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.