- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Lt. Cdr. Victor Glover, USN
Best Defense office of JO retention
This is a great debate of great importance. The topic of leadership writ large and the risk management strategies of our leadership culture are national security issues that don’t receive much media attention until tragedy befalls us. Instead we ought to be searching for root causes and details whenever we can. The letter from the Anonymous Lieutenant who is resigning his commission and the responses to it, specifically the retired Marine General’s, highlight the very disparity that the young officer elucidated (very eloquently I might add).
The responses to this young warrior have been one-sided in attempts to paint a picture that, although precise in argument, is offset from the actual target. I agree that there is a way to criticize the military enterprise as Captain Brett Friedman points out and that, as Capt. Doug Pelletier states, "junior leaders need to be actively involved in the debate about the future of our organizations." This articulate LT is doing just that and meeting standard intuitional (and dated) responses. Unfortunately the responses have overlooked a trend of risk aversion that is affecting our leadership department-wide.
In the Navy the numbers of Commanding Offices relieved in recent years has garnered attention in the media and academia. As US Army War College faculty member Navy Captain M. F. Light notes in his analysis of recent Navy CO firings, we have a "small but steady tradition-fed stream of misconduct at all levels-misconduct that is more likely than it once was to be detected, more harmful to the Navy’s mission, and more likely to make headlines when it involves a CO." This very public trend of firings is changing the risk management capacity of our services. Technology constantly changes, the enemy has changed, our acceptance of risk has therefore changed and often it is this aspect of change that impacts our junior officers and their perceptions of the organizations they have volunteered to serve. It is important to understand this perception and the impact it has on retention. More needs to be written on risk management and its impacts on job satisfaction and retention.
The military culls talent intentionally and unintentionally. In a 2011 Proceedings article the Honorable John Lehman adamantly defended aviation culture and lambasted the "intolerable policy of ‘zero-tolerance’ applied by the Navy and the Marine Corps." Zero-tolerance creates and environment where organizational change and social vigor are often stymied. While we need to do a better job of identifying and encouraging our creative and novel young leaders, this must be balanced with the protection of the institution. The Captain Honor firing was an example of the US Navy attempting to protect the institution, though some consider it an example of risk-aversion gone wrong.
Institutional inertia is necessary. From my own experience as a first tour combat aviator who wanted to exact punishment on an enemy that attacked a convoy I was escorting. I wasn’t able to due to the timeline required to get approval. I now understand that this is often a necessary aspect of combat and any coordinated venture in attempts to dispassionately do the right thing. And as long as the right thing is the goal, I am OK with institutional inertia. At issue are the times where the good of the organization is sacrificed for the good of a career or ego.
The impact of leadership is not only immediate in addressing the issues of the day, but it is long lasting in that leaders create or destroy culture. This culture leaves a wake that is apparent long after the leaders themselves have moved on. The types of people we retain and promote are affected by this. We have looked at bonuses and other incentives as retention tools but no military service has actively addressed leadership culture as a retention matter, why not? In 1998 Rear Admiral Natter and Lieutenants Lopez and Hodges wrote a prophetic article titled "Listen to the JO’s." They cited reasons why JO’s were dissatisfied with and leaving the Surface Warfare community. In this masterfully written and widely applicable analysis they report that junior officers, "spoke of feeling betrayed: the ideals for which they had joined-Honor, Courage, Commitment-had not materialized. The problems that they described are real, serious, and require that we address them if we want to have a say in who will man and lead our Navy of tomorrow."This was before the attacks of September 11, 2001. As we wind down the wars that have ensued, the chorus of the junior officer is a vital source of experience and reason that needs to be seriously considered. Senior leaders like to call today’s military the most combat experienced ever. What war has honed, let us respect.
I encourage you to reread the Anonymous LT’s words and think about how he got to that point vice trying to make a point. As Tim Kane warned in his Harvard Business Review blog entry "Bleeding Talent," "we commit a sin of omission if we neglect to offer criticisms" of military leadership.
As someone who desires to lead our military men and women into the uncertain waters of the future, I am listening to this Marine LT’s plea that "what concerns me … is that among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don’t feel the organization values them." We need to be enterprising in addressing this issue as we have been in the face of issues past. Please ask yourself: What are you willing to do to create and sustain value in our young leaders?
Lieutenant Commander Victor Glover recently completed a tour as a squadron department head on the USS George Washington (CVN-73). He is currently a Legislative Fellow in the United States Senate.