Technology and Leadership Lessons From Admiral Archie Clemins

Permission to reprint this article, originally published by CTO, provided by Bob Gourley.

This article is a nice tribute to a great Navy leader who respected and used our craft. Bob’s personal story of interacting with his customer and operational Commander is a fundamental part of the right approach to OPINTEL. He could just have easily titled the article “Intelligence and Leadership Lessons from Adm Clemins”.)

Technology and Leadership Lessons From Admiral Archie Clemins
Bob Gourley March 17, 2020 

I received word yesterday of the passing, far too young, of Archie Clemins. He passed after a two year battle with cancer.

Upon hearing of this terribly sad news I was overcome with a rush of memories, some of which I want to capture here for their valuable leadership lessons, Including lessons in enterprise technology and operational intelligence.
I first encountered this great leader in 1986. I was a young intelligence officer at an operational intelligence center in Kami Seya Japan (FOSIF WESTPAC, the Fleet Operational Intelligence Center Western Pacific). While on a late watch, I saw a wide variety of reports from multiple sources my team and I concluded that something was up with a particular unit in the PRC Navy. It could have been minor, and I was not sure anyone would really care, but I drafted a message and sent it to organizations that consumed our intelligence (our readers). About 20 minutes later one of our classified phones started ringing. It was from then Commodore Archie Clemins, operational head of all the US Submarines in the Western Pacific (CTF 74). For context, this is the first time anyone that senior had ever called asking to speak to me. He read my message and had a simple question. Was the unit going to stay in-area or deploy, because he was going to make huge decisions either way but needed to know what it was going to do.

I still recall my answer. I gave Commodore Clemins more insight into the data I had, told him what we did not have, and then said “I think he is deploying, but would like to call my boss in to look this over.” His answer: “Thanks, you do just that.” I called my boss (Captain Frank Notz) at home. He came back into work, reviewed everything, agreed with my conclusion, and he spoke to Commodore Clemins to close the loop.

That early interaction drove a few things home for me. It underscored that the operational insights we were producing in our center really could move the fleet. It also led me to realize there are two types of leaders. Those that care about intelligence and have a thirst for it, and those that think it is an extraneous function to be ignored. Archie loved intelligence.

Years later I would work for him as a member of his staff at 7th Fleet. I was on the N2 (Intelligence) team starting in 1994, and had just shown up on the staff two weeks before he arrived. So I had gotten there just in time to see the huge way he started changing things.

There were already computers onboard the 7th Fleet flagship (The USS Blue Ridge). Of course the intelligence center had plenty, and we had some primitive connectivity via classified circuits to the shore based intelligence community. There was also a LAN of computers on the 7th Fleet Staff, but most people wondered why they were there. Who cares if you could send an email from office to office or share a spreadsheet?

Then our new Commander showed up. Vice Admiral Clemins. One of his first actions was to move the computer in his flagship office. The previous Admiral had it on a side table against a far wall. Admiral Clemins moved it to the center of his desk. This was unheard of. But guess, what? That single move caused every one of his senior staff to move their computer to the center of their desk. The revolution was under way!

Admiral Clemins immediately started taking action to increase bandwidth to the Flagship. The first step was something the communications officer was very excited about, the ability to have real phone lines while afloat. Since I was a bit of a nerd at the time I was able to get one of these four lines for use by the intelligence team. I used it to demonstrate something that had never been done from a warship at sea before. I accessed the Internet. I connected a computer using a phone in my stateroom to this new satellite phone system, which got me to a ground station in Hawaii and from there dialed into Compuserve. From there I was able to send email, access bulletin boards, read news and access information while afloat. I used this proof of concept to help my friends in the staff communications section (the N6, led first by Captain Tim Traverso and then Captain Dave Weddel) explain the kinds of things that could be done for all with more bandwidth. Archie and the N6 were great at getting more bandwidth, and soon all of the senior leadership team were up on email on and off ship while we were at sea.

Our intelligence center already had some pretty cool computers that had been provided with Joint money so we were probably the most modern space on the ship. We also had enough bandwidth afloat to get some data and small images. But it was really not modern till Archie got involved. Early on I gave Admiral Clemins a tour of our spaces. I showed him the tech (mostly Unix boxes) and how we were using our systems to communicate with shorebase intelligence centers. One of our intelligence specialists gave him a demo of a computer. Like everything else on a seagoing Navy ship at the time, it was secured for heavy seas. In this case, it was held in a solid steal, welded shut frame. But Admiral Clemins noticed something no one else did. He saw the sailor sitting in an incredibly awkward position because the keyboard and mouse were in positions hard to use and the monitor could not be adjusted. He turned to the sailor and asked him: “Son are you comfortable in that position?” The sailor replied “No sir, this is not comfortable at all.”

From that one conversation Admiral Clemins led us through a total redesign of the entire intelligence center. Eventually he got significant plus ups in money and teams of engineers from the Navy’s engineering centers to come and design an intelligence center that allowed us to reconfigure the spaces and support multiple scenarios while enabling our workforce to better interact with the computers. This included new workstations that were secure for heavy seas but adjustable and focused on the needs of users. All of this came from him noticing the awkward discomfort of a sailor who had a hard time using a computer. Sure was another leadership lesson there. In order to really lead you need to know when to serve, and at that time, Admiral Clemins was serving the sailor.