The discussion of junior leader innovation has slowed as of late, in a post-NWDC conference deep breath. One of the regular criticisms levied at LT Ben Kohlmann, LT Rob McFall, and others who have written about the need for disruptive thinking and junior officer innovation is that this is a case of “same old, same old.” In particular, every generation of junior officers has angst and feels that the system is out of balance. According to the critics it is simply the result of the military’s hierarchical organization and structure and there’s nothing to worry about.

History proves part of this observation correct. MAJ Pete Munson at Small Wars Journal has highlighted the USAF’s “Dear Boss” letters in an illustration from the 1970’s. In the 1950’s Proceedings printed LCOL Robert Heinl’s classic “Special Trust and Confidence” which discussed the issues of trust between junior and senior officers in the Marine Corps. Reminiscent of BGEN Arnold’s recent article “Don’t Promote Mediocrity,” in the first two decades of the 20th century Proceedings published a series of articles from junior leaders debating the promotion system and discussing the need for selection boards to pick the officers who were to promote, rather than using a simple system of seniority.

The question becomes, does the JO angst matter? With the long history of generational conflicts, should we even care? The answer is yes. The history demonstrates that there are many times when the issues raised by junior leaders can have an impact on the military’s ability to fight and win the nation’s wars. I’ll share two brief examples.

Preparing for Civil War

For the first half of the USN’s existence promotion was based on simple seniority. The date that you entered service dictated your rank. When an officer retired, or died as was commonly the case, a slot was opened and the next person in line was promoted. The only way around it was for Congress to act, promoting a specific individual. It makes sense that Junior Officers found this system to be a mess. In some cases Lieutenants weren’t promoted to Commander (the next rank in those days) until the age of 53, and some became Captains in their 70’s.

There were a number of movements to change the system in the first half of the 19th century. All attempts at reform failed until the 1850’s. Commander Samuel Du Pont, who demonstrated his own skill in the Mexican War but could not be promoted to Captain because of the system, led a movement for reform by challenging the senior officers who were simply dead weight. He wrote to Dobbins insisting that the need for reform and personally drafted legislation. The Secretary agreed and wrote in his 1854 Annual Report to Congress, “The magic touch of reform is needed, and if skillfully applied will impart to the now drooping body of the Navy a robust health and a new life.” Du Pont received countless letters from JO’s across the Fleet in support of his efforts.

In 1855 Dobbins and President Franklin Pierce pushed the measures suggested by Du Pont through Congress “to promote the efficiency of the Navy,” which established a board of Lieutenants, Commanders, and Captains to review the personnel record of every officer in the Navy. After working for over a month the board announced that they found over 200 officers who were “unfit for service.” Some of them were cashiered outright; others were placed on retired lists with furlough pay or with leave of absence pay. The “Plucking Board,” as it came to be known, considered everything from officer’s performance during the Mexican War to their drinking habits and personal reputations. Following the “plucking” there was a rash of promotions, as men on the seniority list moved up into the now vacant positions in what became known as the “jackass” promotions.

In the half decade before the Civil War a number of officers like David Farragut and Andrew Hull Foote were finally able to promote out of the junior ranks following the Plucking Board. David Dixon Porter, who had left the service on a leave of absence to pursue a merchant career, also returned. These leaders and many others assumed positions of responsibility and prominence on the eve of America’s most costly war. They went on to serve the Union (and some the Confederacy) with skill. Would they have risen to become the nation’s first Admirals without the Plucking Board? Probably. Combat tends to be the ultimate judge for promotion. However it would have taken longer and the service’s effectiveness likely would have suffered in the early years of the conflict.

A Crisis of Command and Vietnam

In the October issue of The Journal of Military History, William M. Donnelly had an article titled “Bilko’s Army: A Crisis of Command?” In the article the historian from the U.S. Army’s Center for Military History provides an analysis of the Army’s culture between Korea and the Vietnam War. It was a culture that included the introduction of management practices, the inclusion of business principles in military affairs, and growing disaffection among Junior Officers. During this period the young officers who would become the leaders of the Army during Vietnam were trained, educated and promoted.

In 1970 General Westmoreland, then the Army’s Chief of Staff, was briefed on a study that he had commissioned. The study was intended to look into the Army’s culture of leadership and it determined that there was “significant, widely perceived, rarely disavowed difference between the idealized professional climate and the existing professional climate.” The officers that created this divide were the generation of men promoted into their positions between Korea and Vietnam. They were the same senior officers that struggled with the combat leadership and the operational competence necessary to take on the Vietnam conflict.

