sides, Modly clearly felt defensive and angry, and those feelings drove him to justify himself as best he could to the people he was supposed to lead.
Did he talk any of this out with a mentor or advisor first? Did he write out the speech and give it to someone to review? We can't know, but I would guess if he'd done either of those things his message to the sailors might have been very different.
Next time you're in the midst of a crisis, feeling angry, frightened, or put-upon, take a pause before you express your thoughts to the people in your organization. Vent your emotions to a trusted advisor or friend, and get an opinion from someone you trust. Remind yourself that moments like these are why not everyone can be an effective leader. Then give the people who work for you the message they need to hear -- not the one you need to get off your chest.