Captain Tom Ogden is a 1998 graduate from the United States Naval Academy and holds a Masters of Arts in Strategic Studies from Georgetown University. He is also an alumni of the White House Fellows program.
Afloat, he served aboard USS DULUTH (LPD 6), USS PAUL HAMILTON (DDG 60), USS KIDD (DDG 100), and USS MOBILE BAY (CG 53). His most recent sea tour was as Executive Officer and Commanding Officer of USS CHUNG-HOON (DDG 93), deploying to the Western Pacific Ocean and earning the 2016 Battle Effectiveness Award and the Secretary of the Navy Safety Excellence Award.
Ashore, he has served at Joint Interagency Task Force South in Key West, Fla., leading the United States’ Counter narco-terrorist operations in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Oceans and Central and South America. Serving temporary duty at Commander, Third Fleet, he assisted planning and developing their Maritime Operations Center. He served at U.S. Pacific Command as the Executive Assistant to the Director for Operations and as a Future Operations Planner, and at U.S. Pacific Fleet as the Director of the Strategic Initiatives Group and Special Assistant to the Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet. He most recently served as a White House Fellow, where he was the Special Assistant to the Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.His awards and decorations include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Battle Efficiency (3 Awards), Joint Meritorious Unit Citation (3 awards), Humanitarian Service Medal, and other individual and unit awards. He is the co-author of the professional naval book “Division Officer’s Guide.”
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
This is a question of leadership, philosophy, teamwork, and for some of us parenting also. As professional military officers we are tasked with a number of ‘no-fail’ missions, which may seem to run counter to how this question is asked. If we have to complete no fail missions, how do we absorb failure at times for later success? Surface Warfare Officers often need to balance the following factors:
how to accomplish the mission
how to lead and train those around you
how to involve the proper teammates
how to take the right risks based on the situation
That’s not easy to do in most cases. Personally, I have tried to separate mission failure from task failure through a more tangible risk definition. In nautical terms, I classify risk as “risk below the waterline” and “risk above the waterline.” This may be too simple an analogy, but taken literally, a ship can take damage above the waterline and still remain afloat to accomplish the mission, whereas if a ship sustains enough damage below the waterline, the result is almost certain mission failure with the ship sinking. We should all look for opportunities to take informed risks “above the waterline,” while seeking to limit the amount of unjustifiable risk “below the waterline.”
A quick story on personal failure. In one of my first assignments as conning officer as an Ensign on USS DULUTH (LPD 6), the pilot embarked at the Coronado Bay Bridge and instead of the routine speed of no more than 5-7 knots after the bridge, he asked to increase to 10 kts. The Captain agreed and I gave the order. We increased speed and continued the transit. As we approached the slip and tried to slow down, we had not taken action early enough to take the added speed off and ended up dropping the anchor to try to slow, impacting the pier with our stbd bow, and doing damage to the pier and ripping multiple stanchions off the ship. It was my first big failure in the Navy and I’m fortunate enough to have had a Captain who helped me learn from it. We went on serving together on the ship for 20 months, deploying to CENTCOM and responding to USS COLE (DDG 67) in Yemen after they were attacked. Many conning officers in the late 1990s (maybe it still is this way today with some Junior Officers), felt like we were just parrots of the commands of the Captain and Harbor Pilots. But from that experience, I told myself that I never again wanted to feel like a ‘parrot’ and dependent on anyone else to control the ship no matter what. So I sought to constantly practice and learn so that I wouldn’t be in that situation again, while also gaining enough experience to allow learning of those around me without being in a mishap again.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
“The questions worth asking are those without answers.” I think this is just an adaptation of Socratic teachings that resonates with me. It’s about seeking a deeper understanding of issues by constantly digging for more and challenging what you think you know.
“Sow a thought, reap an act,
Sow an act, reap a habit,
Sow a habit, reap a lifestyle,
Sow a lifestyle, reap a destiny.”