Donnelly discovers a number of trends in the leadership methods of the decades in question. As early as the Korean War he identifies that “a troubling symptom for some officers was the increasing tendency to judge subordinates by how they met statistical goals” rather than their results in combat operations. In the years following the conflict the Army began to recognize that a growing focus on what it called “career management” might be negatively impacting the quality of leadership. However, senior officers ensured that the only leadership level that was identified officially as deficient was Company grade and below (When an Army contractor suggested studying leadership above that level, since they were the ones teaching the Company grade officers, they were quickly rebuked). Junior Officers didn’t feel that the blame should rest on their shoulders.

Junior Leaders during the period identified their biggest challenge as “oversupervision” (what we today might refer to as micro-management). Training commands began to identify a lack of initiative in Infantry Battalions, and the beginning of a “Mother-may-I” attitude that searched for explicit instruction from superiors. Combat Veteran JO’s began to leave the service in large numbers, and retention at the company grade became a significant challenge. Throughout the late 50’s and early 60’s oversupervision continued to be discussed and identified as a key element to why young officers were leaving. Donnelly relates that “a common complaint from Junior Officers was that an impersonal and often confusing system treated them as interchangeable cogs.” The trends continued and in 1965 CPT Pete Dawkins, an Infantry Officer and later a General Officer, wrote a stinging article entitled “Freedom to Fail,” where he identified a zero-defect mentality and oversupervision as the greatest challenges to the Army’s combat effectiveness in Vietnam.

I can’t do Dr. Donnelly’s article justice in a few short paragraphs, so I encourage you to find a copy through your local library (or better yet, join the Society for Military History and you can also read Kevin Weddle’s excellent 2004 article “The Magic Touch of Reform: Samuel Francis Du Pont and the Efficiency Board of 1855”). The entire article is worthy of your time. In his conclusion Donnelly tells us that the “dysfunctional characteristics of the Vietnam-era officer corps” can be traced easily through the culture of the preceding decades. Officers who thrived in a culture that prized management over leadership, encouraged oversupervision, and had a zero-defect mentality were promoted. These were the mid-grade and senior officers that led combat forces at the start of the Vietnam War. The result was a crisis of command when those officers were suddenly required to display initiative, creativity, and combat leadership in order to win a war.

Angst or Warning?

Generational conflict is a reality in the U.S. military, as much as it is in society at large and in the corporate world as well. Today’s examples of social media savvy senior officers, or those that patrol or fight with the troops, are generally the exceptions that prove the rule. Viewing today’s discussion of disruptive thinking and junior leader innovation through this prism can easily engender the “what’s new?” response. However, there have been examples in history when listening to junior leaders’ calls for reform provided better combat leaders who were more prepared for wartime challenges. Likewise there are examples which demonstrate that ignoring them resulted in mistakes and failure.

Does that mean that every gripe and grimace from the junior ranks should be treated as the next nation saving idea? No. It does mean, however, that we must take the time to listen to the ideas and consider them with an open mind and the intellectual honesty that will help determine their true worth.

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Navy

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  • Hi BJ,

    Good post. Seniority based promotions encourages conformity, because to stay around and become “senior,” one mustn’t make too much trouble.

    Human beings want to be part of the tribe, and the military is no exception. Further, I fear we miss many potentially exceptional leaders because of time in grade requirements. The exigencies of war demand a promotion system more aligned towards capability and competence, and following cessation of hostilities we fall back to the bureaucratic hierarchal model–time in grade.

    Exceptional leaders should be nurtured and promoted. Chester Nimitz was given command as an Ensign and didn’t lose his career after running his ship aground. Exceptional leaders know other exceptional leaders when they see them, but time in grade hobbles the promotion opportunities of these people because it isn’t fair—and the system being the system artificially limits potential. Perhaps more “golden boys” should be promoted for for their resistance to the status quo, rather than blind conformance—as status quo thinking is failing our Navy.

  • Robert_K

    “does the JO angst matter?”

    Angst without actionable ideas, and a process to seriously evaluate them, is useless (unless you prescribe to the bitching sailor is a happy sailor school of thought).

    Your historical examples are fine but are they relevant in today’s bureaucratic, risk averse environment? There is no doubt that over regulation (both internal and external) is decimating innovation, but every bit of regulation today is a result of attempting to fix a problem (real or perceived) of the past.

    “It does mean, however, that we must take the time to listen to the ideas and consider them with an open mind and the intellectual honesty that will help determine their true worth.”

    Then what? How do you transform good ideas, particularly the significant ones, into action? Institutional resistance is tough to overcome and usually takes a significant negative event to get the institution to change. I think a generation of officers have been beaten into submission – they either go with flow or they become marginalized.

  • Lobster

    The “information age” has pushed decision making up the chain of command with Leaders able to direct subordinate actions. Decisions and experiences Junior Officers routinely undertook now go to risk adverse Senior Leadership for resolution. If a Junior Officer is not able to learn from mistakes or even attempt a change where will they gain leadership experience.

