Talented mid-level RCN leaders show the way

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Crowsnest - Summer 2017 / July 12, 2017

By Darlene Blakeley

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”

This quote from John C. Maxwell is a perfect description of what it means to be a leader in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

Over the past few months wide-ranging global activity, high expectations and a superior quality of response have showcased the capabilities, drive and talent of those mid-level leaders (both officers and non-commissioned members) who could be the next generation of senior leadership in the RCN.

Whether it be working with children in Sierra Leone, seizing illicit drugs off the coast of Central America, circumnavigating North America in the RCN’s only commissioned sailing ship, creating a new tactical operations group and training with North African partners, or completing intense workups to get a submarine ready for operations with allies, these leaders have raised the bar of trust, teamwork and mentorship to extraordinary levels.

“The RCN is committed to building leaders at every level and the high intensity of recent activity both at home and abroad has provided opportunities for mid-level leaders to put their extensive training and unique capabilities into action. They are what right looks like,” says Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, Commander RCN. “I couldn’t be prouder of what they have accomplished and what it means for our future fleet.”

Leadership means leading by example

Deployed on Neptune-Trident 17-01 in West Africa this spring, Lieutenant-Commander Nicole Robichaud, commanding officer of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Moncton, set the example for her crew. Not only did they participate in maritime training exercises designed to improve cooperation among participating nations in the Gulf of Guinea, they also worked ashore to help improve the lives of local residents.

“In Freetown, Sierra Leone, I was very fortunate to host the United Nations Woman’s Ambassadors group onboard our ship,” LCdr Robichaud says. “Female crew members and I learned what it was like to be a woman in Sierra Leone. We had the honour to speak with local young women and female dignitaries to learn more about how women are overcoming adversity and promoting equal rights so that future generations of women can succeed. I have been fortunate throughout my career, so sharing my story and possibly influencing or inspiring young women, is truly moving.”

In Monrovia, Liberia, she took the crew to a community called West Point, the poorest and most densely populated area of the country. It houses over 80,000 people and was hit hard by the Ebola crisis.

“We went to the local school in the area that teaches about 1,500 students,” she explains. “The school was closed down during the Ebola crisis and opened up as an Ebola Crisis Centre. Our crew refurbished their basketball court, fixed desks and painted the classroom floors. The students, teachers and counsellors all helped out. The crew was amazing, approaching every task with open eyes and pushing to get as much done possible in the short amount of time that we were there. Afterwards, we played a game of soccer where there were about 1,000 children watching and cheering us on.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Sylvie Simoneau, Moncton’s coxswain, was captivated by the children. “Working with the kids was the most fascinating connection one could ever have. It didn’t matter where we were, the kids were always happy to see us and they knew we were there for them. We worked, read and played with them. I feel that I have made a difference to them with the help of an amazing commanding officer and crew.”

Also deployed on Neptune-Trident was HMCS Summerside, commanded by LCdr Paul Smith. The ship’s crew worked with Spanish, Moroccan, French, Senegalese and Sierra Leonean warships, and also represented Canada as a “floating embassy”, hosting military and civilian officials from several nations including China, Russia, Mali, South Africa, Ghana, Togo and the United Kingdom.

Crew members also demonstrated Canadian values by conducting outreach engagements such as repairing a generator at an orphanage for young girls who lost both parents during the Ebola outbreak, providing donations to elementary schools in need, and supporting youth organizations that are themselves providing support to their communities through education and mentorship.

“Without a doubt, this has been the most spiritually rewarding experience of my career,” says LCdr Smith. “The RCN has never had ships alongside in these countries before, and it was an eye-opening experience for myself and my ship’s company. Distinct countries with their own cultural and historical differences, the Western African nations we visited all share the same determination to improve the lives of their people.”

Leadership means inspiring teamwork

On the other side of the world, HMCS Saskatoon patrolled the Eastern Pacific as part of Operation Caribbe, Canada’s contribution to an international counter-narcotics operation.

In March, Saskatoon seized 660 kilograms of cocaine, and then in April another 460 kilograms, in international waters in the eastern Pacific in just two of several drug interdictions during the mission. In both cases, the ship intercepted suspicious vessels initially spotted by maritime patrol aircraft. Saskatoon launched a rigid-hulled inflatable boat with an embarked United States Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment team to halt the panga-style vessels, which were then boarded and the suspected smugglers apprehended. Several bales of cocaine were recovered from both the panga and the ocean after the suspected smugglers attempted to jettison their cargo.

LCdr Todd Bacon, Saskatoon’s commanding officer, says this impressive achievement comes down to preparation and teamwork. “I am extremely pleased to see that the great training the crew has received in recent months came together for a successful interdiction in support of regional stability.”

He adds that the dedication and hard work of the crew of Saskatoon during Op Caribbe has been “incredibly rewarding” to see. “Saskatoon sailed from Esquimalt, B.C., with a new crew in January 2017 and through hard work and excellence in training, they have grown together and performed seamlessly in theatre. Their ability to work together operationally has enabled international joint operations, ultimately reducing the volume of drugs reaching North America.”

The ship’s executive officer, Lieutenant (Navy) Christopher Shook, says he has learned first-hand the challenges facing the ship’s commanding officer over the course of the deployment. “Being the XO of a Canadian ship on an international deployment has helped me understand the challenges my superiors face and better prepared me to assist them.”

