Leadership is hard. This pretty much sums up the screed by Commander Darcie Cunningham, USCG, entitled “Now Hear This – Millennials Bring a New Mentality: Does It Fit?” in the August issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine. In her 700 words, Commander Cunningham finds fault with her subordinates’ work ethic and aspirations, deems them selfish and finally questions the ability of an entire generation. She advocates the time-honored virtues of patience, maturity, and experience, “course-correct[ion]”, and “accolades” to feed these Millienials “encouraging reinforcement and the feedback for which they hunger.” Her solution is to defeat lack of military discipline with more military discipline. This course of action is so obvious and unremarkable, even the freshest of lieutenants in the Marine Corps manages to grasp and implement it. Finally, she asks the right question, but fails to answer it: “So how does our structured military culture adapt to this new generation?”

Commander Cunningham has been taken to task by plenty of others in the blogosphere, including two notable rejoinders. Commander Salamander’s snarky response points out Cunningham is simply recycling the same “Old Breed” garbage that every generation trots out when faced with younger charges who think differently and have dissimilar, diverse experiences. Salamander kills with a tried and true quote from Napoleon himself – “There are no bad regiments; there are only bad colonels” – which boils a unit’s failure down to the essence of its leadership. LT Scott Cheney-Peters, a fellow Truman National Security Project Defence Council Member to the authors of this piece, is less derisive than Salamander in his response on the USNI Blog, but effectively dismantles her grievances point by point. Cheney-Peters, however, is also a Millennial, so anything he says, is likely to be self-aggrandizing and untrustworthy, under Commander Cunningham’s criteria. Finally, Matt Hipple deconstructs her argument point by point in a compelling rejoinder on the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) site.

Rather than point-counterpoint Commander Cunningham’s piece to death (and because Hipple has beaten us to the punch), we have elected a different tack. We plan to ignore it wholesale because the premise of her article is so ridiculous. By writing this article, she casts more light on the shortcomings of her leaders and herself than the men and women she has been selected to lead. To complain about the nature of those being led will inevitably end in failure. The leader is not entitled to lead only those individuals with the set of characteristics (s)he is most comfortable with. In truth, it would be incredibly easy and convenient to lead a group stolen from the pages of Miller and Varley’s 300. Who doesn’t want a company of chiselled killers who are adaptive, obedient, tough, respectful, hardened, smart, competent, fit and posses the ideal mix of martial characteristics that define success on the battlefields of yore? However, we do not live in a graphic novel. Our citizens and those hoping to become citizens send us their sons and daughters, with whatever skills, talents, abilities, and shortcomings they possess- warts and all. It is up to us as leaders to shape them, to mold their character and help them better themselves, to hold them accountable for their execution and conduct when they fall short. To do this, a leader must inspire, a leader must be tough, and most importantly a leader must have the agility to adapt to new subordinates in order to capitalize on the talents they bring to the fight. The task of the leader is to lead, not to bemoan the alleged shortcomings of the led. When we incessantly complain about our subordinates, we break down trust, we break down harmony, and we fail not only ourselves, but also those we are charged to lead.

In short, we hope Commander Cunnigham’s essay dies a quick death on the internet and does not make it to websites where Millennials might read it. To be questioned as a generation who has fought on many battlefields- be they on land or sea- might be construed a tad insulting to the critical thinking Millenial. Fortunately, most military leaders these authors know are sanguine and adaptable to the challenge of leading a generation different from their own.

Posted by Butch Bracknell and Katey Van Dam in Training & Education

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  • Butch Bracknell

    Butch Bracknell is a retired
    Marine officer whose career was spent in the armor and judge advocate fields,
    who did not observe the nature of military discipline and conduct change much
    as the Corps went from employing Boomers to Gen X to Millenials. Katey “Talent” van Dam is an active duty
    AH-1W pilot and instructor at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, where she
    leads Millennials daily without much fuss.
    Both are members of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense
    Council. This article reflects the
    personally-held opinions of the authors only and should not be attributable to
    DOD or any other entity.

  • Alex Smith

    I could not agree more Butch, thanks for writing!

  • rackops

    Well written! Sums up my feelings exactly!

  • Matt Crawford

    The ‘Millenials’ are too selfish and cynical for the Coast Guard? Certainly the quality of education and maturity of the present generation is worse due to the constant lowering of standards in America. But my experience in the Coast Guard also implies that this recalcitrant generation is recapitulating the cultural trend they inherited …
    In my nearly five years of avoiding killing people in ‘Nam I found the Coast Guard a negligent organization. It was inundated with bureaucracy, prized appearance over performance, and emphasized functionality only in the breach where a revelation might lead to trouble. Only habit kept the ball rolling. Political correctness was the norm long before the term was coined. Duty was a concept, not a trait. The officers were condescending and the enlisted insouciant.
    I served on the buoy tender Walnut in 73/74 at the base the commandress now “supervises”. My C.O. was a priggish dilettante, my X.O. a conniving sycophant, and the chief bosun an alcoholic bully. The senior enlisted “Lifers” were to a man corpulent buffoons in their 30’s who looked 50ish due to incessant whoring, drinking, and excessive carbs.
    My favorite memory is of the aforementioned bosun running amok with an electric cattle prod on one of those rare days things had to be right
    before the officers on siesta discovered how much ‘duty’ was ignored.
    I was also non-plussed to be left ashore as the ships only corpman,
    only to discover that the officers had rigged their health records to show a performance in their yearly P.E. test they could not pass.
    When the Arab/Isreali war in ’73 brought a “National Emergency”, the Watch was required to be armed. The officers made sure our .45 wasn’t loaded … that should give you an idea of the faith and confidence between the officers and crew!
    So … the Coast Guard as a military organization? The commandress should avail herself of the movie “Onionhead” with Andy Griffith. This true tale about the Coast Guard made in the 50’s about service in the 40’s is exactly as I lived it in the 70’s. Maybe she would then get a hint that she should LEAD and not “supervise”.

  • Peter Devereau

    Where were CDR Cunningham’s Chief Petty Officers in all this? One of the first things every boot Grunt NCO learned in Nam is effective Marine Corps Leadership is based on two basic premises: you’re equally as responsible to your Marines as you are responsible for them and you’re obligated to lead them the way you want to be led yourself. If Officers are having trouble leading their subordinates they’re compelled to look within themselves, evaluate what they’re doing and adjust accordingly because they’re the brain trust we all literally live and die by. Senior Officers are equally compelled to bring their Junior Officers up because no matter how much schooling a Servicemember has there’s no substitute for hands on experience taught under a cool steady hand. We Enlisted have our part in this as well because while Officers are our leaders they’re still just a part of our Unit exactly the same as the newest Private straight out of Infantry School. If you ask for our help and pick our brains together we can bring our Junior Officers up which sharpens the tip of the spear and we all win. Otherwise we see by this article how things don’t work out and unit effectiveness degrades. Teamwork by all Hands is always the best way to build any unit and rank can never be a barrier or determining factor because everyone brings something to the table. Units win while individuals fail and failure is never an option Semper Fi