Captain Bob Bryans enlisted in the United States Navy in 1987 and is a 1996 graduate of Old Dominion University. He holds a master’s degree in national security affairs (Middle East/Africa) from the Naval Post-graduate School. He is a native of Cohoes, New York.
He is a surface warfare officer whose sea assignments include commanding officer and executive officer, USS PREBLE (DDG 88); chief engineer, combat systems officer and weapons officer, USS VICKSBURG (CG 69); fire control officer, USS ANZIO (CG 68); and first lieutenant, USS THORN (DD 988). He has completed deployments and participated in named operations in every Combatant Command theater of operation.
Assignments ashore include assistant chief of staff for C5I/Cyber (N6) and Surface Warfare Enterprise personnel analyst (N1), at commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. He served as strategic analyst and executive officer, resources directorate (J1/8), at U.S. Africa Command; and deputy director of system engineering and integration for international activities (Europe, Israel and the Middle East) at the Missile Defense Agency.
Captain Bryans most recently served as executive assistant to commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.
His personal decorations include various service medals and unit awards.
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
Failure has set me up for success on quite a few occasions (because I’ve had quite a few failures!).
For failure to lead to any kind of success, I’d say it has to first be acknowledged and understood, and then effectively dealt with, so as not to be a problem in the future. That may mean the elimination of a bad habit, addressing a flaw in one’s character, a change in one’s mindset, or an adjustment to one’s attitude or perception of reality.
Fact is, we all experience failure; personal failures and professional failures. Some failures haunt us for years, while some may not bother us at all. As a junior officer, I experienced the professional failure of not passing my first SWO board. I was devastated. I was embarrassed. I felt as though I let a lot of people down, especially the department heads who invested time into my development and, most of all, my captain, whom I greatly admired. That particular failure was hard to get over – it hung around my neck like a heavy weight until I finally qualified a few months later. I’ve had personal failures too. Some took a long time to understand; some much longer still to address and get over.
But we’re human. We make mistakes. We fail. We have to accept that we’re not perfect. Theologians might say that we are not – and cannot – exist in God’s “Perfect Will,” because we are not perfect. Instead, we live in God’s “Permissive Will.” That is, the existence God permits, where there is room – grace – to make mistakes and experience failure.
Bottom line: I believe it is important to acknowledge that to “err is human” – that we all fail. When you fail, like I have so many times, take time to figure out where you went wrong. Once you understand your failure, make the necessary adjustments to avoid the same failure in the future, and then, most importantly, move on – don’t let failure drag you down. Move on to success.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
I’m not sure that I live by any particular quotes, but there are a few that pop into my head every so often. The first is by the early-20th century British writer, philosopher, and critic, G.K. Chesterton. In his book What’s Wrong with the World, Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
I’ve held onto this quote over the years because it is truth with a capital “T” hitting me square in the face. It is a reminder that my inability to live the Christian life has everything to do with me, and very little to do with the Christian ideal. Thus, it motivates me to persevere and strive for the ideal.
As a young kid, I was fascinated by the Revolutionary War. Two quotes from that era continue to challenge me as an American and as a naval officer. The first were the final words spoken by American patriot and spy, Nathan Hale, before he was hanged by the British in 1776. “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
And then there are the words of John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to fight!” I can still remember the picture in my social studies book of Jones onboard Bonhamme Richard battling Serapis. I could sit for hours – and did – looking at pictures and reading Revolutionary War history. Now whether Jones ever really said any of what has been attributed to him is irrelevant. His words, and those of Nathan Hale, remain important reminders of sacrifice and commitment.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
When on the ship at sea my morning routine depends on the ship’s operational schedule, but normally I wake up an hour ahead of reveille and go to the bridge. I get my head around the picture, sit in my chair, drink a cup of coffee left over from the mid-watch, and read any important message traffic that’s come in overnight. Afterward I head down to combat and talk to the TAO and harass the watchstanders before eating breakfast in the Wardroom.
When not at sea, whether serving in a ship or shore assignment, I start the day at home with the local newspaper. No matter where I’m stationed, I subscribe to the local newspaper to stay aware of what’s happening in my local area. During baseball season, I read the box scores before anything else. That was something my dad and I did when I was a kid. By 5th grade, I could easily rattle off the lineups and player statistics of every team in the American League East, as well as any other team threatening the Yankees!
