Dissent Is Not Disloyalty

While adherence to orders is fundamental to military professionalism, the Navy has gone to great lengths to establish an atmosphere of free exchange of information and informed dissent. Since Admiral Stephen Luce founded the Naval War College, the Navy has been recognized as a service that tolerates dissent with established plans and policy and encourages its officers to represent their views openly and responsibly.

Serious problems arise from intimidating subordinates. First, the decision maker isolates himself from knowledge that may be useful, even critical. Second, the air of infallibility that invariably results remains unchallenged. Third, opportunities for education are missed. Finally, new ideas die unborn.

A leader's role in innovation is less to direct than to not inhibit. A senior leader can lead but cannot command a large organization for long, or in many things. One supporting pillar of "Sea Power 21" is "Sea Trial," the process of innovation. But history indicates innovation usually results from ideas generated from the middle, not from the top. Organizational hierarchies naturally oppose trading familiar and proven concepts for the new and untried. 1 In fostering innovation, wisdom is not limited to agencies such as the Navy Research Laboratory and Center for Naval Analyses, and staffs of the fleet commanders and CNO. The mechanics for obtaining unfiltered information and ideas from sources other than those fonts should be made easy. The Navy's publications should be judged on how well they develop ideas and opinions, not on how they cheerlead for current policy. Without the proposals and objections that arise from open channels, the temptation to believe one's own propaganda becomes overwhelming.

A major advantage of open discussion is education—especially exposure of faulty information or illogical thought. No better recent example exists than two Proceedings articles about anthrax inoculations. "Stop Mandatory Anthrax Vaccinations Now!" portrayed them as risky and dangerous to health, thus echoing propositions played up by the public media and the Navy Times. The answering volley, "Get the Facts on the Anthrax Vaccine," was written by medical professionals who answered each accusation effectively, presented factual data, and calmly reassured readers they knew what they were doing. 2 Were it not for the first article, the second would never have been prepared, and the issue would have remained under the cloud of scandal.

It is better to hear dissent than to stifle it. A key preventative to the hubris of infallibility in making decisions is creating an atmosphere of responsible discussion and dissent. In cockpits, control rooms, and on bridges we have gone to great lengths to create environments where anyone may question a condition or an order that seems wrong. Although questions in response to some orders can be patently untimely or out of order, the USS Greeneville (SSN-772) accident demonstrated that it is never wrong to raise concerns about the basis of a decision or the ramifications of an order.

Professional dissent is not disloyalty; professional discussion is not denial; professional dispute is not mutiny. The path to truth lies in argumentation, not acclamation. Any organization without a little chaos is dead.

Rear Admiral Holland, a retired submariner, was the Naval Institute Proceedings Author of the Year for 2002.

   1. VAdm. Arthur Cebrowski, USN, "President's Forum," Naval War College Review , Autumn 2000, p. 7. back to article
   2. Anonymous, March 2000, pp. 100-101; LCdr. Pietro E. Margalla, MSC, USN, and Major Gary Strawder, MS, USA, July 2000, pp. 38-41. back to article



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