    Additionally, the promotion system attempts to provide objective measures to a subjective system. I wonder how much different promotion boards would be if the only defining characteristic on a FITREP was the Social Security Number removing all indications of Reporting Senior, Aircraft, Ship, Gender, Race, etc…

  • UltimaRatioReg


    THAT is the comment of the year. Both your observations on flattening the information hierarchy enabling risk-averse senior leaders to micromanage on an unprecedented scale, and the ancillary (particularly race/gender) promotion “considerations”.


  • Questioning

    We throw out terms like micromanage, oversupervise, risk averse, etc without really defining what these mean in terms of our military and in particular the Navy. In today’s world of instant media, the ramifications of actions are huge. Does an O-3, O-4, O-5 have the complete picture of what his/her actions will lead to? I would say even at the O-8 and O-9 level they struggle with this. I don’t like having my bosses being able to see things instantly through technology and having to go through them on things, but I certainly see the point. In the heat of the moment, younger CO’s might be more rash than they need to be. And let us be honest here in the Navy, there isn’t much going on where you don’t have the time to consult with upper chain of command. In a situation where you need to react now, everyone in the chain says do what you need to do now and let me know afterwards. The RAP will be an interesting case as to whether big Navy has the back of those on the front line with instant reactions. If they followed procedure and get fired/thrown in jail, then I think people have a case. But when you look at the recent firings, most of it is either personal or gross misconduct. And I include running your ship aground or hitting another ship as gross misconduct. I know in the past people were pardoned for that type of mistake, but in today’s world of limited money and resources, that is something that can’t be forgiven. I think the only ones where that is forgiven have been casualty related with approved and appropriate immediate actions taken. I don’t consider this risk averse. How many pilots are dropping bombs every day in AFG making split decisions? I think its a decent number and they aren’t making the news getting fired every month for dropping on the wrong house in a conflict area.

    I do think we have a bureaucracy with way more staff folks doing things that don’t need to be done, but the promotion system works. How do you really identify the “hot runner”? I have no idea and quite honestly I don’t think you can prior to at least the O-5 level. Being a ppt ranger doesn’t make you a warfighting machine and being a warfighting machine doesn’t make you ready for staff life. You need time to work both sides. I guess if you want to keep someone in the warfighting business on ships and in squadrons without any shore staff duty, you could go that route, but I don’t see too many people signing up for that and they would probably be burnt out before they got to Admiral anyway.

    Why do people feel they are micromanaged? That is tuff to answer and is in the eye of the beholder. I definitely think there are cases where there is micromanagement no matter who or what you define as micromanged, but in most cases it is because the superior is not getting the desired product in the desired time and requires updates to get things done. That is hard for most people to accept that they are not getting things done and probably the superior hasn’t told them matter of factly that they aren’t meeting expectations. I think we do a poor job of that. I think most superiors feel that the people should be smart enough to figure out that they aren’t getting the job done without having to tell them. That is wrong.

    So JO angst is fine. They have some good points. The bureacratic machine that is the military must change. But that isn’t going to happen without the politicians getting involved. The Navy can’t just cut 100,000+ civilian jobs without the politicians screaming foul. And the likelihood of 100,000+ folks going unemployed isn’t happening in today’s environment even though it is the right thing. What JO’s can do is work on ideas to better what they have directly in front of them and with the means currently provided. That isn’t easy and I don’t see many ideas coming in on that front. It’s easy to ask for more money to buy this cool new thing than it is to say this what you have, it isn’t perfect, but its got to get the job done. That is true innovation.

  • Junior Officers,

    We at NWDC hear you loud and clear. The feedback we received directly from the Fleet at the Junior Leader Innovation Symposium LCDR Armstrong mentioned, as well as the groundswell of commentary we’ve observed on the blogosphere has helped mobilize support for a number of new initiatives that will soon pop above the horizon. As the Navy Center for Innovation we are committed to creating an environment where the Fleet – deckplate sailors and officers – can be heard. You will be hearing more about these initiatives very soon. For now let me say, they include:

    • An overhaul of the Concept Generation Concept Development process that will reduce the number of steps in moving ideas from originator to decision maker.
    • The creation of a CNO Advisory Board (CAB) to serve as a lens on the future and champion innovation at the highest levels.
    • The creation of an Innovation Cell at NWDC to seek-out and harness radical new ideas.
    • In coordination with the Office of Naval Research, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Naval War College; create a centralized blog site where innovators can propose, debate, and spawn cross-domain ideas.
    • Diligently monitor, contribute to, and harvest ideas from online discussions about future naval warfighting.
    • Publication of an Innovator’s Guide.