I’m not sure who this is attributed to initially, but I first came across it when I was presented the book “Ethics for the Junior Officer” for one of my classes at the Naval Academy and something I have kept close since then.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
I’m not the best with routines, but for the last 10 years, except while underway, I have always checked my twitter timeline first thing in the morning when my alarm goes off and I’m still in bed. It’s my review of what is going on in the world, or maybe better stated, a 10-15 minute overview of the headlines or snippets of what I think is a diverse set of people and organizations. I have sought to follow many entities to try to see all sides, but I would love to know what my blindspots still are. Do you have an app for that? One other routine is that each January I try to run for at least 30 minutes at a time, 100 days in a row. Most of the time it is in the morning when I do that as well.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO?
Be you and be the best you. We all have different personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Some of us can naturally think more critically than others, naturally run faster, naturally understand physics, etc. But we all make a choice about the effort that we give. If you choose to do something, choose to do it well and commit everything to being the best at it.
Between the ages of 15-25, there is a lot of personal growth where humans are figuring out who they are as people and professionals. There is a lot of change that happens in that time also. Young SWOs fit in that age group and are thrown in to lead others who are also around that same age. Try to learn every day, but you have to figure out who you are. The pressure of leadership will squeeze out anything that is fake, so it’s better to just be yourself while trying to become a better version of yourself each day as well.
Don’t ignore any advice, but you don’t have to follow it all either!
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
Next question. Should I be embarrassed that I have not given many books out as gifts? I have recommended plenty and given out all of the copies of Division Officer’s Guide that USNI gave to me for helping to write it so that is the book I have given out most I guess. Some of my favorites:
-“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman
-“The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli
-“The Virtues of War” by Stephen Pressfield
-“The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur” by Richard Haass
-“Arms and Influence” by Thomas Schelling
How do you set priorities and manage your time?
Two way different methods on this one: professional and personal. Professional time is mainly dependent on the job/position and what is required—long term and short term—in order to achieve the goals of the command. If you are in a middle management staff position, setting priorities for your personal time is a lot different than when you are the leader of an organization or an advisor to the leader. A mantra I try to always keep in mind is “Don’t let the urgent overcome the important.” I think that guidance is pertinent no matter your position. From times in the PACOM J3 office where urgency was many times what was required, you must always keep a steady eye as far on the horizon as possible to ensure the urgent issues always support the important long-term priorities. I’m not sure I’ve gotten that right all the time either.
Personal management is a bit different. This is dependent on numerous factors (work schedule/deployments, kids’ activities/school events, stress levels) and takes constant adjustment in real time. I’m fortunate enough to have an awesome spouse and kids—I think they do better without me around than with me around! But we all need to be there for each other and need to change our priorities to support each other as required. Sometimes maybe I need to leave work early to watch the soccer game or swim meet. Sometimes maybe my wife and I need an extra hour to have breakfast together during the week. I’m not sure there is a math equation for this one that I can make routine.
I don’t have a tool/app that I exclusively use. Outlook, Google calendar, handwritten reminders, I use it all to keep things managed.
What is your most effective daily habit?
Say “I love you” to my wife and kids every time I talk to them on the phone, in the morning before leaving for work, or before going to sleep.
How do you define success?
Perfection? Learning? Growing? Good enough? Hard to answer this one (see favorite quotes above…). Each situation might require a different definition of success. Sometimes “good enough” is success. Sometimes “perfect” is success and anything less is failure. Personally, I’m addicted to and fascinated by the process and practice, not the product. Though sometimes you have to get the product right and not necessarily the practice. I would offer that if you get the practice right, more often than not it will result in success of the product also. Using SWO terms, we all are taught that the amount of anchor chain to use for anchoring is 5-7 times the depth of water. I carry that over to what it takes to be successful. If you want to do something well, spend 5-7 times practicing and preparing compared to the amount of time to execute it. If a brief takes 1 hour to give, you probably need to practice giving it for 5 hours to do it well. This isn’t always the case, but there is a very high likelihood of success if you do that. And in that practice, you will not only gain a significant amount of knowledge and expertise, but will also develop habits of success which then carry over to anything you do.