Archive for the 'Training & Education' Category

bulb_inspiredLet the defense innovators among us take a moment for introspection and self-awareness. We are charged with institutionalizing and structuring ideas like “innovation” and “disruption” which are themselves often ad hoc and unpredictable; we gather in working groups, task forces, and cells to legitimize new ideas. So as we foster creativity and rapid implementation, let us ask: How long can the innovators really keep innovating before they fall into a rut?

Who among us really know when to walk away?

What are the ways that we find and develop the next generation of disruptive thinkers, and then step out of their way?

How can we prevent the game-changers from being assimilated into more traditional hierarchies and ways of thinking?

When the disruptive become the establishment, can they continue to self-disrupt and reinvent, in the face of practices that made them successful?

Do these tendencies towards complacency extrapolate to entire organizations, agencies, and corporate cultures?

Do innovative organizations have a shelf life?

If so, does that mean they should also have an expiration date?

Can we work within a structure and create something meaningful, with our full commitment and intention, while knowing from the very beginning that it cannot and should not last forever, at least if we really want to continue to innovate?

One of the many great joys of a billet at USNA is the ability to reconnect with former professors and professional mentors. As someone who graduated 5 years ago, I am fortunate enough to see many of them still on the Yard.

I want to share with you a conversation I had with someone whom I really didn’t know during my time here. If you attended USNA anytime from 1991 onwards you may have seen him around. He’s likely barked “Strike!” at you during Plebe Summer’s introduction to martial arts or has evaluated your ability to perform a wrist lock during a PE course. He may have even coached some of you in gymnastics.

If you didn’t go to USNA, you’ll still find his story fascinating and revealing about two nations’ abilities to heal following history’s most destructive, fearsome war.

Sho Fukushima was born in Hiroshima, Japan in September 10, 1946, a little over a year after the bomb was dropped on the city. His family ended up in Hiroshima after the war during which his father was an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army in Pusan, Korea. With the war’s end, the Japanese were expelled from Korea, and his parents hopped on a freighter bound for Japan. Sho’s parents had heard “a new type of bomb had wiped out everything” in Hiroshima and it was rumored that nothing could grow there for the next 70 years.

“I asked them why did they really come back to Hiroshima, where there was nothing. It was because our relatives were there.”

He, his four siblings, mother and father lived in a “wooden structure, with a metal roof.” There were no real buildings yet.

His kindergarten teacher passed away from a bomb-related illness. His 1st grade teacher, who had facial scars from glass shards from the blast, died from leukemia. He lost an aunt, uncle and 5-6 cousins to the bomb. On that day his grandmother was 20-30 miles outside the city and saw a “bright, white flash” followed by the mushroom cloud. A search of the city the next day by the surviving family members revealed those in downtown had simply “evaporated.”

Hunger was a central feature of childhood. “We just didn’t have enough food to eat,” Sho explained, “so all four kids had to learn to share.” The staple dish was rice mixed with wheat or sweet potatoes, and was considered an adulteration–“not white rice.”

Growing up in Hiroshima, he remembers playing with one of his “best friends,” the “shadow man” of the city’s bank. “Mom had a couple of bottles,” artifacts crystallized by the blast. “She told me if I could break that thing she would give me a 100 yen. Even with hammers and throwing it against the rocks, I couldn’t break that thing. It became a family joke.”

During our talk I tried to imagine growing up with such stark, ever-present reminders of war and death. I asked Sho if all of this seemed normal. “It was totally normal. I didn’t know any other life,” he responded. There were parts of Sho’s childhood that seemed normal. “The ocean was my playground. I had a little fishing pole and starting fishing. I loved to fish. Besides that, I remember playing with my brothers and sisters. My older sister was an avid reader so at least once a month we would get a new book.” Yet, Sho was quick to point out that fishing also served to supplement their food.

Meanwhile, his father, despaired with losing the war and escaping death. A graduate of a professional military academy, all of his classmates had died in the South Pacific while he served in the national guard in Korea. “How would you feel about cheating death?” Sho asked me. “He was the strongest military guy before the war, but after he lost the war and he lost his classmates…he lost a kind of spirit,” as he struggled with the thought of suicide.

Sho’s gymnastics talents led the University of Washington to recruit him. Hearing about the promises of America from his grandfather, who had lived in Seattle and San Francisco, Sho jumped at the opportunity.

The son of a IJA officer, Sho found himself staying in the home of a Pearl Harbor survivor, Jack, who offered to sponsor him. “My father asked him to take care of me, and my American father promised he would. He did everything like a father was supposed to. The families stayed in touch, hosting one another in Japan and the US.

I was most struck by Sho telling his father of his job offer at the Naval Academy. Sho had maintained a green card, but with the job offer his father suggested something more. “Such an honor,” his father told him, “that you can get a job like this at the Academy. You have to show them your commitment.” His father meant applying for American citizenship. “That’s him–Japanese military guy,” Sho explained.

In October, Sho will retire after nearly 25 years at the Academy. As a child, his mom would take him once a year to see US Army doctors, who would give him a cookie and check him for radiation related illnesses. He plans to search for his medical records at the University of Maryland, which archived many records of Japanese patients affected by the bombs.

“I always dreamed of being a bridge between the US and Japan,” Sho mused towards the end of our talk. I think he has done just that.

Sho Fukushima

Sho Fukushima

CommandDuring the period of August 17-21, a short informal survey querying desire for command was promulgated by junior officer across junior officer forums. When the survey closed on the 21st, we had collected 442 responses, from all of the unrestricted line communities, plus many more. We found that of the survey respondents, 53% did not desire command, 23% did desire command, and another 23% were unsure. These results anecdotally validate our hypothesis that fewer than half of today’s junior officers seek command. In the unrestricted line communities, where we had enough responses to draw some conclusions from our data, we found that while men and women desired command at approximately the same rate, that rate was not uniform across communities. In the Surface Warfare Community, 33% of respondents desired command, while only 13% of Aviators and 14% of Submariners did.


We promulgated our five survey questions via the US Naval Institute Blog, the JOPA Facebook page, the Female Navy Officers’ Facebook page, and our own personal accounts. The survey was available online for four business days.


This survey serves as a baseline, and is not sufficient to analyze trends. Additionally, the survey methodology does not guarantee an unbiased respondent population; it is likely that we are seeing a response bias in favor of those with strong opinions about the likelihood of their continued service. We do hope that these results will serve to help gauge the current climate amongst the JO corps.

A few questions for discussion:

  • Are these numbers actually a problem?
  • Junior officers tend to be instructed that they should aspire to command. Do these numbers indicate a disconnect between the institutional expectation of command aspiration and the reality?
  • Should we “do something” about the aviation community’s apparent lack of desire for command? If so, what?
  • What other questions should we ask in future surveys?
  • Is there a place in the Navy for those who desire continued service, but don’t aspire to command?


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Representative Responses

We found that the responses we received from our 442 survey-takers were extremely thoughtful. Most respondents wrote us at least a paragraph; some wrote several. We have curated a representative sample below:


Any other reason to stay in is wasting my time. If I stay in, then I stay in for the whole deal. Too much time away from my family to just sluff off and not add value to my community, get an opportunity to lead a squadron into combat, set my expectations for leadership and mentorship within the squadron. I like that it is very hard to get to be a skipper, it makes me want to be the best and eventually (if the almighty timing is right) get selected for command.

