March 14, 2010 | Mark Paradies

Navy CO of USS Cowpens Loses Job After “Drag Racing” Incident – A Lesson in Bad Leadership?

The Navy must have changed a lot since I was in it.

Here’s a quote from an Associated Press article printed in

A Navy inspector general report said investigators had substantiated that Graf assaulted subordinates (pushing one, grabbing another and once throwing wadded-up paper at another Sailor) and that she regularly verbally abused subordinates by publicly berating them, belittling them and using profane language.

A Navy CO using profane language and berating crew members in public … sounds like the first ship I was on in 1980.


And, of course, assault should never be tolerated. But the female CO, Captain Holly Graf, (pictured above) pushed someone, grabbed someone, and throws a wadded up piece of paper at someone? This hardly seems like serious offenses. But perhaps it does show a lack of judgment. After all, the CO’s job on a ship is quite serious and there needs to be a certain amount of formality and separation maintained to maintain good order and discipline. Grabbing sailors (or officers) and throwing things at them isn’t setting a good example for your crew.

Then there is the drag racing.

I’ve seen two ships line up side by side to run a one mile race. We won! Our nuclear powered cruiser beat a gas turbine powered cruiser.

The AP story said this about the drag race:

One sailor said that during the race, aimed at boosting morale, the McCain got ahead of the Cowpens and began drifting to the left into the path of the Cowpens. Though the report did not question that the race took place, it said the allegation of “hazarding a vessel” was unsubstantiated.”

One sailor said?

If every CO was relieved because they swore, had sailors that didn’t like them, or even made occasional judgment failures (grabbed a sailor), we probably couldn’t keep our fleet at sea. But maybe there’s more to this story than what was printed in the Associated Press article?

I decided to look a little further and did a Google search on “Captain Holly Graf”.

WOW! What an eyeful! Lot’s more information was posted on-line about how bad Captain Graf was!

Of course you can’t believe everything you read on-line, but … read the comments at this blog:

Then a picture of the “drag race” at this blog site:

(Can’t tell if it is photoshopped or not.)

And a legal review of the charges against Captain Holly Graf:

After reading the material available, I would conclude that Captain Graf was an awful person to work for and a terrible leader. The Navy is lucky that no one was killed as a result of her leadership failings. (Having your crew be scared to talk to you is a great way to get a ship into deep trouble.)

But some of the charges seem silly. Guilty of having a Junior Officer play a Christmas Carol on the piano at a Christmas Party at the CO’s house? Or another charge that a Junior Officer walked the CO’s dog willingly? Come on.

But what about Navy leadership? How did she get to such a position of power? Why weren’t her poor leadership traits detected earlier?

Man or woman, I don’t care. Men and women can be great leaders. Or not.

Poor leaders at sea can have dreadful consequences. Our sailors deserve good leadership. Seems like the poor leadership qualities of Captan Holly Graf might indicate a generic problem with the way that leaders are developed and promoted inside the Navy. Certainly this isn’t the first “bad CO” that I’ve heard about. Perhaps a more in-depth analysis is required?

Plenty to dig into when analyzing the root causes (and generic causes) of a poorly led ship.

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