Challenging Navy Culture to Leverage Untapped Human Capital

in Navy Stuff
U.S. Navy photo by Photographers Mate 3rd Class Dwayne Minor (RELEASED)

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

A couple of months ago, I fired off a satirical response to what I perceived as unhelpful generational criticism. When the editors at the Naval Institute asked me if I wanted to use a pen name, at first, I said “no,” but then I balked. After all, I was throwing snarky literary haymakers at the CNO on down. So, the Salty Millennial was born. From the beginning, this was always about more than satire. This was about engaging millennials and tapping into their talent.

So, here it is. No longer anonymous. Anti-climactic, I know. I am a post-department head O-4 and I am in fact a millennial, at least by some definitions. In the next few years, my peers, millennials will be taking command of your destroyers, aircraft squadrons, and fast attack subs. Get ready.

Why Start Anonymous?

Well, why does anyone write under a pseudonym? Its not all about fear of reprisal, although that plays a part. It’s also about engaging more deeply. Without my name and rank, you couldn’t immediately discount what I had to say. Whether good or bad, anonymity and pseudonyms grab our attention. “Col. Ned Stark’s” success over at War on the Rocks is a prime example of the power of a pseudonym in breaking through the noise of DoD punditry. The editors prefaced the first article with an explanation that they decided to publish the anonymous piece “because the author’s career—even beyond the author’s time in the Air Force—would be at serious risk even though this article does not involve any violations of regulation or law as far as we have been able to discern.” Fortunately, the Navy is much more understanding. <nervously tugs at collar>

And yet, no matter what I feared, or how much I wanted your attention, it came down to accountability for me. As an U.S. service member, I must stand behind what I write. I’m not “throwing shade” on Col. Ned Stark or any of our favorite anonymous critics. There is real value in the function they serve. I just think they’re missing the full impact their message could deliver. I would love to see Col. Ned Stark reveal his or her real name, regardless of what offers they’ve received from Air Force leadership. Remaining anonymous, in Ned’s case, perpetuates the idea that we should fear the consequences of speaking our mind. Maybe there will be blowback. So what? No truly meaningful change was ever achieved with 100% consensus, or without a few missteps along the way. We need to practice what we preach. Be accountable. If you believe in something, stand up for it. Damn the consequences.

Some may criticize this “revealing” as self-aggrandizing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in the merits of anonymous ideas. The Delphi Method is a great example. Anonymous ideas are one thing, but anonymous criticism is something else entirely. Its easy to brush off anonymous criticism. If I ever hoped to achieve anything constructive with my criticism, I needed to put name behind it.

I’ll reiterate my criticisms from previous posts so there’s no confusion:

  1. Generational “warfare” is unproductive. We should avoid the extremes of either forcing younger generations to conform to the sailor mold we expect or sacrificing our entire culture to tailor to the new(er) masses. We should critically analyze which of our traditions exemplify our core values, and then strive to understand how we can pass them on to a generation that, frankly, communicates much differently than many of us are used to.
  2. Our personnel management system does not incentivize our sailors and officers to perform at their highest levels. Yes, using a 20-year-old piece of boutique software to create performance reports is a bit absurd, but ultimately it is only symptomatic of a system badly in need of reform. Col. Ned Stark makes many good points that we could apply in the Navy, and to be fair, OPNAV N1 is hard at work implementing guidance from the 2019 NDAA and their internal transformation for Sailor 2025. Nevertheless, I believe we need to push further and develop a system that rewards our top performers with early promotion, more choice, less rigid milestones, and financial incentives. While some of this will require true congressional reform, not all of it does, and if the Navy could successfully lobby Congress for the 2019 NDAA authorities, it can lobby again for more changes next year.
  3. Our wounded veterans and service members deserve the best care that medical science can provide. Its time to be open to the idea that cannabinoids are a much less addictive alternative to opioids, and then let research prove or disprove that idea. We mustn’t let cultural stigmas inhibit the treatment of those who have sacrificed for this nation.
  4. On paper, we have an excellent grasp on effective leadership. In practice, we focus way too much on near-term results at the expense of the long-term health and wellness of the force. I believe this stems from our attitude of “ship, shipmate, self” which teaches us that the wellness of our shipmates, and our own wellness, are separate from and secondary to our core mission. To the contrary, our wellness is a critical element of our mission. You can find a much deeper analysis of this idea here. As the CNO preaches, people are the US Navy’s asymmetric advantage. We need to put power behind the idea that platforms are tools for people rather than the inverse.

So What?

Some also criticized me for “complaining without a solution.” That’s another cultural problem. If I see a fire in a building, do I call 911 to tell them how to put it out? No. We are a team, and if I see an issue, even if I’m unsure how to fix it, I know there’s some seaman or admiral in our great Navy that has a solution. Rather than sourcing solutions individually we need to be able to air our problems collectively to develop better, more nuanced appreciations of them in order to craft enduring solutions. We need more whole-of-Navy solutions and fewer silver bullet, one-off quick fixes.

I love the U.S. Navy, and I love what it stands for. I just believe we can be better. I love the surface force, but I wonder when we will stop trying to resemble the elite organization we once were, and start becoming the elite organization of the future. I love writing, and I love the idea of our sailors and officers sharing their ideas in an open forum, but I suspect we’re not hearing from a large portion of our force. Millennials, I’m looking at you. It also seems like any discussion on millennials is talking about them, instead of engaging them. I know it can be difficult for junior officers and sailors to speak out. So, fellow millennials, here’s my offer: if you have something to say about how we could be better as a Navy, but can’t publish it yourself for whatever reason, email me at:

The first thing I’m going to do is try to help you find a way to publish your ideas under your own name. If we can’t make it happen, and I can get behind your ideas, I’ll post it under the Salty Millennial pseudonym (the Naval Institute has been amazing, but we have other options if it’s not for them). This will give you space until you’re ready to step up publicly, and it won’t be anonymous since, after today, everyone knows who I am. One more thing: please, please, please do NOT send me any classified or private information.

The Bottom Line

To Millennials: Let’s work together to make the Navy better. If you think I’m wrong about the Navy needing to improve, then say so—push back—highlight our best practices so we can share them widely. If you think I’m wrong on how it should improve, then prove me wrong by penning your own piece for all to see. One of the hallmarks of high performing organizations is continuous improvement. Leaders need to be prepared to defend their words and actions from criticism, but that starts with challenging them on key errors.

To Everyone Else: Make no mistake, our Navy is the best in the world, but our threats are multiplying and growing more sophisticated while we grapple with the same old issues. The only way for us to remain ahead in the long-term is by recruiting and harnessing our talent better than anyone else. We don’t have to have all the right answers now, but we do need to have the right people. I believe we have those people already. We need to tap into their talent. That starts with embracing millennials rather than treating them like a problem to be managed.

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