Better Education Makes Better Officers

In the July 2012 issue of this magazine, both Robert Kozloski and Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Armstrong addressed, in their respective articles, the need for reforming not only Navy professional military education (PME) but also joint PME and graduate education. 4 For our purposes here, the PME system encompasses all of those plus community-specific and leadership training. To effectively frame the discussion, I offer the following operational definitions for leadership and management. Leadership provides mission and intent and thus describes what our crews do and why. Management, on the other hand, focuses on the planning and execution of the ship’s mission; it is the daily planning for administration, maintenance, and more. The debate about changing the current paradigm lends itself well to a more expansive view of educational reform in the naval service, and Kozloski and Armstrong offer suggestions to that end. We have, as a service, begun placing greater emphasis on graduate education, but we continue to afford officers little time to pursue it. We must initiate a 360-degree review of education and formulate a concrete plan for developing a better naval officer.

Division Officer Level

Before reporting to the Fleet, Navy officers are trained to be knowledgeable about mission-essential tasks: aviators learn to fly, submariners to track, surface warriors to drive. But this initial training varies by community. Aviators spend a year or more in flight training, while submariners spend a year in nuclear training and a scant ten weeks in the submarine officer basic course. Surface warriors attend a five-week course. In my ten-week submarine-officer basic course, a total of about half a day was devoted to leadership and management—the locally condensed Division Officer Leadership Course produced by the Center for Personal and Professional Development. Even that was simply clicking through PowerPoint slides. Our pipelines teach the newest officers to be managers of computer-based weapon systems, not leaders of the men and women who employ them.

When I reported to my first boat as a new ensign, I had no idea what was required to run a division. Quality assurance, work controls, and our preventive maintenance system had never been mentioned in training. Arriving in the middle of a major repair period, I desperately needed those skills from the moment I stepped aboard. But no one attempted to teach us how to cultivate a healthy officer–chief petty officer relationship, or what good and bad rapport looked like. The outgoing division officers were usually consumed with their new jobs, and the commands failed to ensure incoming officers were adequately prepared. My boat learned the consequences of this shortcoming the hard way, and peers in other Navy communities, including surface and aviation, had very similar experiences. Recent changes to the surface-warfare and submarine training curriculums have placed a renewed emphasis on the vital division-officer skills and have begun to move in the right direction, but leadership development continues to lag behind.

Our fellow services have much to teach us. The Army has the Officer Basic Course, the Marines have The Basic School. Service personnel attend these after commissioning, before beginning their specialty training. The instruction is in fundamental skills to succeed at the O-1 and O-2 levels—small-unit leadership, methods of training and instruction, service-specific management. Navy commissioning sources do attempt to teach midshipmen some of these, but so do the Army, Air Force, and Marine commissioning programs, all amid a host of other academic requirements. Their programs reflect the belief that officers, regardless of their designated warfare community, must all have a common set of skills and knowledge that constitute the backbone of small-unit leadership. We have made progress in standardizing the way we do business across communities in the Navy. But we need to apply those advancements to training. An initial officer-training course can provide guidance for succeeding as a division officer: how to work with a chief petty officer and leading petty officer, function in the quality-assurance programs, understand the use of preventive-maintenance systems, and more. It can also help develop junior officers to better lead their watch teams and divisions by teaching small-unit leadership with a narrower focus than provided in the commissioning sources.

Department-Head Level

The other services also have intermediate schools: the Army Captain’s Career Course and the Air Force Squadron Officer School. These bring mid-grade officers back together from their respective communities to show them how to be effective leaders at the O-3 and O-4 levels. The Navy’s schools again pay lip service to leadership here. By this time, most officers have matured in their communities. They are technically competent, understand the missions and demands of Navy life, and work hard to see their boat, ship, or squadron succeed. It is this point in an officer’s career that could be the most pivotal for leadership development. Department heads are the officers of the deck when the going gets tough. They will be leaders in a combat environment and are beginning to look toward command. And they directly train and mentor division officers.

The present Center for Personal and Professional Development course, Department Head Leadership, is only a week long and focuses more on accepting increased responsibilities and department-head management functions. Technical management and mission-essential expertise should be left to the community- or platform-specific schools. The common school’s curriculum would be focused on leadership and ethical development, as well as teaching officers how to effectively mentor junior officers.

