It Is The Critic That Counts…Wait, What?


Actually I really like the quote from President Theodore Roosevelt about “The Man in the Arena.” I like it so much I included it in my change of command speech when I was leaving USS KEY WEST (SSN 722). I wanted my crew to know that we had fought the good fight together. We had fought our way out of the shipyard, we had fought our way through a Western Pacific Deployment and secret missions I am not even allowed to think about anymore. We had fought our way through many “battles” together and it was not the critic who counts when that critic wasn’t in the arena with us. But I am talking about another form of criticism. Some would call it Constructive Criticism. I call it just what I needed. (If you are from the 1980’s like me, you just cued up The Cars song in your head, didn’t you? Sorry but it’s good tune.)
Okay, back to the critic and a sea story or two. If you are wondering why I am writing this, it’s because I believe too many leaders try too hard to be liked instead of being respected. One way that belief manifests itself is in indirect or soft feedback or no feedback at all. In general, I have found that people don’t like to give feedback on personal performance especially when it needs improvement. Well, let me tell you. That is not the case in the US Navy.
In Spring of 1992 I had been in the Navy less than a year. I had been to Officer Candidate School where a person kind of expects to get yelled at but it’s all part of the training. No big deal. We had some good drill instructors who could lay down some pretty colorful “feedback” but again it was just the training environment that you expected there. So, no big deal. You learn to just brace up and not screw up again. It was not much tougher than my high school basketball coach after losing a game or my Dad’s butt chewing if he got a call from the School Principal.
At this point I had been through Nuclear Power School where we studied the theoretical aspects of operating a nuclear propulsion plant. It was a fairly academic environment and as long as your grades were okay you were left alone. But in May of 1992 I arrived at Nuclear Prototype Training Unit, Idaho Falls, Idaho for hands on training. The first six weeks were fairly academic as we learned the systems of the S5G nuclear power plant (also known as the big ketchup bottle – inside joke). Then we moved “In Hull” where we had to learn the systems more thoroughly through hand over hand tracing out of piping systems, memorizing procedures, drawing one line sketches of systems, and standing watch under instruction of a qualified watch stander. All this activity had to result in a “checkout” from a qualified staff member where we got their signature on our qualification card. Here I discovered what the Greeks would call my “Tragic Flaw.”
I did not like criticism and feeling like I was stupid. I had always been a pretty good student. I studied hard and did well on exams. But, these check outs were a whole different ball of wax. First of all, we had only been exposed (no pun intended) to Naval Nuclear Power for about 7 months at this point compared to these staff members who were qualified and had months if not years more experience. Secondly, there was only so much time (about 15 weeks) to learn every system on a nuclear power plant well enough to pass these oral examinations and then take several written tests and then a final oral board. That’s not a lot of time. It was stressful and was designed to be so. If you couldn’t handle this, you weren’t going to be able to handle going to sea and potentially into combat. In fact, while I was in Idaho, one of our classmates pulled a gun out of a gym bag and threatened to blow his brains out at the security checkpoint just to get out of this training. At the time, people said it was fairly routine for an attempted suicide every class. No big deal…wow. Finally, I just plain didn’t like feeling stupid. And these sailors who gave a majority of the checkouts were masters at making those of us who were qualifying feel stupid.
So as you might imagine, I started falling behind in my qualifications. Don’t get me wrong. I was studying hard. In fact, too hard. I wanted to know everything so I didn’t feel stupid when I went for checkouts. You see, part of the game was for the interviewer to test your knowledge on the basics and if you had those down pat, then he would probe a little deeper until he found out the limit of your knowledge. If you had the basics you would be given a few “look ups” and sent off to learn them and then come back with the looked up information. Then you got his signature on your qualification card and you “made progress.” The message behind the process was that no matter how much you had learned you can always learn more. So these look ups were part of the game and to be expected. But I didn’t really get that at the time nor did I like having to go off to get look ups. I wanted to know so much that they patted me on the head and said “Good job, little Bobby, you did very well. No look ups.” Of course, that was never going to happen. They always knew more than me. Dammit.
