Tidying Up: Navy Edition

in Epiphanies

This post originally appeared on the U.S. Naval Institute Blog here.

People tell me I’m too negative. I AM NOT!!

Buuuuut . . . I’m beginning to wonder: do I focus on what’s wrong too much? Don’t misunderstand me, I have plenty of reasons to be salty. We still haven’t paid the Coast Guard. We still don’t have a force field over the country to protect us from ballistic missiles and terrorists. We’re still at war in the Middle East. We’re still building science projects instead of warships. Tom Brady is still in the Super Bowl. We STILL can’t decide on a !@#$ uniform. I could go on…

Then I watched an episode of the Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, about an enchanting Japanese consultant and author with a knack for decluttering people’s houses and lives. Central to her KonMari method is the concept of tokimeku, or “spark joy.” When helping her clients evaluate what to keep, she asks “does it spark joy?” If so, keep it. If not, discard it. Mind. Blown.

Spark joy, not Class A fires.

The first thing I thought was how funny it would be to watch “Tidying Up: Navy Edition” in which Marie visits a DDG to conduct a pre-INSURV zone inspection. She would giggle daintily and whisper to her interpreter as she discovers fireworks stacked against an exhaust trunk in the MWR Gear Locker. Just the look on her face as she walked through berthing or the “JO Jungle” would be worth the cost of a Netflix subscription. Then, she would return a week later to find a spotless ship after the crew moved all of their excess gear to a PODS storage unit on the pier instead of getting rid of it. Come on people, lets make this happen!

The second thing that came to mind was “What about the Navy sparks joy for me? What do I like about it? What I would I keep if it were up to me?” Scary thought, I know, but there’s a lot, actually. Many of our traditions are rooted in virtue and deserve to be carried forward. Here are a few that have been on my mind recently:

  1. Our sense of service to the American Ideal is amazing. It transcends any one President, political leaders, and superior officers. It drove hundreds of thousands of federal workers to continue to serve their fellow citizens while they were not getting paid for more than a month. We’re not conscripted or drafted—we all volunteer. We swear an oath to defend the Constitution, but even this revered document can be amended to relentlessly pursue the American Ideal. However each of us defines it, our commitment to serve the American Ideal is incredible. Just look at the crew of USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750), and the thousands of other Coasties around the world, who deployed without pay. Ultimately, there will be a price to pay, in terms of their faith in and commitment to the mission, but you better believe their service sparks joy for me. I believe this sense of service to the American Ideal – if we don’t squander it—will be a decisive factor in future conflicts.
  2. Our questioning attitude also has the potential to be a decisive factor in future conflict. There’s something uniquely American about our ability to challenge our superiors and tell them when they’re a little jacked up. Respectfully, of course. It’s also a part of our maritime heritage. Our first lesson in navigation is to not rely on single sources of information. Get multiple inputs. Analyze them. Think for yourself. We have some work to do to gain acceptance of this questioning attitude in communicating up the chain of command, but articles like this from Lieutenant Katelyn Davidson and Commander Josh Menzel give me hope (shipmates, put your knuckles to the screen because I want to give you a fist bump!).
  3. Embracing the “modern warfighter.” Let’s face it. American warfighters don’t look like they used to. So what? Who cares? I don’t. Are you capable? Are you committed? Do you have integrity? Come aboard. We have a long way to go here, but the trend is positive. We’re starting to see studies and policies that support dual-professional couples (not just dual-military or spouse employment . . . spouses with civilian careers that might even be the larger share of household income) and working mom sailors. It’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake. Modern warfighters are highly educated senior officers and empowered junior cyber warriors. We’ll need multiple perspectives to compete and win in future naval warfare.
  4. Leaders matter no more than their followers. I’m probably naively optimistic, because we’re not even close on this one. I subscribe to the General Stanley McChrystal view that leaders should think of themselves as “nodes in a network, rather than the top apex in a triangle.” Leaders serve a unique function, just as every team member serves their own unique function. Our best leaders groom others to fill their shoes if necessary, and our top performers are always ready to step in. Our special forces, whom we regard as the elite of the elite, have senior enlisted leaders who are indistinguishable from officers. In general, the line between officer and enlisted is becoming blurry and less meaningful (a trend we should watch with an intrigued eye). The division of officers and enlisted sailors is rooted in aristocracy, which obviously no longer applies. We’ve all known sailors who we’ve practically begged to apply for commissioning programs because they were already outperforming junior officers.
  5. Leaders matter no less than their followers. On the flipside, we’ve also been known to take the concept of servant leadership too far—some leaders burning out because they neglected to take care of their own wellbeing. Vice Admiral Moran’s directive to flag officers to take the leave they’ve earned is not coincidental, and it’s a beacon of hope. No one can say what led to Vice Admiral Stearney’s (a man with whom I served and deeply respect) tragic suicide, but it shows that none of us are immune to mental stress. I have long said that our slogan “ship, shipmate, self” should be thought of as a triad, not an order of priority. Maybe Navy leadership is starting to listen.

This is just a start. Maybe I’ll follow up with more next week. Email me at tsm@saltyherald.com with the things about the Navy that spark joy for you. Or tell me about the things that you think we should get rid of . . . you know I like getting riled up! Oh, and if you know how to reach Marie Kondo’s agent, let me know! I can see it now: “Clamping Down with Marie Kondo.”

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