LCDR Kurt Albaugh grew up in Vermont and New York. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science in English, with Distinction. He holds master’s degrees from George Mason University in English and from Georgetown University in Security Studies (with Honors).
At sea, he served in USS McCLUSKY (FFG 41), USS CARNEY (DDG 64), and USS WAYNE E. MEYER (DDG 108). Selected for Early Command, he served as Executive Officer and subsequently commanded USS DEVASTATOR (MCM 6) while forward-deployed.
Ashore, LCDR Albaugh served as an Instructor in the Naval Academy English Department and as Director of the Naval Academy’s Writing Center. He currently serves as Speechwriter for the Chief of Naval Operations.
LCDR Albaugh’s awards include the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (gold star in lieu of four awards), the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, and various unit, campaign, and service awards. He is proud to have served with teams that earned the Battenberg Cup and the Spokane Trophy. He is also a recipient of the Surface Navy Association’s Arleigh Burke Award for Operational Excellence.
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
Failure builds empathy – it equips us to lead teams through failure or apparent failure. Empathy produces better outcomes in the long term than “zero defect” cultures. I’ve served restriction, been fired off the Bridge, and been through other tough moments. I think people who have not failed – or, more importantly, who stay out of the arena and therefore can’t fail – lose out on some valuable experiences that can then be used to help develop other people. There are some missions that are “no-fail,” but the Navy provides plenty of opportunities to fail in training and preparation before having to do those things for real.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
There is a quote from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Book I, Chapter XVII). One translation is: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I think everyone in the military benefits from reading the Stoics, although similar concepts can easily be found elsewhere.
The military profession is fundamentally pessimistic. That pessimism is not created by personalities, but by its core task: to be successful as a fighting force, we must constantly imagine and plan for a series of worst-case scenarios.
I struggled – and still do struggle – to maintain my natural optimism under these circumstances. But I think doing so is a critical part of my leadership style.
For me, the quote speaks to welcoming challenge – and seeking to develop opportunities out of those challenges. I think that’s the best way to be an optimist in a pessimistic profession. This concept was important enough that “Welcoming Challenge” became a tenet of my Command Philosophy in DEVASTATOR.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
My routine changes depending on the circumstances. I am, however, a morning person by nature. But beyond the changes that different times, places, and billets demand, there are are two fixed and unchanging elements of my routine: a shower and reading the news.
I’m an introvert, so I tend to gain mental clarity when I’m alone. When I was in command, doing some reading and doing some thinking – in the shower – on the drive into work – helped me “lay a mental fix” before I got to the ship.
Some solitary time before getting to work (or before opening my cabin door) has always helped make sure I start the day asking the right questions.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO? What advice should they ignore?
You will likely go through periods where you consider options outside of the Navy (or outside of the Surface Community). What’s more, you should! The Navy wants you to critically evaluate risk and reward. The Navy values officers who keenly apply judgment and critical thinking. So it would be disingenuous to expect that you don’t do so with respect to your own career. These periods of introspection are at least as likely to strengthen your commitment to the Navy as they could lead you down another path.
Relatedly, whether you serve for 4 years or 40 years, work as hard as you can at whatever you’re doing in the present moment. It may be difficult to see how your current Navy job might translate into something you’re interested in outside of the Navy, but I guarantee that the personal and professional development will help you whatever you choose to do. And, if you decide to keep at a naval career, your focus will ensure the best position to get the next job you want. As for me, the Navy – and the Surface Navy in particular – has given me the opportunity to do meaningful and interesting work and that’s why I’m still here.
Be open to experiences. Many times, my career has been shaped by outside forces and I ended up doing something I didn’t expect. I think embracing whatever that was (Midshipman Albaugh would neither have expected nor wanted to serve multiple tours in an Engineering Department) has helped me, both professionally and psychologically – this goes back to the Aurelius quote and welcoming challenges.
Don’t be risk-averse. I selected USS McCLUSKY (FFG 41) as my first ship at the Naval Academy. A junior Lieutenant who taught my Tactics course spoke highly of his experience on board a Frigate and that stuck with me. Another Frigate was not selected for over one hundred people, and several senior officers advised me not to go there – that choice was portrayed to me as a risky move for a new SWO. It couldn’t have worked out better! I achieved qualifications I likely would not have on a different ship, and that set me up for everything I did after. I also had discussions with a number of peers who viewed Early Command as too risky. I disagree. For one, the statistics from PERS-41 regarding screening for Commander Command indicate it improves your chances, holding all other things equal. For two, if you really want to command, why wait? Just as with everything else, this doesn’t mean you should take risks needlessly or without evaluating them. However, boldness and daring are things we should celebrate – be open to advice but be willing to stick with a decision that makes sense to you.
The only advice people should ignore is that which encourages dismissing the advice of others out of hand. Cast a wide net for advice. Seek diverse and opposing views. You will necessarily choose some advice over others, but it’s important to get as many perspectives as you can. This mitigates bad mentorship: telling protégés to do something just because we did it, without considering whether or not that path is suited for the protégé we are mentoring.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
As a book-lover, this is the hardest question! I taught a course on the Literature of the Sea at the Naval Academy. I can’t recommend any of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian enough. We read Master and Commander in my course. They are crammed with historic details but you will also gain a new appreciation for how deeply the language and idioms used by Sailors are embedded in the English language, to say nothing of insights into Sailors, tactics, and command.
How do you set priorities and manage time?
I’ve used a number of different methods for productivity – I’ve used the Bullet Journal and the Action Method to help track tasks. Techniques should be flexible in the face of changing circumstances. Overall, I prefer hand-writing priorities and schedules rather than digital tools – the act of writing helps embed goals in my mind.
What is your most effective daily habit?
I think the most effective daily habit anyone can have is to find a moment to be grateful for something. Especially in our line of work, a moment of gratitude can help defuse stress, long hours, or tough circumstances. It lends perspective, and I think it help us be our best selves for others.
How do you define success?
I would define success for our Navy in terms of deterrence: if we’re doing our job well, then conflict won’t occur in the first place. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.”
Personally, I define success as taking part in meaningful, interesting work with a team and having a rich family life.