The vast majority of Navy leadership training takes place on the job, at sea. This does not mean we should not train officers in a classroom, where the goal is to present them with realistic scenarios that challenge them to think about what they would do before they are confronted with real-world situations. This will of course be different, but if officers have devoted some thought to a particular type of problem before reporting for sea duty, they will be better prepared to handle it. However, simply presenting case studies, which arguably isn’t even done now, will not encourage the critical thought and discussion required to learn the lessons. The Navy must reevaluate how it teaches leadership and ethics. The process must be hands-on, interactive, and filled with spirited discussion.

In this regard, Hollywood produces something that we can use: movies. Dozens of them—including Twelve O’Clock High , Band of Brothers , We Were Soldiers , 12 Angry Men , Ike , Act of Valor —highlight various aspects of leadership and are more readily received than a Xeroxed reading or a presentation. Having participated in leadership development using this method, I can attest to its producing more inspired and beneficial exchanges. And this is where most of the learning and introspective thought takes place.

Command Level and Higher

The Navy’s Command Leadership School lasts two weeks. It is on par with the length of our sister services’ command leadership courses, but we can do significantly better. Ideally this should be an ethical leadership capstone course, but in practice it is a review of the latest leadership news in the Navy. It is at this level that we have the greatest opportunity for the use of historical case studies, among which those involving COs are the best documented. What can we learn from inspirational leaders such as Lieutenant Commander Ernest Evans, Vice Admiral Eugene Fluckey, Rear Admiral Richard O’Kane, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Fleet Admiral William Halsey, and Admiral Raymond Spruance? What can we learn from those who failed in command, such as Commander Scott Waddle during the Ehime Maru incident of February 2001, or the more recent spate of COs relieved for “loss of confidence in command,” “inadequate leadership,” or “ethical violations”?

In this regard, at least the Command Leadership School studies lessons from the recent incident on board the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), involving Captain Owen Honors and the inappropriate videos he produced and broadcast, actions that culminated in his relief in January 2011. For a group of peers who are at the same point in their careers and mentored by successful post-command COs, the opportunity to dissect the successes and failures of those previously in command yields significantly better preparation that simply discussing command as an abstract concept and listening to lectures by senior officers. Bringing together prospective COs from different communities would also promote a sharing of attitudes toward command. Each community prepares leaders differently, a reality that we should exploit to improve the whole.

Under the watch of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Navy has started to make changes to its method of selecting and training COs. It is too early to render judgment on the efficacy of 360-degree evaluations, written tests, and discussions with certified counselors, but these measures are a start. What should follow is a simple statement by the CNO signaling that senior leadership will be held accountable to a higher standard of conduct than the officers and sailors they lead.

Why should an E-4 or E-5 committing the same offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice receive harsher punishments than an E-8 or an O-5? As things stand now, an E-9 or O-5 taken to mast under charges of adultery or child abuse is allowed to retire, whereas the same offenses by an E-4 would lead to a recommendation of administrative separation from the Navy with discharge paperwork indicating dishonorable conduct. Clearly, to some officers the consequences of their actions do not outweigh the perceived benefits.

In interviews with flag officers for his Naval War College Review study of the problem, Captain Light noted that officers “either believed they would not be caught or that Navy leadership would not hold them accountable, or that their misconduct was worth risking their career, or they simply chose to ignore the consequences entirely.” 5 The CNO can frame this issue very clearly: Retirement benefits are a reward. The Navy will aggressively prosecute these senior leaders with the same efficiency as junior sailors, even if it means a general court-martial. Dishonorable conduct at the senior level should be grounds for dismissal from the Navy without any retirement benefits.

Joint PME

At present, the Navy employs the worst possible mechanism to teach most of its officers joint education: distance learning. The principles of joint warfare are best learned not in a vacuum, but in a joint environment. As Lieutenant Commander Armstrong showed in his July 2012 Proceedings article, gaining an appreciation for the capabilities of the other services demands intelligent discussion with those services. From my own experience, having both Army and Marine officers in joint-professional-military-education classes (no Air Force officers attend JPME at the Naval Postgraduate School despite being resident students there) has significantly added to the discussion and overall learning. They are able to state what their capabilities actually are and better explain what they can bring to the fight, in addition to contributing a different service’s perspective on problem solving. Expecting students to absorb this same information from a Naval War College professor’s paper—which they are reading after working hours as they struggle to maintain an appropriate work-family balance—sets up officers for failure.

Armstrong presents an excellent plan for improvements, but it can go further. To reduce the burden on Navy institutions, the CNO should open a discussion with his counterparts in the Army, Air Force, and Marines to implement Armstrong’s program across the Department of Defense. Enrollment in these classes should be equally balanced among the services to ensure they all have full joint representation. While the need for and contents of a second round of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 could fill volumes, we can and should extend an olive branch to our interagency partners for increased inclusion in our joint education.

