RDML Cathal O'Connor
Rear Adm. Cathal O’Connor is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in English and was commissioned through the Naval ROTC program. He is a graduate of the Naval War College and the Armed Forces Staff College and earned a Master of Arts in International Relations from Salve Regina University in 1996. He holds subspecialties in National Security Studies, Far East and Pacific Affairs and Operations Research Analysis and Assessment.
A surface warfare officer, he commanded Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 3/Task Force 36 in San Diego, Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 11/Task Group 76.4 in Sasebo, Japan, and USS Rushmore (LSD 47) in San Diego.
His assignments at sea include service on USS Farragut (DDG 37); USS Truett (FF 1095); USS Pharris (FF 1094); USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63); USS Essex (LHD 2); PHIBRON-5; USS Tortuga (LSD 46); Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 5/Commander Task Force (CTF) 70 in Yokosuka, Japan; and chief of staff, ESG-7/CTF-76, in Okinawa, Japan.
He has participated in Operations Restore Hope, Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and Tomodachi as well as disaster relief operations following typhoon Morakot in Taiwan, typhoons Ketsana and Megi in the Philippines and earthquakes in Padang, Indonesia.
Ashore he served at Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center, Atlantic; Surface Warfare Officers School; Joint Task Force Southwest Asia; four tours on the Navy Staff; Joint Staff J-8; and chief of staff for Commander Naval Forces Europe, Commander Naval Forces Africa, U.S. 6th Fleet.
Personal awards include the Legion of Merit, the Defense and Meritorious Service Medals, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal as well as other individual, campaign and unit awards.
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
In my experience, some commands and therefore some leaders and Sailors never grasp the amazing learning potential that exists in thoroughly and completely reviewing failures. We don’t often critique our successes, and potentially miss WHY we succeeded. One example from command of RUSHMORE. My Navigator and I read about a CG that had run aground because the CO chose to ignore the Navigator’s recommendations. So we thought about it, discussed it with the navigation team. We admitted that in our “successful” navigation details, the Navigator and I had made the same mistake of talking past one another. So we identified where I should have listened to the Navigator, put in place corrective action (look at the navigator each time he/she makes a recommendation), and then follow through on the recommendation. This made it clear to the team and the crew - as a whole, that mistakes do occur, but they must be ruthlessly examined and corrected, even when we are successful.
That said, I believe the mark of a good officer is one who fails on a daily basis. If a junior officer accomplishes everything they are planning to do in a day, that would suggest there is a mismatch somewhere. My first assignment was Electrical Division Officer in USS FARRAGUT (DDG 37). In 1989 FARRAGUT was 29 years old, had failed OPPE Engineering Exam and with it the electrical safety program for the third time, and had failed INSURV at the hands of VADM Bulkely, MOH. From ensuring PMS was completed on time and in accordance with standards, to training repair electricians, writing CASREPs by the dozens, and conducting electrical safety training for each division, I finished each day in port and underway having never completed everything on my to-do list. We passed OPPE and INSURV and certified the Electrical Safety program, but it was challenging.
That experience taught me how to prioritize, and revealed two attributes that have kept me in good stead. I have a boundless level of optimism when faced with adversity, and an ability to self-initiate without top down guidance. I recognize something looks wrong, pull the reference, and get to work fixing it.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
1. Will Durant first wrote this phrase in a small book titled ‘The Story of Philosophy,’ “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” In essence, this day, this deployment, this assignment, this career is built one decision at a time. Each day builds on its predecessor.
2. American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer that said, “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” We know it as the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can. and wisdom to know the difference." Six tours in the Pentagon will teach you the value of this prayer. Can’t fix everything, so decide what is within your ability to change and get busy fixing it. Document the rest and inform your boss what’s wrong and what you are doing about it.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
My first boss in the Pentagon got up and ran first thing in the morning. He explained it gave him time to think, and ensured he had that time to himself no matter what the day brought. It became clear over that year in OPNAV that even senior leaders do not have control of their schedules once they walk in the front door. His goal each year was to run the Marine Corp Marathon with his daughter, which he did successfully. Took that idea of morning PT back to sea. As XO, CO, Deputy, and Commodore, we exercised together, and at each shore assignment, made sure I worked out each morning.
On sea duty In Norfolk, San Diego, and Japan, we built Command PT into the morning schedule so the entire crew -- minus duty section, worked out together. This removed the stigma for the folks who were unfit. It simplified scheduling workout time for the khaki leadership. We simply didn’t accept deliveries, assist visits, or any outside work, until after 0545 PT was complete, when the crew had eaten and showered, and quarters had been held. Ended up having folks PT underway so they wouldn’t be out of shape when we returned from deployment. As a result, 3 hour GQ drills in the summer with the ventilation turned off were hard, but the crew was in shape to handle it. We found we had more than enough men and women complete the VBSS qualification course, to maintain 3 full boarding teams throughout deployment. In the end, the fitness of the crew rose so everyone received excellent or outstanding on the PFA.