In my limited 6 years of submarine service, I have had both good and bad leaders (Dept Head and above). When I was leaving my last submarine, I had a check out interview with my CO. I asked one final question before shaking his hand and walking off the ship: “Sir, has your command tour been worth it?” He responded, “I always thought that being a CO would be very tactical, but I am often surprised that tactics in today’s navy make up a smaller percentage of the job. I often have to take a moment to look past the fact that I am mostly getting the ship ready for inspections and evaluations to I realize that I am afforded the opportunity to go on deployment and do what we constantly train to do. In those moments, I feel very satisfied. I was somewhat shocked to find out that my CO (a great CO by the way) had the same perspective as that of a Junior Officer. It was at this moment that I aspired to be a CO and could possibly do his job someday.

It’s an exciting time for the SWO community – where we’re placing an emphasis on talent, tactics, innovation, options, work-life balance, and FUN! I want to mentor JOs and help change SWO culture for the better.

You don’t spend a career as a SWO to execute someone else’s command philosophy.

I love working with Sailors. I’ve served under two amazing Captains and an amazing Executive Officer now moving on to CDR command of his own. Their mentorship, guidance, and leadership have been inspiring and refreshing in a sometimes negative climate/community.

All the pain and suffering up until command is the investment that pays off when you’re sitting on the bridge wing of your own ship watching the sunset. Not striving for command wastes all of the effort that comes before. I’m in it to win it! — NOTE: No interest in Flag.

I can think of no better test of my personal will, creativity, character, and moral courage than to command an operational squadron. The number of people and value of the mission make it a task that seems immensely daunting but equally rewarding.

Command at sea is the pinnacle of the leadership challenges that the Navy offers to me as a Surface Warfare Officer. At no other point in my career do I have the enormous responsibility that command at sea requires. I am responsible for the ship and its most important asset, the Sailors and Marines that serve aboard the ship. I chose to continue serving in the Navy because of the incredible leadership opportunities that this job presents to those lucky enough to have the honor of command.

My happiest moments in the Navy are building successful teams. No better way to do that then be a CO. Because I’d like to change and be a positive leader. Especially for so many enlisted females that we have, I’ve never had a female DH, much less female CO and I think it is important for our sailors to see both

I desire the opportunity to test my leadership and decision making capability in a harsh, remote environment. I believe in our mission and am committed to leading our country’s brightest men and women to achieve victory in battle.

I aspire to only early command, and want no part of CDR command or major command. Command is not what it used to be, and I do not want to be second guessed on every single decision I would make as CO. As with many things in the SWO community, I believe a mentality shift would be required away from our zero-defect and administrative warfare obsessions before I would put any serious thought into CDR command or higher.

I desire to have the ultimate responsibility for a ship, her crew, to craft her into state of readiness that reflects my standards, and to slip the lines, sail over the horizon to do our job. I love Sailors, I love the pressure, I’ve thrived on the competitiveness required in getting to the precipice of command, and I think there’s something supremely traditional about command at sea; I think across all warfare areas, commanding a ship at sea reflects the core warrior ethos of the American Navy.Did I always want command? No, I didn’t as a division officer. Not at all. However, once I made a decision to be a department head and really began to thrive professionally, my heart changed. I think if you’re committed to your profession, and for me, I’m a professional mariner-Surface Warfare Officer, then why wouldn’t you aspire to have the opportunity to do things your way, change it up, apply your standard, train a ship how you see fit, sail a ship down range under your guidance to fight and win? If you haven’t committed to a career, then I get it—I didn’t aspire to command at that point. But if you’re in for the long haul, why wouldn’t you? I speak strictly as a straight-stick SWO; I acknowledge there are alternative career paths.


It seems every O-4 and O-5 I’ve worked for is chained to a desk and email. I have yet to talk to LCDR that said they actually enjoyed their job.

Politicization of the officer corps and the loss of reality that comes with it.

Our department heads are miserable and we are taught that the only way to make CO is to follow the Golden Path, a path that no one actually wants to take. The amount of time we waste at work to “show face” is absurd. Most of our “work” on days when we are not event planning or flying could be accomplished in two hours, but we stay at work all day so that we can be “seen” because in the long run this is what influences your fitrep. I just feel that so much time and talent is being wasted at the JO level and that the job is not what we all thought it would be.

The challenging nature of the job has been lost; furthermore, I have spent enough time away from family. I performed the last 6 months of my DIVO tour essentially performing a DH job. I lost the enjoyment in the job and I do not want to spend 2 years performing that job. I explored other communities, but the ones of interest won’t allow me to lateral transfer into them, even though I am in most cases qualified if not overqualified with schooling.

Because it seems the number one goal of COs these days is to NOT get fired. Everywhere you look there is some ridiculous reason why a CO is getting fired. Publicly elected officials and political appointees are held less accountable for their actions. I joined the military to join the military, not to work on the Hill or in politics. Command should not be viewed or held equal as to someone in politics. We don’t “elect” our COs. Firing COs don’t solve the problems for certain issues. Their job is to make sure the job gets done. If the Commodore or Admiral didn’t personally select them for command of a ship or boat in their squadron, then they should fire themselves. There is WAY too much overhead in the Navy and an organizational structure that is in place right now within the Navy would never last or even be put into place within a corporate environment. It also seems that the overhead takes the wind out of sails of CO to actually take command and run the ship how they want to run it. Within the first 6 months as an Ensign onboard a DDG, I knew that I had zero aspirations to shoot for Command at Sea. The COs I’ve had just seemed like puppets vice leaders.

There was a time when I would have served the Navy for no compensation at all and now seeing the models that I have to follow of “look better than the next guy” and DH’s who use you and your work as a stepping stone whilst slandering your name for not being as good as they are, I have little interest in playing a game to stay on a golden path instead of doing something I love. Think I’m being melodramatic? Observe, if you will, your DH’s when FITREPs are rounding the corner and also then note the number of JO’s that don’t have a DH living inside their behinds. How could command ever seem appealing when I would apparently have to make up things to do to appear busier than the next guy as a stepping stone to the next job and where I’ve got to monkey around instead of focusing on how to actually be good at something useful, meaningful, and important for my growth as a naval officer? Admittedly, many JO’S of my generation tend to expect success to fall into their laps but I believe it’s because we don’t have the right kind of mentorship, someone to clone good habits into us. What we do have are entitled and jaded O-4’s and O-5’s that just want you to know they’ve been there/done that already without considering that young JO’s will emulate that same attitude which in turn only inspires the people who want to step on the next stone to command without considering the magnitude of the responsibility to people other than yourself and your career. This path is just extremely unappealing and just sucks the enjoyment out of what I once thought would be a really satisfying job.

I feel as though CO’s are always needing to “look over their shoulder.” CO’s fear getting fired for “poor command climate” or worse, collision at sea. I feel like if I were to take Command at Sea, I would need to literally live on the bridge to ensure that if anything happened, I felt I did everything possible to not get fired. I do however, feel like I would love to take command of a Small Boat Unit, ACU or something “non-due-course.” This is not what the Navy wants from its SWO’s though. And I think that is a real issue with the SWO community. There needs to be other options for SWO’s that don’t necessarily want to take command of a warship, but still want to continue their career in the Navy.

