Orders to the Helm?

in Leadership

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

Hello again. In case we haven’t met yet: I’m a snarky young whippersnapper who thinks the war on millennials, the Navy’s personnel management system, and its stance on medical marijuana/cannabis for veterans are ridiculous. Now, I want to set a more serious tone and discuss one of the Navy’s favorite topics: leadership. I know what you’re thinking…what’s a millennial going to teach me about leadership? This guy’s been in the Navy since breakfast. He’s never had command, he doesn’t understand it, and his opinions aren’t needed. Well, I’ve observed a few things since I finished my avocado toast this morning, and I don’t really care whether you want my opinion or not. Here it comes.

There’s a pretty big difference between how the Navy talks about leadership and how it leads. The Navy talks a lot about character, ethics, and mentorship. Take a look at the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson’s Naval Leadership Development Framework. It sounds a lot like servant leadership, but officers who are particularly good at this brand of leadership are not the ones we tend to promote to the highest levels. Why? Maybe it comes down to results. The proof is in the pudding. How many Battle E’s did your ship win? How did you perform on deployment? How did INSURV go? Crew advancement and retention numbers certainly are key metrics, but generally they are secondary to more warfighting-focused areas . . . and that’s not wrong. After all, warfighting is the mission. Its why we’re all here. But what happens when leaders get scope-locked on results?

Likewise, the CNO’s framework, and its many predecessors, aren’t bad either. The problem is the Navy pays them lip service. We say one thing and do another. A vice admiral (who since put on a fourth star) once told me and an auditorium full of prospective department heads (oooh . . . identity teaser!) that we were all “fungible.” To be honest, I had to look it up: easily replaced, essentially interchangeable. Needless to say, I didn’t feel very valued as an individual. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe we surface warfare officers (SWOs) do need to “suck it up” a little and just do their jobs, which is to lead. So, was I supposed to mentor and develop my junior SWOs individually? Or just teach them that they are interchangeable, and they need to put their heads down and focus on the next inspection? Or maybe I’m supposed to develop my subordinates individually while acknowledging that I’m the one that has no unique value? How do we sustain such a dichotomy? That’s like Santa Claus for kids. Eventually, they grow up and you either tell them it was all made up, or they figure it out for themselves. The message is clear: we told you we cared about you because you were a young ensign and that was a lie you needed to hear. You’re getting older now, so shut up and get to work!

So, why doesn’t the Navy abandon the servant-leadership myth and embrace the results-based leadership it tacitly promotes? Well, for starters, it’s not working. It doesn’t take Corbett or Mahan to look at the state of the Navy, particularly the surface force, and know there is a problem. The tragic collisions of 2017 were just the latest symptoms. Farsi Island incident ring a bell? Ever heard of Fat Leonard? Even the 2016 SM-2 intercept of cruise-missile attacks by USS Mason (DDG-87) can’t be celebrated. The other DDG in company didn’t even see the missiles. Fifty percent ain’t good. Not to mention the Navy’s well-documented struggles to keep up with deployment schedules amid maintenance delays and constant operational demand. Dynamic Force Employment won’t fix everything. Not without a healthy cultural overhaul. Decades of resource and demand imbalance on leaders gave birth to a cultural rot in the Navy, forcing officers more and more just to do what it takes to get the job done, leaving little room for training, development, wellness and other tenets of the leadership models the service so proudly touts.

How long will the Navy keep trying to stuff more you-know-what in that five-pound sack? Now, even rebalancing resources with demand won’t be enough. Much like black mold, cultural rot must be addressed directly and eradicated, sometimes taking the structure down with it. Some of the Navy’s sharpest young officers already are tackling the cultural rot from the fleet, by breaking down the barriers between warfighting communities and more widely sharing knowledge. Unfortunately, the other communities may not be as welcoming of a surface force so plagued with problems. To be sure, there will be no substitute for good old-fashioned hard work. Even a millennial can see that. It also will require some senior admirals publicly addressing the problem and acknowledging that it may take as much time to fix as it took to develop. It likely won’t be solved on their watch. I’m not holding my breath.

Remember, it’s all about results.

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