Today my schedule starts at 0345, I’m on the bike trainer or running at 4, hit the showers at 6 and out the door driving to the Pentagon at 6:30. If the weather supports, I’ll ride into work and back home. The flip side is I DVR a LOT of shows so I can see them on the weekend, and I give my bride the TV remote control at 2045 and go to bed like an 8 year old. But the reality is I’ve never had a wife or boss who really cared what I did between 4 and 6am. So that has become my time to exercise, think, and carve some time out of the day for myself. Going forward, I’ll probably keep doing it in my next career.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO?
First, give this first couple of years everything you have. It will set the tenor for the rest of your work/career, both in and out of the military.
Second, study. In the 1990s I told my SWOS students in Newport, “this is a geek profession." That doesn’t mean you strive to be socially awkward. It means you are either learning or forgetting at this age. So keep a book handy. Many years ago I wrote down this quote, by CNO Carl Trost, “if you become an inveterate reader, if an idle moment finds you with a book in your hand, then over time, knowledge, that deep technical knowledge will come to you and your progress in our profession will flourish,” and it has proven its worth over time.
Third, have a plan to get out of the Navy at each promotion and each screening opportunity. Some naval careers will start off like rockets. Others will start more slowly. But over time this evens out. The important thing is to have a plan if the situation (family, parents, health, etc.,) dictates that you are going to leave the Navy. I’ve watched people get surprised and not have a plan at every rank from O1 up to Flag when the next job, promotion, etc., did NOT materialize or their family situation dramatically changed due to death, divorce, etc.
Fourth, the first two tours of a junior SWOs career in the Navy are the equivalent of a pilot or NFO going through ground school, flight school, the Fleet Replacement Squadron, and the initial sea tour. It’s the same as a submariner going to nuke school, prototype and earning their dolphins, or a SEAL going through BUD/S, jump school, SEAL qualification training, and then pre-deployment workups. In each of these career paths the attrition rate is fairly high over the first few years. The Surface Warfare journey is similar but different in execution.
Our path is basically three years, spread across a couple of training and operational commands to figure out if you are good at going down to the sea in ships. At the end of your second tour you should be thoroughly tired, and ready to ask yourself some direct and pointed questions. 1) Do you like going to sea? 2) Are you good at sailing and fighting the ship, while leading Sailors in increasingly more difficult positions and tasks? 3) Do we trust you with the safety of the ship and her crew? 4) Do you want to keep doing this? These are four distinct questions and success in one does not guarantee success in the others, and that’s fine. The goal is to honorably serve the Navy and our nation. But have a plan to do something else, otherwise you may stay for the wrong reasons. Your Sailors, your Navy and your nation deserve better.
What advice should they ignore?
I hesitate to advise people to NOT listen to some piece of advice. Instead, would offer that as you go through life and your time in the Navy, it would be worthwhile to carry a notebook and make a list of things you liked, great ideas, and practices that “if I get to be Captain of a warship, we WILL…” Similarly, make a list of things you disliked, bad ideas, and practices that “if I get to be Captain of a warship, we will NEVER…” Then at each junction in your career you can sit down over a cup of coffee and see what ideas fit your personality, because Sailors can smell a fake in a heartbeat. Another way of saying it is, don’t be the new officer from Maine that walks onboard, and imitates the #1 Ensign verbatim, down to his West Virginia accent, cowboy boots, and his chewing tobacco.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
A Passion for Leadership by Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. Secretary Gates led the CIA, Texas A&M University, and the Department of Defense. He provides a very helpful perspective on how leaders transform large organizations. The lessons work at the division officer level and scale up through Strike Group command and working issues across the Inter-Agency in D.C.
How do you set priorities and manage your time?
First, take care of yourself. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. If you’re a mess the rest will follow suit.
Second, take care of your family. It’s the only thing we have when we take off the uniform.
Third, take care of your “job” , the Sailors that bring your ship to life.
This is a deceptively simple set of phrases. It echoes the advice I received from the Director of SWOS Division Officer Course when I was an Ensign. When I found out I was going to command RUSHMORE, and that she had some issues, I sat down and wrote to each recipient of the VADM Stockdale leadership award and requested their advice. My SWOS DOC CO’s response was the shortest, and over time the most profound. “It’s all about leadership, and it’s still the best job in the Navy.”
What is your most effective daily habit?
Making the time to exercise, think, read, and write on a daily basis. I’m always learning.
How do you define success?
From the perspective of a naval officer, I would define success as the Sailors, the Mission and Me. In that order. If I can give the Sailors the tools, the training, and the feedback that enables them to be successful Sailors, then success in the mission will follow. Then and only then can I focus on only doing those things that only I can do. Then I can give guidance, delegate, and follow through.