Transitioning to civilian work force and spending time with family. Tired of moving every 2 to 3 years; Doing more with less; Inability to tell Chain of Command that we can not accomplish a mission or project without the fear of getting fired; Big Navy saying “Taking Care of Sailors”, when it is all lip service; Right sizing or down sizing, or what every catchy phrase they dream up that utilizes the slash and burn technique vice targeting the Sailors who really are not doing anything for the Navy vice your star performers; Navy not getting ride of more E7-E9 personnel that are underperforming; Get ride of CMDC rating, they have become bureaucrats and have lost touch with deck plate issues; The ugly and uncomfortable NWU’s that make us the circus clowns of the DOD; The crappy PT uniform; Intrusive leadership, I really don’t want to know or care if a 21 year old Sailor is out drinking at 2 AM, they are adults and such be treated like it. Sorry for rattling on. Some of these items are trivial, but I was on a roll.

Someone in the comments said a piece of it best… It’s not (necessarily) that I don’t aspire to be a CO, it’s that I don’t want to grind in the bureaucracy to get there.

1- we are required to change duty stations and jobs almost every 2 years

2- we package crap jobs with the best (IA/GSA to Bahrain, get xxxxx job) so performance doesn’t help me get the best job, no one wants does.

3- we’ve become a “GS” mentality Navy. Instead of working to get a job done, the vast majority of commands require their personnel to be present during certain hours, regardless of op-tempo, duty, deployment schedule, etc. As a Suppo, I’m busier at the end of the month, so I stay late then- why must I keep my folks until 1600 at the beginning regardless of workload, etc.

4- training – NKOs and training have literally wasted HUNDREDS of hours of my life. They do NOTHING to stop criminals, rapists, sexual assault, computer hacks, etc.

5- stop being zero fault… Everyone screws things up. Not everything has to go into the system, or people’s personal records. You can teach and most great sailors by mentorship and LEADERSHIP, vs using njp, drb, xoi, etc.

6- Evals/fitrep system is COMPLETELY broken. EACH CYCLE is and should be independent of the previous one, and have nothing to do with it. “Progressing” and “improved superior performance” is crap. If I’m the best, and I leave one command and go to another- odds are, I’m the best there. Why do I have to come in as an MP so I can progress to an EP?! And if someone who’s been at the command longer than me was “pretty good” before I got to the command and was the EP, why is his career crushed, if I get an EP he moves down to an MP? EVERY CYCLE IS SEPARATE from the one before.

7- stop being risk averse. Let people make decisions and mess things up. Let JOs speak out at meetings, and question decisions… In the end, the CO is going to make the decision, but we have become a navy of “yes men,” and if I speak up, KNOWING I’m right, it doesn’t matter. “HEAD DOWN, MOUTH SHUT-PROMOTE”.

Complete a technical PhD outside the Navy, on my own terms, own time, and take control of my career.

Why leave? We are less about warfighting and more about the sanctification of the bureaucracy, careerism and political manipulation at the highest levels of government, and increasingly delusional about the reality and nature of today’s threats. Commanders do not command anymore – they are simply cogs in a greater machine, and when they get squeaky or deviant, are either smashed back into place or replaced altogether. Perhaps when we lose a few ships and subs in some yet unforeseen calamitous conflict, the Navy will rediscover it’s gritty purpose. Until then, not interested in playing full time! Two days per month will do it for me.

Does not look like any of my three COs were having any fun. Angry, plagued by so many regulations and directives that their hands are tied when it comes to being able to make decisions that actually affect people in any positive way. Submarine COs are no longer, and have not been for some time, the maverick independent actors given wide latitude in judgement – they feel the heavy hand of a cautious, risk-averse bureaucracy every day and night.

The Navy has a system set up for officers that essentially forces everyone who stays in long enough to lead more and more people and eventually lead an entire command. “Force” isn’t really the right word since if you do not show forward progression by leading more and more people as you progress through to the O-3 ranks, then you will not get promoted to O-4 and get booted out of the Navy. The Navy has to realize that not everyone who join the officer corps are meant to be leaders. Some can lead small teams but will fail when they are in charge of a larger group. Some have no desire to lead but instead want to spend their time as operators. The Navy has to be willing to accommodate different people’s character traits. If someone starts off their Naval career as an extraordinary operator, whether it’d be operating keyboards for a computer network operation, or standing engineering officer of the watch on a nuclear submarine, they should be allowed to remain at that level. Imagine how good they would be if that’s all they ever did and that’s all they ever wanted to do? Leadership and command isn’t for everyone and the career pipeline shouldn’t be catered specifically towards that. They should be given the option to stall at a certain level and have a successful and fulfilling 20 year career doing what they love. It’s unfortunate, the Navy will lose a lot of good talent to private industry due to the way the current system is set up.

I’m not sure

I started my career as a submarine officer and command was clearly not my goal because I was fortunate enough to transition into a career in medicine. I stayed in the Navy to pay for school and I enjoy the sailors in the Navy and would like to serve them. Aspiring to be the skipper of my own submarine didn’t interest me because it’s an extreme sacrifice of your time and life for a mission that wasn’t particularly rewarding. Driving boats and going on deployment for me didn’t justify the strain it puts on a family. It’s difficult to not sound bitchy talking about this because the overwhelming sentiment during my time on a fast attack was negativity. Alcoholism was a major problem for officers and enlisted alike, it was a toxic environment to be in. Some guys really liked being on a submarine, it’s certainly unique and the enlisted sailors on subs are generally great people who for one reason or another ended up enlisting instead of finishing college. For me I realized that the submarine force is just a job, and it’s a ****ty one. When you deploy you can’t communicate at all with home for months at a time, the work you are doing is usually tedious and is dictated to the letter by rules and regulations, and it’s thankless. Outperforming your peers meant you got more responsibility while the ****bags got less, and that doesn’t translate into better pay or faster promotions or a bigger bonus, just better fitters, maybe a medal, and eventually screen for rank and put it on a little faster. If you’re competent and work hard you can be infinitely more successful elsewhere, have a better family life, make more money, do work that is rewarding and maybe even helps others. That’s obviously specific to my own aspirations but I know a lot of guys who share that sentiment. The Navy is good at dangling a carrot for people and convincing them they have it good.

Too much guide by wire from upper echelons. Command by negation is nearly extinct in the surface fleet. Rather than reading the DIMs and executing smartly, we have Chat terminals and Voice over IP phones at every command and control station- including next to the CO’s chair on the Bridge – so his boss can take him in close control and essentially assume command authority instead of relying on him to execute IAW the “special trust and confidence” commensurate with his position of authority. I may stay for Command, but it would take a drastic change in culture to move back to trusting your subordinates… In our increasingly connected world and reliance on technology to execute C2 and avoid risk at any cost, I don’t think we’ll get there before I’m in the right-hand seat.

The Exit Interviews series provides an opportunity to capture and share the honest and thoughtful insights of those members of the naval service who have served their country well, and are either moving on to serve it in other ways outside of the service (the “exit interview”) or who have chosen to pursue higher rank and greater responsibility within it. It focuses on individuals who are transitioning out of the service or have recently gotten out, and those who have recently chosen to stay in past their initial commitment.

Much like an exit interview in the corporate world, we ask a series of standardized questions that are intended to be open-ended and solicit honest reflection. If you would like to participate, or you know somebody who would, please reach out to


LT Tony Butcher commissioned through Air Force ROTC in 2005, and received an interservice transfer to the Navy in 2007. While in the Navy, he served as a Supply Officer on a destroyer based out of Norfolk, followed by tours ashore in Diego Garcia and Australia. He transitioned from active duty in 2014, and is in the second year of MBA studies at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

Why did you join the Navy?