Prior to leaving my house for the ship, I also read the morning report from my command duty officer.
Once on the ship, I review my list of current actions (sort of my ‘to do’ list) and big rocks (the major planning events I am tracking). At that point, I am ready to dive into emails and message traffic, and to carry out the plan of the day.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO?
My first commanding officer told us junior officers: “Have fun! When you stop having fun, you’ll know it’s time to move onto something else.” That was good advice, although when I was a young officer it was not always clear to me whether or not I was having fun!
Beyond having fun, which I do believe is important, my advice to junior officers is to take calculated risks. When I was in commander command, I heard Admiral Swift, then commander, Seventh Fleet, give an amazing talk on risk. I won’t attempt a regurgitation of his words, but I will say two things about taking risk. First, don’t be afraid to act. Action always involves some measure risk. When considering an action – know the requirements, build a plan that is executable, communicate your plan to all involved – and act.
Second, don’t be afraid to fail. Again, going back to taking a calculated risk, there is always a chance that you will fail. That’s fine. Weigh the risk, and understand the consequences. Know when the risk is not worth the cost. When the risk is worth it, and you understand what is required and have a plan that is executable, communicate your plan and don't let the potential for failure prevent you from taking action.
As for advice to ignore…I don’t know. I would say listen and learn from everyone. Give everyone a fair shot before deciding to ignore their advice.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
By far the book I’ve most often given away is G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. I mentioned Chesterton above. He was one of the great Christian writers and philosophers of the early twentieth century. All of his books – and I have half a dozen favorites from him – are tough reads. He makes you think about things outside of yourself; about things that seem beyond human understanding but in fact are right in front of you. I have only given Chesterton’s books to a handful of people over the years – a few chaplains and friends from Officer’s Christian Fellowship and church.
Two books I have shared with many, and made mandatory reading for damage control training team members (DCTT) on several ships, are Missile Inbound: The Attack on the Stark in the Persian Gulf and No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf. These books provide detailed accounts of the combat and damage control efforts undertaken by average sailors to save their ships. I was too cheap (back then and now) to buy fifty copies of each book for my DCTT members, so I passed around my copies and required the reading of specific pages related to each ship’s damage control effort.
How do you set priorities and manage your time?
I set my priorities by looking at the ship’s long range schedule (two years) and drilling deep into each phase of the ship’s life cycle. My team and I conduct detailed planning of all milestones at least two phases out (setting priorities), with execution and minor adjustments to plans made in the current phase (managing time).
Managing my time means ensuring my day is filled with events that support the execution of current ship-wide plans and priorities.
What is your most effective daily habit?
I’ve had a variety of effective daily habits over the years. Habits that kept me grounded, kept me close to my family, and kept me in tune with my crew. My most effective daily habit while deployed last year was a late-night workout followed by midnight visit to engineering central. This kept me close to my engineers, led to discussions with the chiefs and junior sailors about issues important to them, and often led to me going down into the engine rooms with the watchstanders to see what they were seeing. It was a very effective daily habit.
My most effective daily habit today – as a ship CO in the shipyard – is my daily ship walk around. The route varies, but whatever the path I put eyes on critical jobs and see and talk to sailors. It’s the only opportunity I have to interact with a wide range of sailors each day.
My most effective daily habit for staying close to my family is making dinner with my wife each night. The kids are long gone, so it is just my wife and me, and our dogs. I’ve only been cooking dinner for the past few years, but I have to say – it has been a game changer! Not just because it helps me stay close to my wife, but because I’ve discovered that as bad as my cooking is, I really like to cook.
Lastly, to stay grounded I have made it a daily habit to study my Christian faith. I am a seminary student, so I spend time each day studying the easy stuff – Soteriology, Hamartiology, Bibliology, Anthropology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, Trinitarianism, etc. Yep, the easy stuff! But I love it, and that is probably the key take away: for a habit to be effective, you must love it; you must be all in.
How do you define success?
G.K. Chesterton’s take on success was that existence – life itself – was success. In his 1909 essay The Fallacy of Success, Chesterton said that in life we can either put in the effort to be good at something or we can cheat. I would say that captures how I define success: we must put the effort in to be good at the life we have been given. If you’re doing that, you’re successful in my book.