The U.S. Navy's Leading Edge

By Lieutenant Kermit E. Jones, Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy

Technological advances have often changed the way commanders lead; war takes place faster now than ever before. However, problems arise when higher command begins to second-guess and criticize the real-time actions of the unit commander. I have often witnessed a unit commander nervously watch chat while waiting for the CO to call demanding an explanation for actions taken only seconds or minutes earlier. One has to wonder what type of leadership climate this fosters. The outcome is an erosion of unit commanders’ ability to lead effectively without the consent of their superior officers.

How does one lead when everyone has access to the same information in real-time? How does the institution ensure that higher command will not micromanage? More important, is a commanding officer, in a warfare setting, able to lead when there is no margin with which to learn by experience?

The tactical control officer could easily be considered the most powerful watchstander on board a Navy ship, given they are authorized by the CO for weapons release. However, to actually fire outside narrow rules of engagement, other than for immediate self-defense, a complex flowchart of permissions must be obtained. Some exist for very good reasons; one seemingly small mistake could mean catastrophic loss of life. If, however, commanding officers increasingly find themselves having to “get permission from chat,” where does leadership take place beyond a simple technological passing of information?

During the attack on Osama bin Laden, one could ask, who was leading the operation? The local on-scene commander had a certain amount of autonomy, but his Commander-in-Chief was also watching a live feed with direct input into the situation. In her 2002 article for Proceedings , “Leadership Is More Valuable than Technology,” Navy Lieutenant Martha Dunne asked if the emphasis on technology was degrading leadership. At that time she was simply referring to the ability of the President and Commander, 2nd Fleet to video conference on a ship. Technology has changed; has Navy leadership kept up with it?

Seeing the Shift

“Paradigm shifts” continually take place, but there is a danger when one allows them to do so without acknowledging them. Differences in opinion or understanding from generational or cultural perspectives are sometimes ignored on the assumption that the other guy is wrong.

We now have a different type of “transparency.” Whereas we used to strive to make clear what we knew and what our actions were to be, technology currently allows, with a few clicks, doctrines and ideas to be pushed through chains of command, sometimes without the proper vetting. When bandwidth was at a premium, messages were stripped of extemporaneous writing to convey their point. Now, one is able to throw together a 100-slide presentation in a few hours and send it instantaneously to dozens of recipients without the sender (who may not have not created it) having to invest in it any significant amount of time. For example, I looked at ten presentations delivered during the past 12 months. Nine listed different authors, three authors could not be found on present staff, and four presentations were “last edited” by someone other than either the presenter or author.

Retired Navy Captain Neil Byrne reported instances in which “some poor guy whom they just got off the bridge of his submarine, cruiser, or air squadron” is suddenly the officer in charge of a project of which he has little or no knowledge. “There may be a uniform who is titularly in charge,” Byrne said, but the officer knows so little about the project that he ends up being used by his subordinates “as a ventriloquist’s dummy.” 3

There is a danger in breeding a generation of officers who do not process but simply pass along information. This raises questions about the knowledge level of current commanders. Specifically, if you don’t actually make decisions (because you’re simply a conduit of information) why study your craft?

All about Metrics

Technology rarely tracks qualitative metrics effectively, and those interpretations often are subjective. But the Navy recently has been directed to reassess its metrics, and for such a large organization, quantitative measures are more easily obtained.

In a 1998 article for Proceedings , Lieutenant David Adams wrote:

At the core of the problem is a belief that to be successful, individuals, commands, and institutions must appear error-free . . . . Downsizing and the inflated fitness and efficiency reporting fuel a widespread perception that maintaining a flawless record is a prerequisite for promotion and selection to command . . . . The zero-defect mentality that exists in the Navy has created leaders who consider it worse to admit a mistake than it is to make one. 4

Qualitative metrics and a zero-tolerance mindset rarely complement one another and require complex mechanisms to maintain. It has been said that “leadership is alchemy,” not science. The stakes are different. The bottom line isn’t measured in dollars, but rather in mission accomplishment and, at worst, loss of life.

New technology, with its easy flow of information, often has the effect of “flattening” an organization. However, it can also cause different types of silos and stovepipes that simply make leadership more difficult. For example, the Defense Travel System was created to streamline and save on travel costs for the Department of Defense, yet it created a great deal more oversight without permitting commanding officers to spend funds as they see fit. The system could not even be verified, at inception, to be the most cost-effective. The technology, though it has potential, promotes management from above, not leadership at all levels. We have systems that address extreme issues at both ends of the spectrum. Interactive customer evaluation allows many commands to short-circuit the entire chain of command through technology. The benefit is that many things that were once swept under the rug are brought to light; the disadvantage is that intermediate levels of leadership are no longer able to respond and refine before it comes to the attention of higher command. This concept may work well in business, but it needs to be carefully applied and adapted to military application.