My grandfather and six of his brothers were World War II veterans, most of who enlisted in the Navy the week following Pearl Harbor. When I was entering high school, my Great Uncle Bill told me his stories on the USS San Diego (CL 53): most notably the ship’s 18 battle stars without losing a Sailor and being the first U.S. ship to sail into Tokyo Bay after the surrender. My high school in Monterey, CA had a Navy JROTC program, and a military community represented from the Naval Postgraduate School and Defense Language Institute. That exposure drove my desire to become an officer in the Navy.

My path to a Navy commission took a circuitous route. I attended a university with an Air Force ROTC detachment and commissioned in the Air Force in 2005. However, I came in during the height of USAF force shaping programs as they ramped up officer numbers anticipating an increased Congressional authorization that never came. I used that as an opportunity to negotiate an interservice transfer to the Navy, which was approved at the end of 2007.

What was your favorite part of serving in the Navy?

The old slogan “Join the Navy: See the World” says it all. Before serving with the Navy, I’d never heard of the Seychelles, wouldn’t have been able to find Santorini, and if I’d been asked where Sydney Australia was I would have pointed at Perth. There were plenty of not so fun places as well, but I wouldn’t have erased those as they contributed just as much to the experience I gained. My exploring different parts of the world ashore and on the high seas gave me an educational experience not available in any classroom.

What did you find most frustrating?

Career management. When I transferred to the Navy it was as a Student Naval Aviator. Unfortunately, I was found to be not physically qualified to continue with aviation and was redesignated to the Supply Corps. This was frustrating because I’d listed the Information Dominance Corps (IDC) communities as my preference. In retrospect, it seemed like my only shot to select for an entire career path and involved more about timing than desire and skill set.

When I got to my ship and earned my surface qualification, I submitted a lateral transfer package. Although the IDC communities had openings for my year group, the Supply Corps community manager refused to release me, citing management of his numbers. Two years later, the next community manager reversed course and my release was granted, just in time for the IDC manager to shut the door to my year group. Further, I’d completed Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) certificate programs in Network Operations, Space Systems, and Cyber Security Fundamentals that the IDC community had recommended, only to find that they seemingly made no difference in my efforts.

With my current MBA internship, the private sector has been happy to utilize the Navy’s investment in my skills obtained at NPS. For its part, the Navy got absolutely no return on that investment. I find it hard to take articles from 10th Fleet stating they want more people with cyber skills very seriously when the current personnel system repels people like me from getting in.

When and why did you decide to get out of the Navy?

Ultimately, I left due to the inability to pursue an IDC designator as discussed in the previous question. I’d been on the fence about staying in for a full career for a while, but I made the decision while participating in exercise RIMPAC 2012. I didn’t find the work on my watch station to be adding value and was never excited about roles in the Supply Corps. My most memorable role was actually on a 5th fleet ship deployment where my C.O. allowed me to qualify and stand watch as Surface Warfare Coordinator. Anyway, I had this moment where I looked around the watch center and realized I didn’t like who I was working with and there was nobody there I wanted to be like when I grew up.

The mentorship that I was after was also lacking. The mentor that my detailer had set me up with was great for providing me with career path specific advice, but I can’t say any took the time to know anything about me personally. That’s the experience I felt with most senior officers I dealt with throughout several afloat and ashore commands. I don’t think they were being cold-hearted, but I was left feeling like we were all just cogs in a machine. Everyone seemed too serially focused on the series of wickets they needed to hit to reach 20 years of service and retirement.

If you could change one thing about the Navy what would it be?

Overhaul the personnel system. Give more flexible career management, and modify the up-or-out promotion system. I worked as a liaison to the Royal Australian Navy, and observed they did not have the up-or-out policy, which didn’t seem to wreck their officer corps. The current officer promotion boards serve as a very narrow high year of tenure checkpoint and punish anyone that deviates from a predefined optimal career path. Finally, if a Sailor leaves active duty, they’re essentially gone forever aside from a contribution in the Reserves. If a Navy veteran acquires significant skills and experience in the private sector, there’s no opportunity for the Navy to make use of that in a full time capacity.

I am encouraged by recent statements by VADM Moran and SECNAV Mabus that change may be on the horizon. They seem keen to make reforms that will modernize the current officer year group system that constrains community numbers. However, many issues are driven by provisions of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) and will require action from Congress for change to occur.

What single most important lesson or piece of advice would you leave with naval leaders?

Take care of your people.

I have a statistics professor at my current university that says “show your guts, show your heart, don’t be just talk-talk.” Leaders need to take care of their people through actions, not words. Military justice comes with unique power that no other profession has over its people. With the power comes great responsibility to use it righteously.

In 2012, when several criminal incidents involving Sailors took place in Japan, the 7th Fleet Commander decided the solution was to restrict liberty across the entire PACOM theater. I still have not heard a rational argument that supports why Sailors in Singapore and Australia with no history of bad incidents were denied due process and punished. The Navy needs leaders that use their power wisely, not selfishly to protect their careers at the cost of the masses under their commands. Sailors suffering under such toxic leadership will lose faith in it, in turn weakening the mission, their retention, and ultimately the Navy. CDR Guy Snodgrass’s recent Navy Retention Study seems to back this up.

When I had the opportunity to lead, I used corrective action as a surgical tool and saw mass punishment as effective only in destroying morale. When my Sailors and Marines were getting their job done efficiently, I rewarded them with liberty wherever possible. Ultimately, I saw this improve their quality of life and morale, and created a healthy environment driving successful mission accomplishment.

What’s next for you?

My long term career intent is to become a Chief Information Security Officer. I’m halfway through an MBA at UC Davis and wrapping up a summer internship at a Fortune 50 firm. The role has been in a strategic technology management area which I would have liked to have held in the Navy. Once I’m finished with my MBA and re-enter the work force, I plan to start a part time M.S. in Computer Science with emphasis in Computer Security to further build on my NPS coursework and improve my core knowledge.


The Road You Take

September 2015


When you look in the mirror, are you satisfied with who you see? Are you one of those military officers who won’t speak out when you know something isn’t quite right because you don’t want to make waves? While these may seem like philosophical questions, no matter how junior you are or how long you have been in the military, if you don’t question your values and consider what you would be willing to sacrifice to take a stand, chances are you are going to miss the boat. The ultimate choice you will have to make in your tenure as a military officer is which fork of the road you will take- the road to rank and popularity or the road to the moral high ground.

By the time I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, I had been taught by my parents to stand up for what I believed in no matter what the cost. At that time, it would never have occurred to me that I would be relieved from command after 19 years of service for holding my Marines accountable and pointing out the existence of lowered expectations for females and gender bias on the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. However, I quickly learned that for all of our talk of core values and ethics in the Marine Corps, many individuals I served with were more concerned with being liked than making difficult but necessary decisions. Some careerist commanders demonstrated that when assessing leadership, the words “negative command climate” carried far more weight than an officer’s actual ability to hold subordinates accountable for conduct and performance.

To that end, the greatest danger facing the military is not ISIS, but the failure of leaders to do the right thing even if it means being viewed as a problem by their superiors. As military officers, we must be willing to make difficult decisions, even when they are not popular. We must be able to look in the mirror and be satisfied with the person we see. We must also be willing to accept the consequences of decisions made on principle.

