Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr. was unquestionably one of the most influential and controversial officers in US Navy history. The challenges of his era, both in and outside the military, were significant and it is important for naval leaders today to study how ADM Zumwalt was able to effectively battle the naval bureaucracy to achieve significant results.
In the recent biography of Zumwalt, Larry Berman notes that Secretary of the Navy John Chafee and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird were looking for an officer to replace Admiral Thomas Moorer as CNO who would serve as an agent of change within the Navy. Specifically at the top of the list for the incoming CNO to address were the challenges of modernizing ships and weapon systems to counter the growing Soviet naval threat and to resolve long-standing personnel problems related to institutional discrimination, prolonged operations in Vietnam, and issues with the all-volunteer force.
While leading the brown water navy in Vietnam, Zumwalt was deep-selected over seven admirals and twenty-six vice admirals his senior for the position of CNO. “Admiral Z” served as the 19th Chief of Naval Operations during a tumultuous period in American history, July 1970 to June 1974.
Shortly after assuming the watch as CNO, Zumwalt established a small strategic study group that examined current and future navy possibilities. “Project Sixty” as the group was known was aptly named due to the 60 day limit imposed on the group by Zumwalt. Project Sixty identified four core missions of the Navy:
- Strategic Deterrence
- Sea Control
- Power Projection Ashore
- Naval Presence
The 1974 article “Missions of the US Navy” written by Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner in the Naval War College Review succinctly articulates the rationale behind these missions and their importance to the modernization of the Navy.
At the same time, Zumwalt circulated the 1950 article “A Case Study for Innovation” by Elting Morison among the admiralty. The article makes the connection between entrepreneurship and the social necessity essential for leading revolutionary change in the Navy. Morison uses the introduction of the continuous-aim firing weapon system in the US Navy during the early 1900s as the primary case study. The essence of the article is similar to recent works by current naval innovators. (See Armstrong, Kohlmann, Munson)
To address the ongoing “people” issues, Zumwalt formed several retention study groups consisting of junior officers and/or enlisted Sailors from various communities to address issues affecting Sailors and their families in the fleet. These groups reported directly to the CNO (and frequently the SECNAV). From his previous experience on the OPNAV staff, Zumwalt understood that ideas from these groups would get diluted if they went through the normal staffing process.
Finally, Zumwalt used his famous Z-Grams, 120 in all, to communicate his intent and guidance to all levels of command and directly to the Sailors in the fleet. The “zingers” excited the Navy (both positively and negatively) and attempted to instill a sense of fun and zest, as Zumwalt often described his experience in the Navy, back into naval service. Many of the Z-grams repealed previous regulations described as “Micky Mouse” regulations in Zumwalt’s memoirs “On Watch”. During his tenure as CNO, retention rose from below 10% in 1970 to 32.9% in 1974.
A 1993 assessment of Zumwalt’s efforts to institutionalize strategic change in the Navy by the Center for Naval Analysis noted the following important lessons about leading change:
- Be bold, be quick, and be specific in setting an agenda for change
- Get a mandate from above for that agenda
- Keep the focus clear and consistent on that agenda
- Vest the agenda into the structure of the organization
- Balance top-down management to overcome inertia with participatory management to develop sufficient consensus to counteract opposition
- Establish independent bodies for internal creative friction and review
- Establish independent internal watchdog agencies with the power to enforce compliance
- Encourage innovation to ensure that change transcends one CNO’s “watch”
Zumwalt’s accomplishments as Chief of Naval Operations were certainly controversial and many of his initiatives were reversed by subsequent CNOs. However, given the gravity of the issues facing the naval services today, much can be learned from his ability to make significant changes from within the system.