His thoughts are echoed by the ship’s coxswain, Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Dagenais. “Throughout Operation Caribbe, the crew has remained focused and vigilant, aided by the unwavering dedication of HMCS Saskatoon’s leadership. Personnel of all ranks and trades worked tirelessly to ensure their subordinates were well rested so they could continue to achieve mission success.”

Leadership means inspiring and mentoring junior leaders

LCdr Wil Lund is the commanding officer of the RCN’s new Maritime Tactical Operations Group, or MTOG. Since its inception in 2014, MTOG has deployed four maritime interdiction teams on international deployments and also contributed to training events with partner navies, capacity-building tasks and exercises in numerous countries around the globe, as well as across Canada.

The team recently completed a series of activities in Tunisia, Liberia and Sierra Leone as part of the RCN’s engagement strategy. MTOG worked in the area to enhance partner capabilities in planning, command and control, tactical movement and combined operations with foreign nations.

“The critical component in the success of MTOG’s operations hinges on the significant mentorship and development of its junior leaders to operate in a small team environment,” says LCdr Lund. “The trust these members have earned to conduct these operations independently and with limited oversight is a direct result of their ability to understand and execute the commander’s intent in volatile, uncertain, chaotic or ambiguous situations.”

The greatest challenge for LCdr Lund was the unit’s first 12 months of operation. During this period the MTOG was tasked to select, train and equip a 10-member team in time to support operations with HMCS Winnipeg. 

“This was an incredibly busy, almost frantic, time for the original 12 MTOG members who were constantly challenged with obstacles and problems that none had encountered before, or even expected,” he says. “This original team showed outstanding leadership, creativity and determination in solving problems, while also ensuring that MTOG delivered the capability as tasked and on time.”

Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Brent Bethell, the MTOG’s unit chief petty officer, agrees. “Being part of a team of highly motivated goal-orientated personnel, continually problem-solving and being creative in resource management opened my eyes to how effective an inspired team can be, regardless of rank level.”

Leadership means working together to achieve common goals

After an intense training program, Her Majesty’s Canadian Submarine Windsor transited the Atlantic earlier this year, participating in Exercise Joint Warrior and visiting Faslane, Scotland and Lisbon, Portugal. After the port visits, the sub transited to the western coast of Spain to participate in Trident Juncture and its first exercise was to conduct a Special Forces rendezvous and insertion.

“Weeks of training, coordination and hard work paid off and the pick-up and insertion went flawlessly,” says LCdr Peter Chu, Windsor’s commanding officer. “I remember in the middle of the night talking to the Special Forces team leader just before the insertion, who expressed numerous times what an awesome team Windsor had and what an incredible experience it was for his team. I was extremely proud of my crew, how far they had come, the sacrifices they had made and how we had all come together.”

He says that as a commanding officer he realizes that the operational schedule, training program and assigned missions are not the highlights of command. Instead they’re “the enablers that develop camaraderie, cohesiveness, teamwork and most importantly, a strong bond.”

“I have been extremely privileged and humbled to have had the opportunity to command extraordinary submariners, and it is these relationships that I have built over the past three years that I cherish the most and will continue to cherish once my command is over,” LCdr Chu says.

Leadership means overcoming challenges together

The RCN’s only commissioned sailing ship, HMCS Oriole, is facing its own challenges during a 10,000 nautical mile voyage from CFB Esquimalt to Nova Scotia. As part of celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, the ship will visit 27 ports of call in its longest deployment since 1998.

The first leg of its journey was particularly challenging as Oriole encountered un-forecasted 50-knot southerly winds, which both halted the ship progress to San Diego, Calif., and presented a significant challenge for the majority of the crew who had never sailed prior to being assigned to Oriole. 

“Preparing the ship for this voyage to the East Coast has been particularly challenging,” says LCdr Michael Wills, Oriole’s commanding officer. “Ensuring the ship and its company were ready took many months of surveys, maintenance and crew training. This effort required dedication from the ship’s company, technical authorities, fleet maintenance and other Canadian maritime industry technicians, and above all the support of our families. Departing on the voyage April 16 was the culmination of this effort and was particularity rewarding.”

PO1 Jason Bode, who took over as Oriole’s coxswain in January, says that despite having extensive sea time in other RCN ships, it was “a steep learning curve” as he joined in the midst of preparing for this six-month deployment. Once at sea however, he quickly learned his duties as officer of the watch while under sail and found his respect for the entire crew growing as they faced challenges together.

“I am very impressed at the crew’s determination and teamwork,” he says. “This level of commitment is what we need to ensure we arrive safely and demonstrate our professionalism as ambassadors of Canada and the RCN.”

Leadership means preparing for future fleet

The diverse and challenging activities of these RCN ships over the past few months have highlighted the ability, dedication and commitment of their mid-level commanding officers and senior non-commissioned members.

“As the RCN prepares for the future fleet and new classes of ships, it’s great to know they will be in good hands,” says VAdm Lloyd. “Our young leaders have shown they are more than capable of taking on the big tasks. Along the way they are demonstrating that leading by example, taking care of their people and mentoring those under their command enables them not only to achieve mission success, but also to pave the way for future generations of dedicated leaders.”