This does not mean these decisions will be easy to make. We talk a good game in the military about taking risks and living dangerously but the sad truth is that all too often we do nothing to fight bureaucracy and red tape even if we know that doing so would be in the best interests of our subordinates, our service, and the nation. History has shown time and again that when organizations stop evolving, they stagnate and go the way of the dodo bird. It takes individuals questioning the status quo to speak truth to power. Speaking up when something isn’t right can be uncomfortable and may cause others to view you as a problem. But it will allow you to know that you stood for something and that you set the example for your subordinates.

While there is a fine line between stating an opinion and disobeying an order, as military professionals, each of us owes it to our subordinates and the nation to question authority when we know what we are being told or what we see directly conflicts with our moral principles. We must consider whether we want to be likened to Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Ollie North or Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Lieutenant Colonel North is known for being a patsy who illegally sold weapons to the Contras, shredded classified documents to hide the paper trail, and lied to Congress during his testimony about the Iran-Contra Affair. Surely he knew each of these actions was morally and ethically wrong, yet he never spoke out or refused his orders.

Colonel Boyd, on the other hand, was known for being a candid strategic thinker and change agent who was willing to upset the apple cart if it meant saving lives and winning battles. In talking to his subordinates about the career fork in the road each of them would face, Boyd stated that they had two choices. “You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself … If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself …”[i]

As military leaders, we must have the moral courage to make difficult decisions in the interest of our subordinates, our service, and our nation, no matter what the consequence. We must recognize that service is not about being popular and liked, but is about getting results. As Colonel Boyd said, “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?”[ii] Which road will you take?

[i] Brett and Kay McKay, “John Boyd’s Roll Call: Do You Want to Be Someone or Do Something?”,, (22 January 2014).
[ii] McKay. “John Boyd’s Roll Call”.

The laws and norms surrounding the movement of economic goods across geopolitical boundaries are well-defined. By contrast, the ability to create and manipulate information has become ubiquitous and robust legal frameworks governing how state actors, individuals, and institutions interact with the information ecosystem do not yet exist. This creates risk and opportunity for state and non-state actors looking to devise new information manipulation tactics and make claims on this evolving space. Information control has always been a key component of strategy; however the current speed of evolution provides an advantage to potential disruptors, who do not have sunk costs in existing expensive processes and techniques. Whereas during the medieval period, a limited number of literate clergy had the ability to control the information space (which was explicitly linked to the capacity to wage war), today both state and non-state actors, no matter how marginal, have the ability to contribute to the information battlespace. Even a single, well-placed YouTube video, such as the beheading videos released by ISIL can influence military response.

Information is a non-rivalrous commodity, which should fundamentally change military investment profiles. In FY10, the United States spent $160B for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to CIA estimates of Al Qaeda’s 2010 operating budget of $30M. Despite 5,000 times more investment by the US, Al Qaeda continued to expand its influence throughout the region with involvement in Yemen, Russia, Syria, and by facilitating the eventual destabilization of Iraq. In the information age, spending and traditional military definitions of success no longer correlate with stable end states. It is more difficult to characterize 21st century conflicts in terms of definitive winners and losers than traditional industrial conflicts. It follows that post-industrial, digital-age conflicts will be characterized by informational pluralism, and that single source-point information control is no longer viable for military organizations.

The Department of the Navy’s (DON’s) information construct is currently divided along two objectives. One objective is to disseminate propaganda about the DON’s agenda and operations to a small circle of military-industrial and congressional elites who can afford 4-digit subscriptions to defense publications. The approach is not only fundamentally undemocratic, but also flawed in its assumption that “authoritative information” flowing out of the Navy information channels actually holds value in the information economy. The Navy information organization relies on humans to do the searching, processing, and dissemination of information, while most private-sector organizations, rely on advanced algorithms to fulfill these functions. Relying on humans results in slower processing speeds, increased error rates, and the bias that occurs from having associative, rather than random access, memory. Humans are subject to confirmation bias and will continually reinforce existing hypotheses with new information, rather than allowing the data itself to guide conclusions. In a world where decisions are made based on multiple sources, curated by digital systems, human-centric, centralized information systems are decreasingly relevant.

The second objective is to manipulate the information space as it is perceived by our adversaries, via network operations and psychological operations, for example. However, the efficacy of this construct is challenged by adversaries, many of whom recognize that they can achieve strategic objectives at minimal cost by creating a multiplicity of equally viable perceptions within the information space. While the US Navy continues to rely on an outdated approach to information, countries such as Russia and China understand how to apply pressure to their adversaries by insidiously manipulating information through a broad range of channels. This is evident in Russia’s substantial investments not only in internal propaganda machines such as RussiaTV, but more disturbingly Washington D.C. think tanks and London banking. Similarly, China’s ability to map connections and place pressure on individuals through data gathered in the OPM breach clearly indicates how information is valued in the Chinese defense paradigm.

The primary goal of the current battlespace information agenda is to have real-time ‘perfect’ information that is consistent from the tactical to the strategic level—the battlefield equivalent of the Waze app for traffic or Uber for transportation services. These capabilities are being developed using today’s information paradigms and technology, although they are unlikely to be operational for several years. However, with minimal investment, unsophisticated actors have the ability to disrupt this approach by making it impossible to distinguish real from fabricated threats. This is comparable to populating the Uber app with fake cars, eliminating users’ ability to distinguish between real and avatar drivers and therefore efficiently travel between points. The Russians demonstrated this approach in 2014 when they flooded social media channels with false reports of a chemical spill in Centerville, Louisiana. Optimizing the battlefield information ecosystem for real-time, perfect information piped through singular channels creates tremendous vulnerabilities when the potential for information oversaturation by an adversary is high.

Often times, DON assessments of novel approaches to the legal uses of information and weaponization (notably the use of disinformation) devolve into rights-based arguments focused narrowly on injunctive norms and “ethical” applications of information within defined legal realms such as intellectual property and privacy. While important, these conversations amongst military and political leadership often contribute little in terms of practical solutions and tend to overlook evolving challenges within the information space. The DON has been efficient in developing sweeping statements about the “importance of information” that never get adopted locally, while our adversaries continue to experiment with novel approaches in the information space. The military is the catastrophic backstop for the United States, and as adversaries invest aggressively and disruptively to control this evolving space, the DON will undoubtedly have a role to play in informing future frameworks and tactics.

In order to influence the information space, the DON must make investments in global cultural understanding. Cultural proficiency within the information space is not only paramount to generating information that produces the desired effects, but also critical to the DON’s ability to effectively mine the data of our adversaries. Effective use of information requires first-hand knowledge and cannot be outsourced to the intelligence community or communicated through powerpoint briefs. It requires understanding consumption habits, means of ingestion, and technical and semantic characteristics of information in a particular context. Close collaboration and immersion is necessary to understand subtle cultural constructs and the DON must grow this expertise or develop partnerships to provide the depth and breadth of cultural understanding across the DON needed to function in the information age.

Secondly, perhaps the greatest threat the DON faces is having its information ecosystem saturated with disinformation, or false positives. This mandates the use of advanced algorithms to parse the information ecosystem efficiently. Complex models and algorithms are often more art than science and heavily influenced by their creators. This capability must be developed organically, allowed to grow, and continually adapted by experts and integrators. This is a way of thinking that has become a core capability in an information world that resides in a small subset of synthesizers. It is non-transferable, cannot be trained, and cannot be outsourced. The DON must invest in finding and cultivating this unique set of talents. The US Navy must acknowledge its role and invest accordingly or it will find itself increasingly unable to compete on the information battlefield.