So I fell behind my expected progress curve. I got called out one day by the Training Petty Officer. He was a salty old dog. He was what we called a “sea returnee.” He had been out to sea on a submarine. The man knew his stuff. He was not one to mess around with. He pulled me aside and said, “Sir, with all due respect, you are sucking hind tit. I am going to have to put you on a remedial program if you don’t square away.” What?!? You can’t say that to me I thought. That’s disrespecting a senior officer and according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t realize that the US Navy Submarine Force Supreme Court had ruled that anytime a person used “With all due respect” before saying something, it negated any disrespect. And besides, it was the truth. Dammit. {Of course, there is no such thing as a US Navy Submarine Force Supreme Court but if there were that would be their first ruling I am sure.}
So now I had to deal with this issue. I had two choices. I could whine like a little baby about being mistreated and criticized and go look for my safe zone. Or, I could buckle down, get over myself and get some darn checkouts. Well, every day I would wake up and go to work and think about what that Petty Officer said to me. These were 12 hour days on shift work with a 3-hour round trip bus ride to ponder such things. I was not going to let this beat me. I decided if feeling stupid every single day was the price I had to pay not to suck hind tit, then so be it. By the way, I had grown up on a hog farm, so sucking hind tit was an expression that meant a lot to me. If you are offended by that phrase, I suggest you re-read this article until you are not.
So, I learned to get the basics of a system down quickly. Then I would study a little extra and go for it. I got thrown out of a few checkouts for being too stupid to even understand the basics. But, man, I started making great progress. I ended up finishing first in my class and was asked to stay on as a staff instructor. It was quite a turnaround story in short period of time. None of that would have happened if that Petty Officer had not called me out and provided “criticism.” I can’t remember his name now but I remember his face and his words like it was yesterday and it’s been 25 years.
So what’s my point you may be asking. Well, here are the lessons I learned and have applied to the best of my ability over the last two decades:
1. Be direct and look for opportunity to give feedback to people under you that need it. They won’t always want it and may not like you much because of it. Try to do it in private (something I have struggled with actually). The adage “Praise in public. Criticize in private.” is a good one. But, regardless, don’t let your desire to be popular overcome your leadership duty to help those under your charge. If that Petty Officer had just let me continue down my chosen path, I may not have ever graduated Nuclear Prototype Training. He literally changed the course of my life. I doubt if he had said nicely “Ensign Koonce, you are behind in your qualifications, Sir.” I would have even taken notice. But, he got my attention with his stinging assessment of my situation. Not everyone reacts the same way to criticism, so know your audience, but silence is negligence in Leadership.
2. In relation to the above statement about everyone reacting a little different, know your people well enough to know how to bring them the criticism they need to hear. I don’t know if he knew I was from a hog farm or not. Perhaps it was just coincidence. But, the lesson is that some people need to be provoked with sharp words. Some need an arm around their shoulder and a disappointed look on your face with a statement about their shortcoming. You need to read the situation. But, withholding the feedback is never the right thing to do as a leader.
3. No matter how experienced someone is, don’t think that they don’t need to hear direct feedback on their performance. In my five years and three companies since leaving the Navy, I have yet to receive one performance report. I have worked for good companies and good bosses but this has been disappointing to say the least. I know I have things to work on. Everyone does. We are even experiencing a business fad where entire companies are doing away with performance appraisals. I think this is ludicrous. I will save that full discussion for another article. But, let me just say that people of all ages need to get feedback so they can get better. Period.
4. If you aren’t feeling stupid on a periodic basis, you aren’t trying to learn anything new. I still don’t like feeling stupid, but I know it means I am learning. The main reason some people’s careers stall out is that they stop trying to learn new skills or new information. They stay in their comfort zones and avoid any pain.
So it’s not the critic who counts. Unless that critic is your boss or mentor and he or she is trying to help you. Then it is the critic who counts and you should listen up and learn from what they have to say. If you are a leader, look for opportunities to help others with areas they need to improve. Don’t hold back your criticism or you might miss the opportunity to positively change their life. And to Petty Officer John Doe who called me out all those years ago, with all due respect, thank you. You were a true leader.
Bob Koonce served for over 20 years in the U.S. Submarine Force and retired from active duty in 2011 after commanding USS KEY WEST (SSN 722), a nuclear submarine based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Bob frequently speaks and writes on Operational Excellence and High Reliability Organizations based on the leadership and culture of the U.S. Nuclear Navy. He is co-author of Extreme Operational Excellence: Applying the US Nuclear Submarine Culture to your Organization available on You can learn more by visiting