Another program is Perform to Serve, which has been used as a downsizing or “force shaping” tool to the point that it forces the shape without allowing any true leader intervention because of its quantitative, versus qualitative, nature. Zero tolerance has shifted to 100 percent compliance, and though the system is designed to prevent errors, once triggers are set in motion, sailors are usually dismissed, regardless of how professional or skilled they may be. Proponents of the technology point to the fact that sailors are responsible to ensure their profile is ready—but at what point do we recognize this attitude as a formula for management, not leadership? The fact is that a system has been created that magnifies human error and leaves very little room for positive input or correction.

Perhaps what is considered an erosion of leadership capability is really a shift of leadership to account for technological advances and the speed of present-day operations. Leadership is an ancient art, but technology will change more in the next five years than most can possibly imagine, and leadership will struggle to adapt swiftly enough. Rarely is there engagement with true “cutting-edge” technology. Many commands struggle to maintain updated websites, and fewer still connect through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Shifting Focus

According to a presentation during the 45th Annual Conference of the International Military Testing Association, “One of the reasons we have been able to reduce the size of our force is the superiority we possess in military technology. Technology is great when everything works properly, but if a system fails and there is not a backup system, we are vulnerable. The enemy also knows we rely on technology and will use whatever means available to degrade our systems.” 5 Because information and process flows differ, the focus can no longer remain the same. Leaders must recognize and develop the potential of their subordinates in the likely event that information flow will be disrupted. If they create self-sufficient subordinates, those junior sailors are much more likely to continue the task, regardless of whether they initially believed they could, and they will try to execute it as they believe the leader intended. So the problem sometimes isn’t the technology; it’s ensuring that the vision will carry on even when the connection is severed.

When terrorists struck the USS Cole (DDG-67) in October 2000, technology failed; communications were cut and battery-backup systems were rendered inoperable, but junior sailors conducted damage-control efforts in accordance with their training and commanding officer’s vision and philosophy. Technology must not be used as a crutch, but rather as a tool that shapes and molds leaders and followers in order to perpetuate the mission. A clearly articulated vision will be internalized by the followers and will be carried out even in the absence of the leader.

The advent of communication technologies such as email, chatting, and voice while under way has created a capacity for direct contact between much wider gaps in the chain of command than ever before. But the presence and integration of these technologies presents a difficulty in maintaining boundaries. It is harder to define or maintain decentralized command when the higher authority has immediate access to information and operational elements. This may be caused in part by the increased rate of information flow. Admiral Harvey remarked, “We have to establish an honest flow of communication through the chain of command; indeed, it is critical we do this.” However, an honest flow of communication should not be confused with raw, unprocessed data, which could lessen the relevance of the unit commander if not managed properly.

Today a ship or unit can communicate with another unit or high command across thousands of miles with little preparation or delay. This technology provides high-level commands the opportunity for continual guidance and oversight, which sounds a lot like a prime example of centralized command, except it is happening across decentralized commands, as well. The benefits of both centralized and decentralized commands must be distinguished and maintained.

Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson was able to execute a successful attack because of his decentralized command model during his attack on the French fleet in August 1798, at the Battle of the Nile. The French fleet commander, Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers, was aware of Nelson’s presence, but assumed an attack would not come until sunrise, as the latest technology of communication required sunlight. Nelson’s lead ship took the initiative on seeing the anchored French fleet, which was broken not only by lack of preparation but also by lack of command. The French unit commanders were so accustomed to receiving direct communication from Brueys, that when it was hindered, chaos ensued. 6

One Size Fits Most

The question remains: Is technology to blame, or is the younger generation of leaders not knowledgeable enough in their field of work so that higher commanders feel obligated to micromanage them? Technology can be an effective tool, but it cannot make choices on its own. Advances in technology have increased the capability for coordination between the commander and subordinate over great distances, but it is the choice of the commander and subordinate to choose how the tools are to be used.

One size does not fit all; the same technology may need to be applied differently in different circumstances. What works well for business may not be well suited to the Navy. Leaders should not expect the way tools are used to remain the same when the tools themselves are changing. What some regard as a decrease in leadership ability may be a shift of required abilities with regard to current technology. We must be careful not to raise a generation of leaders who fear making decisions without real-time guidance or permission from higher authority, or who rely completely on technology alone. They must be prepared to command with the technology they have (or do not have) available. In short, we must ensure that technology is not used to micromanage commanding officers and prevent them from being as operationally effective in the future.

1. United States Navy Doctrine Command, Naval Doctrine Publication 6, Naval Command and Control, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Department of the Navy, Washington, DC, 1995.

2. ADM J. C. Harvey Jr., USN, “Doing Less, but Not Doing Anything Less Well,” 31 March 2010, .

3. LT M. Dunne, USN, “Leadership Is more Valuable than Technology,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , August 2002, 194.

4. Lieutenant David Adams, USN, “Chance Second Chances,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , June 1998, 144.

5. Raymond O. Waldkoetter and Alex T. Arlington, “The U.S. Army’s Personnel Replacement System,” Proceedings from the 45th Annual Conference of the International Military Testing Association, Pensacola, Florida, 2003.

6. Michael A. Palmer, Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) 2005.

Lieutenant Jones is currently serving as a Navy chaplain. He is a former surface-warfare officer and 1998 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.


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