If you look up the word “equalist” in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, you will not find it. As I write this article, the word is underlined in red squiggles which, interestingly, not only highlights its grammatical inaccuracy, but also its significance on the page. Urban Dictionary defines the word as “one who defends the rights of all, without discriminating against the opposition’s rights.” I look at myself and see an equalist. I also see a First Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps, a leader in my local community, a lover of people, and a woman.

I do not need to ask my fellow women military personnel—of any rank—if they too describe themselves as equalists. I know the answer. These women desire one thing in their personal and professional lives: equal opportunity to show their talents and pursue their goals. While these goals and talents are as diverse as those of the male military personnel, they also represent the beautiful individuality of the women who make up less than 15% of the armed forces. We do not want to be given a “hand;” we do not want to meet anything less than the standard; and, we do not want to discriminate against anyone else in the pursuit of our own success and happiness. We just want the same chance.stokes usni2

In our effort to succeed in our military work life, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has become one of our great guidebooks. Without a hint of feminist rant or cliché, Ms. Sandberg nails it. With intuitive understanding of the way women see themselves generally, she identifies what has held us back from becoming the fine leaders we can be, and then provides a nice roadmap for demolishing our own “glass ceilings” and getting there – even in that tritely termed “man’s world.”

The phenomenal success of the Lean In philosophy has been subsequently embodied in the “Lean In Circle,” developed in recognition of the reality that life’s challenges are more eagerly and effectively faced when we have support, rather than “going it alone.”

The Lean In Circle is becoming an increasingly valuable mentoring program for the military because of the well-known challenges that have faced women in this choice of career. These groups offer young women – and men as well – an opportunity to get together and talk. In these forums, the new generation of women military personnel meet with more senior women that have experienced the same doubts and obstacles. Insecurities can be discussed without fear of judgment, and strategies developed for personal success.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Lean In Circles are popping up on military bases around the world, both in garrison and deployed. Even the academies are getting in on a good thing. My alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, now has eight Lean In Circles, and circles are in place at the US Air Force Academy, and the US Military Academy.

One of the most notable side effects of leaning in is the way military women are more likely to actively seek and absorb inspiration in our daily lives, even beyond the circle. For example, I recently attended a conference to recognize the “Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California,” published by Mount Saint Mary’s University. The acclaimed actress, Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, said something I now try to live by as I lean in: “If you can see it, you can be it.” Applying this model to the military, I believe that if you can meet it, you can believe it!

While I know it will not happen overnight, in the short 20-year span that I have experienced the military, first from the perspective of the daughter of a Marine Captain and sister of a Marine mortar man, to my own first-hand experiences as a Marine Officer, I have seen the Marine Corps – and other services as well – make strides toward eliminating gender bias and promoting a more equal playing field. For example, the Marine Corps has indicated its policy commitment to better representation of women among its top leadership – the current number of women Lieutenant Colonels and above is not nearly acceptable, and I am confident that this will one day change.

Thus, it appears to me that, while women in the military are leaning in toward a better future for themselves and their families, the military is making an effort to lean in as well, and needs to continue on this path. If we are going to work toward an environment free of gender bias – where Marines are Marines and not labeled as female or male first – then we junior women must take responsibility to seek mentorship from our leaders. This includes not only our “older and wiser” female leaders, but also our male leaders, whose unique perspective can be most valuable. And, those leaders must feel charged to share their own experiences and advice with the goal of success for all.

We know that formal policy changes and implementation of mentoring programs will not alone solve the issue of gender inequality within the armed forces. But, they are a great start. These efforts, coupled with the passionate support of top commanders, down to most junior enlisted, will eventually result in a military culture that recognizes the unique value women bring to the force. Women will then embrace the opportunities they feel they lack now, and women representation in the armed forces will rise.

Imagine what the US military will look like when we all lean in together.

Coming from the private sector I was struck by the conspicuous lack of female voices participating in SECNAV’s Taskforce Innovation (TFI). Women currently constitute less than 10% of The Hatch innovation crowdsourcing community and innovation organizations like the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) have been overwhelmingly male. The women involved in TFI have provided a disproportionately large contribution in terms of content, commitment, and ability to catalyze larger networks, highlighting the need to cultivate more women innovators. The value of women innovators has been demonstrated in the private sector, where according to a Kauffman Foundation report women technology entrepreneurs achieve a 35 percent better return on investment than male counterparts.

Both in the private sector and the military women have worked to be recognized for their skillsets alone, often by attempting to remove gender from the equation. The Department of the Navy (DON) diversity agenda has largely focused on eliminating differences in perception and opportunity between the genders, such as opening all operation billets and gender-neutral uniforms. The DON may have moved beyond the active intent to exclude or discriminate, but cultural norms still prevent women from fully contributing to activities that take them off the prescribed path.

Scarce numbers increase visibility and scrutiny, and humans are less likely to try things when there is a potential of being threatened. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant pointed out in a Jan 2015 New York Times op-ed, when male executives speak up, they receive 10% higher competence ratings; when female executives do the same, their ratings from their peers are 14% lower. In male dominated fields men and women are held to a different standard when it comes to proving initial competence. Men are assumed competent at the core functions until proven otherwise, whereas women are forced to spend time proving core competence prior to being allowed to push boundaries. One private sector manifestation of this is the fact that women are often excluded from positions on technology boards because they lack STEM backgrounds, however a significant proportion of the male board members of technology companies also lack STEM backgrounds, but are assumed to be competent.

Innovation requires the ability to question norms, synthesize different views, and collaborate to develop unique and powerful solutions. Diversity is the DNA of innovation, but the current DON focus on diversity is simply about bringing women to the table, not providing the environment to ensure they are included in the conversation. Inclusion is about ensuring diverse voices are heard, recognized, and rewarded. Below are three suggestions for more fully incorporating women innovators throughout the DON.

Create space:

An often cited Hewlett-Packard internal report found men apply for jobs when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women will not apply until they meet 100% of them. The fact that women make up less than 1% of writers at the Naval Institute Blog is likely an artifact of this fact. Women are less likely to present ideas in progress in a male dominated environment. Encouraging women to innovate requires creating safe space to develop ideas and experiment. Additionally, creating a sense of community where women can talk openly and take risks without being judged prematurely is critical. Women specific initiatives, such as discussion groups and women in writing week, can create the sense of community and the critical mass necessary to push women innovators into taking risk.

Research also shows that when women come to the table the ideas are more likely to be more developed comprehensive solutions. Innovation programs need to ensure they are not primed to give more consideration to ideas that are brought to the table first.

Support the First Followers:

Derek Shivers gave a TED talk on how the first followers are critical to starting a movement and transforming a lone nut into a leader. In a hierarchical organization followers are generally those that have less authority and influence than their superiors. They may try and get along to preserve career or simply because it is the path of least resistance. Leadership in the innovation space is being the lone nut, a place women are often uncomfortable in that role due to the reasons discussed in this blog post. Good followers are the key to driving innovation. They empower people, remove obstacles, and catalyze implementation. They support good leaders and are willing to actively oppose bad leadership. Valuing, actively encouraging, and rewarding first followers are critical to the success of any innovation agenda and give those outside of the cultural majority a place to engage, refine ideas, and if desired step into leadership positions.