    We understand the urgency. We sense the electricity in the air and are drawing strength from the energy of our combat bred junior leaders. Yet we also recognize that this is a marathon and not a sprint. We are provisioning for a long term battle to instill creative and critical thinking into future leaders and create an organizational culture, where, as General Fastabend said, “people are encouraged to try alternative paths, test ideas to the point of failure, and learn from the experience. Where experimentation and prudent risk taking are admired and encouraged.”
    Keep up the good fight.
    CAPT David Tyler
    NWDC, ACOS Concepts and Innovation

  • Great historical overview. It seems this generational discussion is not relegated to just the military…see this article entitled “Why Every Social Media Manager Should be Under 25” which touched off a firestorm in tech circles pitting experience vs. youth:

    And this intriguing follow up from Fast Company:

    “The fact is that technological innovation is coming faster and faster, and has now reached a point where it is actually noticeable across generations. The generation gap is widening simply because the speed of technology is increasing.”

    It’s a society wide trend, and although generations past experienced the same strife, it’s still just as potent and real.

    Finally, while the public exchanges related to junior officer innovation may be quieting, I think there are behind the scenes, grassroots movements adapting to current realities and real change is on the horizon.

  • Rob McFall


    Thanks for picking up the torch, you are right we have been quiet for a while but I have the feeling that what we are seeing is the calm before the storm. All entities involved have needed some time to gather their thoughts and figure out how to proceed. I really believe that we are coming upon the precipice and it will be exciting to see what is on the other side.

    In the last couple of months I have had the great privilege to meet with a number of people and organizations that have seen innovation in the past and are tasked with innovating today. I have heard about some successes and what it was that made major innovations like carrier aviation successful revolutions in military affairs. I have also heard about various RMAs in the 80’s and 90’s that failed and why they didn’t make it. So what makes us special? Why am I so optimistic? This is a different time and this period of innovation will succeed where others have failed for three reasons:

    1) The information age- The information age which Lobster so aptly pointed out has pushed decision making up the chain of command will be exactly the tool that will empower the change. Never before have the good ideas from all over the fleet been able to be crowd sourced and collated to the extent that they can today. Ideas to improve everything from admin and fitreps to unmanned aircraft can be passed back and forth to the scientists and planners for implementation with rapid speed.

    2) Generational shift – If you buy into generational theory we are headed into a time when the right generations are in place for change to happen. According to Strauss and Howe (The Fourth Turning, Millennials rising) every twenty years there is a new generation and these generations come in four generation sets. Each of the four generations has a unique personality, unique strengths and unique weaknesses. So every 80-100 years, the cycle repeats itself. We are now 80 years since the birth of carrier aviation, it is time to try again. Our senior leaders are of a “profit generation” where grand ideas can be seen. The upper management of the Navy is a part of a “nomad generation” which has no problem bucking the traditional ways of doing things to make improvements. And the Junior officers are a part of a “hero generation” that is motivated and follows orders well but wants to be heard. All three generations are in the right place at the right time to make a difference.

    3) The organizational structure is being established- CAPT Tyler had some excellent points and I think it is great that NWDC is being as active as the have been in the conversation. The single statement of his response that I found the most exciting though was “In coordination with the Office of Naval Research, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Naval War College…” This structure closely resembles the structure that existed in the 1930’s when carrier aviation was born. It was then called the “Virtuous Circle”. That circle had three nodes; The Naval War College (which both published and did wargaming), The Bureau of Aeronautics (which had the money and worked with civilian engineers) and The Fleet. These three nodes fed information continuously back and forth describing what needed to change mechanically, tactically and operationally. That was how it succeeded. Today, ONR has the funding and the ties to civilian engineers. NWDC does the tactical employment and wargaming. The NPC and NWC still have a wealth of knowledge that can be tapped and The Fleet is more critical than ever.

    The structure is coming into place, the generations are in place and the information technology is available to speed the discussion along. The time is right for innovation.


    Rob McFall
    LT USN

  • Jeannette Haynie


    Great post, and thanks for putting together a well-researched piece. You bring up some great points, and I appreciate the perspective. Rob, I’ve talked to others (most still AD) who have similar thoughts, especially regarding the idea that this is a sort of calm before the storm. Great comment.
    One of the things many struggle with is figuring out whether we–or those who work for/with us–are simply whining/not adapting or if there are really legitimate issues with solutions out there that will help the services change with changing technology, etc.
    I like the idea of having a structure in place to discuss/vet ideas–it may encourage others to contribute rather than to just go along because it’s the way it’s always been done.
    Anyway, enjoyed reading the post and all of the comments.


  • Richard Selman

    Excellent problem discussion since the majority of senior officers during a combat situation have dated solution about what will work and what will not. Realizing that bringing people up-to-date is part of the Naval war College curriculum it still occurred frequently in Gulf l and ll. For the upcoming Gulf lll I would suggest seniors meeting frequently with junior section and divion leaders for the Naval Air Arm and division officers for surface and subs. This tends to alleviate the “we got shot up for no reason” approach.