In the August issue of Proceedings, Commander Darcie Cunningham, USCG complains about the personality traits brought to the naval service by millennials and gives advice on how to better assimilate them into the ranks [For other responses to the article see here and here]. I find the article incredibly condescending and patronizing with a hint of fear of impending irrelevance in a world that the Commander does not want to see change. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of remaining stagnant. The world is continuously changing. Our great nation is continuously changing. Our long tradition of citizen soldiers demands that we change with it.
I currently serve on a multi-generational crew with a hearty presence from generation X (those born between the early 1960s to 1980). They have stood a solid watch and I firmly respect how their service strengthened American seapower, but they are less dynamic than the current generation. They cling to inefficient means of communication and are more concerned with “work ethic” than the quality of product produced. This generation has me questioning how they can adapt in today’s rapidly changing world.
Here are some of their behaviors I have noticed:
• While the younger generation is more concerned with quality product, the older generation views a correlation with performance and hours worked. Given the same quality of results, they see laziness and a lack of dedication instead of efficiency.
• Along the same lines as correlating product with hours worked, they also would much rather see a more experienced individual be promoted over one vastly more skilled and qualified. They view accelerated advancement as an affront to their culture of advancement through keeping their head down and staying out of trouble. To them it is much better to be cautious and safe than tenacious and bold.
• They do not understand the need for the younger generation to know the basis behind requirements. The younger generations sees power through knowledge and asks why in hopes of finding a way to improve the status quo. The older generation is more apt to simply accept the way things have always been and can devolve to a frustrated “because I said so,” when asked for an explanation from subordinates.
Whether the older generation likes it or not, millennials are currently leaders within our organization. We are serving with discipline and dedication equal to those who have come before us, but we are doing it our own way. We will continue to preserve the liberties this country enjoys. So how does the structured military culture adapt to our new generation?
First, we must educate them on the benefits of promoting based on merit and not time in grade. The current antiquated system lets more competent individuals await their turn while they watch the less skilled continued to advance once it is their time to promote. If this merit-based promotion idea does not sit well with some members of the older generation, perhaps it is a subtle concern that they needed a time-based system to make it as far as they did. Job satisfaction should be the motivator for retention, not scare tactics of a poor economy and poor unemployment rate.
They need to be “course-corrected” that a desire to understand the basis for requirements and wanting to improve how we do things are NOT insubordination or disrespect. If this does not happen, our best will continue to be driven out and the military will remain a carbon copy of what it looks like now. Once we stop adapting we will most surely become irrelevant. The only way we can improve is if we ask if there is a better way and have an open and honest discussion about it. Progress has always been seen as a threat to the present. It takes courage to move forward as an organization.
I am very appreciative the older generation of senior leaders made sure the United States continues to rule the seas. They did an amazing job and they all deserve our thanks and respect. Their way of doing business worked, but previous performance does not guarantee future success. There are sure to be aspects of the current way of doing business and we should figure out what those are, but blindly maintaining the status quo is a sure way to fail.
The Pacific Campaign of World War II was the greatest naval war ever seen. The names of Chester Nimitz, “Bull” Halsey, Arleigh Burke, and nearly countless others will ring through history for generations. These naval leaders were so great in part because they were incredibly aggressive and willing to take the risks necessary to sail directly into harm’s way and face a peer – if not superior – adversary at sea. Since winning WWII, the Navy has not been seriously challenged at sea, so there has been no need to take great risk for the potential of great gain. This has resulted in the aggressive and tenacious culture necessary to confront a peer or near peer adversary gradually dwindling. That void has been filled with the need to continuously mitigate risk, and this culture has expanded far beyond tactical risk taking to include taking risks which could adversely affect someone’s career.
The result has been developing a stagnating case of atychiphobia – the fear of failure. This affliction has been taking hold culturally since the conclusion of WWII and has now spread to virtually uncontrollable levels. The current system does not give any permission to fail. Not even a little. This removes a valuable learning mechanism from the professional development of leaders. The emphasis placed on leadership development from the earliest stages of training focuses on preventing mistakes and risk mitigation. Risk is too often associated with recklessness. While aggressiveness and calculated risk taking can be necessary to win a conflict, recklessness has no place on the battlefield. Reckless leaders may succeed in the short term through sheer chance, but recklessness will ultimately bring failure throughout sustained operations. Properly mitigating risk is essential to good operations, but when it becomes the mantra of an entire career, or worse, that of an entire organization, it quenches virtually any chance of professional invention or innovation.
Learning Instead of Failing
History has many examples of failure being essential to learning. Thomas Edison’s quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” referencing his repeated attempts to invent the light bulb, is quoted much more extensively. But when discussing leadership development, Mark Twain probably described it better when he said that “good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.” So many great minds have proclaimed that they have learned more through failure than success. The most robust professional development does not come through repeated success but through the proper recovery after failure. Organizations and individuals who fear failure to debilitating levels cannot learn or learn at rates so slow that they effectively stagnate and are surpassed by ones who are willing to fail, learn, and adapt.
What does failing even mean? Is it not getting the specific results that were expected? Is it results which have an adverse effect on an individual or an organization? Is it adverse effects which result in the termination of an individual or organization? There are many degrees of what people refer to as failure, but the professional view within the Navy tends toward the extreme that anything which is not perfect must be a failure. A false claim has been made that this impossibly high standard drives everyone to strive for perfection, and as a result moves the organization forward. This is illogical. True perfection is impossible, so the only alternative to avoiding failure and adversely affecting a career is to generate the illusion of perfection. To have the illusion of perfection, one does not have to accomplish great or even good tasks. All they must do is avoid negative marks on their record. This directly drives an apprehension to doing anything and is a perfect recipe for stagnation. This removes all chance of the inventiveness and creativity necessary to move an organization forward.
Sorting Instead of Failing
Failure is viewed as a very strong word with clearly negative connotations. No one wants to be a failure, but is not being selected for the next milestone on a certain career path always truly failing? Can this not simply be finding one of the things that do not work? Hopefully it does not take 10,000 attempts to find the career that someone is best suited for, but failing can be a healthy part of the process. Everyone cannot be good at everything, but virtually everyone is good at something. The only way to know is to try something and see if it works out. If it does not then it is time to try something else. Someone who is not suited for a particular job within the Navy is most likely not a bad person, they have just not found what they excel at. Instead of a failure, it should be viewed as an opportunity to try and find what fits.
If no one takes risks and everyone just shoots for the average, it becomes virtually impossible to determine who is good at what. The sorting function is unable to perform as necessary. Through the selection process bad commanders will slip through and potentially good commanders will not be recognized. There is also the added disadvantage of robbing a potentially good commander of the valuable lessons they may require from some healthy failures in their professional development. These are lessons that they could bring with them to command and as a result make the entire force stronger.
The cultural shift toward atychiphobia was gradual and unintentional. It was not the conscious decision of a few within leadership, but instead the natural tendency of an organization on the top of its field. For over half of a century the United States has had the privilege of possessing the greatest Navy that the world has ever seen, but history has proven time and time again that all glory is fleeting. Aggressive and tenacious leaders wielded a fleet which was fueled by American technological innovation. The present day fleet is full of many technological innovations. One can only hope a lack of aggressive tenacity bred from a fear of failure will not bring a fall from glory.
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