Maximize Strengths:

As an organization the DON spends a significant amount of the manpower effort getting the workforce to a minimum acceptable standard. This was critical in an industrial era military when force structures were optimized for homogeneity and interchangeability. However, research suggests that the most successful individuals capitalize on their innate dominant talents and develop those strengths by adding skills and knowledge. Rethinking who and how people come together to collaborate and solve problems is critical to avoiding group-think, a condition which has created past national security failures. Innovation requires intentionally cultivating views that are outside the cultural norms.

In order to be an innovative organization, the DON needs to embrace the fact that individuals have different strengths and weaknesses and that a model based on interchangeability is not tenable in today’s world. There are biological distinctions between the genders, it is a fact, and not something organizational conversation should shy away from. Scientific breakthroughs occur in teams with more women because of increased creativity and fresh approaches and according to research published in Science increasing the collective social sensitivity by adding women increased the collective intelligence of teams. Creating a culture that values individuals and emphasizes organizational constructs that maximize cognitive diversity will allow the DON to maximize the innovative potential of its workforce irrespective of gender.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Department of the Navy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I, too, have missed a few elections. I was more interested in buying lottery tickets at eighteen than casting a ballot, and I have come up with more than a few ways to justify why I skipped out on my constitutional right to democratic participation. But after less than a year in a job at the intersection of the military and our system of government, I am convinced that missing even a single election is one too many. There are far too many prevailing myths that might explain why service members choose not to vote – and it is a choice. Here are just some of those that I have heard over the past five years – all paraphrased, and some heavily exaggerated to try and draw out the true reasoning (also interpreted by me.) But if you don’t feel like reading the whole list, I can summarize it for you. They predominantly fall into three camps: “it’s too hard,” “all of my options are terrible” and “I’m lazy/I don’t care.”

For your enjoyment (or horror…):

1) I haven’t been keeping up with current events; I would be an uninformed voter. I’m really busy.

2) I don’t even live in the state where I am registered to vote. Haven’t for a decade. Probably won’t even go back either (don’t tell Mom.)

3) I used to vote by absentee ballot, but I stopped dealing with that hassle when I found out my vote wouldn’t count unless there was a less than 1% winning margin. I still tell people I vote though.

4) I don’t want to register to vote in the state where I am stationed, because I will lose XYZ benefits of keeping my home of record. (Usually some form of tax exemption.)

5) I have to work on voting day – I’ll be in the office before the voting stations open and until well after they are closed. It’s just not convenient. I mean maybe if there was a polling station on base? I actually have no idea where the polling station is though. Or –

6) I’ll be in the field/on the ship/on a det(achment) on voting day. Or –

7) Deployed on voting day, and the one after that, and the one after that. I’m really busy.

8) No, but seriously, I don’t even know where my voting station is. I moved here last week. And I’m moving again before the next election, so… I’m really busy.

9) School Board Election? You’re assuming I have kids, or will have the opportunity to have kids one day. I’m not even married, slow your roll.

10) As a member of the Armed Services, I serve at the pleasure of the Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States, and to cast a vote for his or her opponent, then see my chosen candidate lose, would inspire me with a profound resentment towards the individual who will ultimately (or continue to) lead me. I wouldn’t be able to follow any orders from any authority after that; I couldn’t deem them lawful – I mean, I would have voted for someone else. #notMYpresident

11) General election? Midterm elections? What are those? Oh local stuff – not interested. See 1, 2, and 3.

12) The Presidential race? Now that’s something I can get interested it – I love those debate drinking games! Oh, but I really can’t stand watching the news, I don’t like any of the candidates, all politicians are awful, who’s running this country anyway? I’m really more of an Independent, so I’m just going to abstain, in protest of our dysfunctional political system.

I want to break down a few of these; we’ll call them “justifications.” Because I’ll assume that you might, too, feel guilty after complaining about your local, state, or federal representation, when you realize that you have no idea who they are, nor did you have any say in that – by choice.

Starting on the issue of accessibility – and admittedly at the risk of going down a rabbit hole of absentee balloting issues and assuming you want to play a role in your local or state level government – I’m going to briefly highlight a few things going on in the ever-changing field of voting rights, then we’ll move onto heavier topics.

First off, this is a one-stop shop for the “long distance voter” and (spoiler alert) military members and their spouses meet this criterion (by law) for federal elections, no matter which state you click. Also, you may be registered in Washington, Colorado, or Oregon – which would make you the lucky resident of an “Mail Voting” State, wherein, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “a ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary), and the state does not use traditional precinct poll sites that offer in-person voting on Election Day.” And these states have instituted vote-by-mail procedures for specific types of elections, but even more tremendously, these states (and DC) have “No-Excuse Absentee Voting” which means, you don’t need to have an excuse, but now (I think) you have #noexcuse. Finally, like subscriptions for GNC products, some states have made it possible to opt into a “permanent absentee voter” pool, wherein your ballot will be automatically mailed to you before all elections. Because who has time to order more protein – I mean, another ballot – from the field?

Using the Long Distance Voter tool (thank you, Internet), you won’t be surprised to find that there are specific steps (sometimes several) required to get to the point where you can drop your ballot, and many times, there is an in-advance-of-elections deadline for registration. But these states (and DC!) have online voter registration, and the Federal Voting Assistance Program specifically exists to help you – a member of the Armed Services – with the other 38.

Now, to the “All my options are terrible” camp. I’ve convinced you that it’s possible to participate in the democratic process, but you still don’t want to? You are not alone, but then again, you are EXACTLY who SHOULD be participating at – not avoiding – the polls.

On the issue of a conflict of interest, whoever is elected will be your President and Commander-in-Chief, whether you voted for him or her or not. As a civil servant, you have two responsibilities – albeit sometimes seemingly in contradiction – both in service to national security and as a citizen in your community. Insisting that the elected official in the highest office in the country is #NotMYPresident is inaccurate, and disrespectful to the entire executive administration. And in your case, probably insubordinate. Stop.

On the issue of representative choice and being an “Independent” – great! So you:

  • … have concerns about your options, and you want to influence the process to have better ones – vote! Oh you can’t, because there aren’t any “I’s” running? How about a moderate during the primary season who could potentially unseat someone who could otherwise pull your would-be party (doesn’t matter which one) to an extreme you dislike. Because unless you are registered in a state where you can vote in either party’s federal primary regardless of your party affiliation (known as “open primaries”)[1] registering as an Independent may shut you out of the primary process altogether.
  • … came to the conclusion that you are an Independent because you are legitimately so moderate that you can’t pick a camp – but you swear you’re not just confusing “Independent” with “apathy” – vote anyway! See above. Don’t worry, you can still tell everyone you “identify as politically independent” and join 43% of the United States population who feels the same way.
  • … still hold to “my vote never gets counted anyway” either because it’s an absentee ballot, or I’m a registered X in a predominantly, non-competitively Y state? All I can say is that things change, and while there may be an anticipated election outcome, the unexpected could happen instead. Because demographics change, and redistricting occurs, and most of all, people show up to vote. Even if they think it won’t matter, because that’s what the polls had been saying. But if not to actually have your ballot counted, there’s one more reason to vote…

Credibility. If you are in the “I’m lazy/I don’t care” camp, then you are really saying, I don’t have any opinions about anything except reality television. But as someone who chose to serve, I highly doubt it; in fact, I would bet that you have very strong opinions. And you have opinions about things on which are rarely legislated, and/or that affect you personally, and/or your family, and/or the country at large – you do care! You probably have a thought or two about the way that the military is resourced, or how we take care of veterans – young and old – and which bases are built up and which ones are torn down. Only you will know if you voice those opinions – out loud or on social media – without ever having taken the time to cast a ballot for anyone, anywhere, but you will know. And you will be, literally, incredible.

So, for the first time I will use the word “easy,” to say that I know there is nothing easy about the process, particularly as a member of the military – because you really are busy. It will take time, energy, and thoughtful consideration. You will have episodes of frustration, and you may feel like giving up, (repeatedly, there are many elections) but to do so is only to alienate yourself from the result, and deny yourself the credibility in trying. And there’s no excuse for that.


*Disclaimer: I am not encouraging any activity that would “use official authority or influence to interfere with an election, affect the course or outcome of an election, solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, or require or solicit political contributions from others.”[2] There is a distinct difference between participation and exhibition. This is a pitch for quiet, thankless civic participation, even when nobody is watching, or even because nobody is watching.


[1] Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii (Open primary for state, local, and congressional races; caucus system for presidential races), Massachusetts (All races’ primaries open for “unenrolled”/unaffiliated voters only), Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.


SpaceShipOne lands victoriously after a successful flight to space. Photo by Mike Massee. Courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC.

SpaceShipOne lands victoriously after a successful flight to space. Photo by Mike Massee. Courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC.

We are part of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell, a group of junior personnel charged to bring rapid prototypes and emerging technology to the fleet. Part of the job is acting as agents for innovation, and as a result, we meet with organizations in the civilian world and government who are pushing boundaries, building new tools, and making the tech of tomorrow a reality today. When we visit new companies and organizations, we try to capture the principles and characteristics that make them effective.

On our most recent trip we visited Scaled Composites, a small aerospace engineering company based in Mojave, California that produces custom aircraft from concept to flight. Our key takeaway was that the company’s value proposition is built on a passion for aviation, and using bold materials and groundbreaking design engineering to overcome technical challenges. This has been the company’s passion since the beginning, resulting in a number of innovative projects, including winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for a suborbital space flight in SpaceShipOne, the first privately built manned spacecraft. We liked that they do not limit themselves to traditional aircraft designs and construction techniques, as shown by one of their ongoing projects, the StratoLauncher. Designed to launch a payload into low earth orbit with more flexibility than traditional launch systems StratoLauncher will be the biggest airplane ever built.

From the beginning, it was clear that we were dealing with something different. We met the President of the company, Kevin Mickey, early on a workday, and most of us didn’t realize who we were talking to, until he passed out his business card and showed us a company overview slideshow with his title on it. The contrast to our own naval culture was readily apparent. There was no entourage, no aide or executive assistant hovering around to serve his every need, and he insisted on talking on a first name basis, making us feel completely at home.

After an hour-long discussion on the company, its mission and culture, and how they are pushing the limits of aircraft material and design, we toured the factory floor and saw their unique corporate culture in action. The company’s corporate values showed through, from Kevin knowing his employees by first name and greeting every one we passed, to the close working relationships and collaboration we saw between the shop workers and engineers. This was clearly a company that places its people first, in pursuit of solving big technical challenges.

Walking the floor and observing the manufacturing process, the group asked whether given the name, the company and its employees had a special passion for building with composites. Surprisingly, the answer was no. The materials used by Scaled Composites are actually conventional in the world of composite engineering. The company uses composites for the simple reason that building with them is the quickest pathway from design to flight, and allows rapid progress in short timelines.

Mojave is a desolate place. The town is dry, windswept, and has a population of fewer than 4,000. Scaled Composites attracts employees by giving them interesting problems to solve, and keeps them by continuing to challenge them with rewarding projects. Of the 550 employees in the company, over 60% are pilots themselves, and work on aircraft as a hobby. After building and fling aircraft all day, it is very common for employees to then go home and continue building and flying their own personal projects. Project teams are purpose-built around customer problems, and deliberately small and collaborative. There is a large amount of latitude for individual employees, based on a trust that they are trying their best to work for the company and to deliver a high quality product for the customer.

The company’s management exists to keep barriers away from the employees on the factory floor doing the actual work of the company, and serving the needs of its people, in order to put out a better product, more quickly. An interesting concept we discussed was the idea of the company being successful because of all the things it is not doing. This includes eliminating unnecessary process and oversight, preventing too much of an employee’s time from being spent in meetings, and undue reporting requirements to the corporate management. They quickly get rid of anything that gets in the way of employees designing and building aircraft.

In discussing oversight, questions of risk tolerance and failure came up. Kevin related that in building inventive aircraft and in providing latitude to engineers and floor workers, failure does occur. But what differentiates them from traditional development processes in, say, the government, is that they focus not on elimination of failure, but rather on ensuring they fail early in a project, and for the right reasons. An honest mistake is not punished, with the idea that an employee who makes a mistake for the right reasons is actually very unlikely to fail that way again. Negligence can’t be tolerated, but whole-scale risk aversion is toxic for a group. A key reminder for us was that if progress is going to be made, a healthy culture of risk tolerance is critical. At Scaled Composites, the atmosphere is anything but “zero defect.”

Overall, what lessons did we learn, and how can we in the Navy and Marine Corps apply them? This is an interesting question, since Scaled Composites is a for-profit company, with a mission of financial gain through deliverance of the best product it can. Meanwhile the military exists to win our nation’s wars, without a commercial profit motive. But there is one overriding commonality we observed: in both of these seemingly disparate missions, the people should come first. If you encourage a culture that questions boundaries, provides an intellectual challenge, is willing to reward boldness and even encourages failure in the pursuit of overcoming challenges, you attract and develop the kinds of people who dare to fail and drive outsized success when they win. This culture develops boldness, creativity and audacity that lead to considering more and bigger ideas, and cultivates people willing to try these ideas. As a result of this focus on people, Scaled Composites has been able to deliver a consistently high level of quality and breadth of products. For a military organization, a focus on people will result in enlisted and officers who aren’t afraid to act boldly and accept risk in accomplishing a mission. This will enable the capability and capacity to ensure we are building combat-ready forces in peacetime in order to win decisively in times of conflict.

In the military, we put our people first. Said another way, our people are the most important tool for winning wars, ideas are next, and the technology we use serves both. This is an oft-repeated paradigm, and while we aren’t perfect in following it, it has been proven true time and time again, throughout history. We must ensure we keep this focus. Wars are won by commanders with the vision and boldness to make hard decisions, and by Sailors, Airmen, Soldiers and Marines with the courage to carry those actions out. This paradigm is hardly unique to the military however, and we can learn much from people and organizations outside the DoD who share this commitment. In Scaled Composites, we saw just that. The company’s bold vision, failure tolerant and risk accepting culture attracts, and more importantly, develops and retains the type of employees who are comfortable with risk. Inculcated in a “dream big” culture, employees are encouraged to think boldly and pursue radical ideas. From this milieu of people and ideas, new technologies and airplanes are born, with many failures, but with enough successes that the company remains on the leading edge of the aeronautical field. The big successes that have put the company on the map, such as introducing manned spaceflight to the private market, are a testament to the philosophy of supporting and challenging their people. Scaled Composites is a model that is hard to ignore, and a valuable example to the Navy.

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