The close working relationship between the DOD, CIA, and State Department on the battlefield, along with our penchant for getting into conflicts requiring nation building, mandate that we spend more time together in peace. Inclusion of State and CIA officers, among other agencies, would allow their unique perspectives and organizational cultures to be brought in, thereby enhancing the curriculum significantly.

Or, to take this one step further: we could invite international partners. Our military colleges all have contingents of officers from around the globe. It’s time we included them in the discussion on joint warfare, given the emphasis placed on coalition operations. The Naval Postgraduate School provides an excellent test platform for this, with a sizable population of international and interagency officers in residence.

Graduate Education

The burdens of completing JPME via distance education while working a full-time shore job only touches on the difficulties of getting a graduate degree under the same conditions. If the Navy continues to signal that it requires officers with advanced education to serve at higher levels, we should be affording officers the opportunity to pursue this option without having to do so as a second job. Graduate education not only contributes additional technical, business, or analytic knowledge, it also helps officers become better critical thinkers and consumers of information, benefits that help officers with both operational and leadership problems.

The Navy can start by requiring all communities to revise the generic officer career plans so that they include a block or blocks of time devoted to graduate education during the career path. The possibility of a one-year, self-funded period away from a normal shore job could help a substantial number of officers earn graduate degrees without unduly burdening their work-family relationship. Next, the unwritten costs of being away from one’s community too long must be forced out of the collective thought of community selection boards. A few aviators at the Naval Postgraduate School were unofficially counseled against accepting orders to the school because, they were informed, this would be a death knell to their careers, representing as it did two years in a non-flying status.

The Way Ahead

We have centers of excellence in the Navy that are well suited to implementing a sweeping change in our PME structure: the Naval War College, Naval Postgraduate School, Center for Personal and Professional Development, and community schoolhouses.

The Naval War College, with the Stockdale Group, already houses the latest research in operational-level command. The senior course should be established at the “home” of the Navy’s strategic thought. The Naval Postgraduate School would be an optimum location for educating future department heads, given the breadth of faculty who are knowledgeable in defense project management. Finally, the Center for Personal and Professional Development and community schoolhouses are the ideal platforms from which to educate both young ensigns and prospective department heads on how to be outstanding leaders in their respective communities.

We have the facilities already. We can significantly alter the Navy’s PME structure and better prepare officers to be both managers and leaders at all levels of their careers. The CNO has taken steps to rectify the problem with the command screening and selection process. The current reactionary policies will become a thing of the past if we maximize the expertise of civilian and military faculties at our academic institutions.

It will not be easy in an era of fiscal constraints. But as we wind down from more than a decade of combat operations in Afghanistan, we have a golden opportunity to refocus our force for future requirements. We don’t know what the world will present to us, but a well-educated officer corps will better rise to the challenge. The CNO can further emphasize the need to enhance our PME system by directing his office to begin studying a detailed process for implementation of this or a similar plan, as he initiates talks with his service counterparts on how we can become truly joint in our JPME program. His guidance on this can instantly smooth over the inevitable arguments of career timing issues, promotion issues, etc.

Changing the course of our leadership and education culture will require a fundamental shift in the Navy’s attitude toward schooling. This can only come from the highest echelons. Assignments to be an instructor at a schoolhouse must be competitive. Teaching billets should be placed on the same level as becoming an instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School—where the best teach the best. The privilege of teaching officers should never be entrusted to the average or uncaring.

To reverse the trend of dozens of senior leaders being fired every year, we must rethink the ways in which we teach officers to be not just technical managers, but exceptional leaders. Overhauling the PME system will go a long way toward developing the next generation of naval leaders.

In what Under Secretary Robert Work terms the “maritime century,” the Navy should reassert itself as the premier service by aggressively pursuing closer ties with fellow services in peacetime, and by educating officers better than anyone else. We have some of the best technology in the world at our fingertips. But our combat systems are only as good as the men and women who operate them, along with their leaders. We can do more to leverage our greatest assets. Better education builds a solid foundation for that.

1. “Commanding Officer, XO, and Senior Enlisted Firings,” Navy Times , 3 July 2012, .

2. CAPT Mark F. Light, USN, “The Navy’s Moral Compass: Commanding Officers and Personal Misconduct,” Naval War College Review 65, no. 3 (summer 2012), 136.

3. Senator John S. McCain, “Leadership over Management,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , October 2011, 12.

4. Robert Kozloski, “Rethinking ‘Naval’: Heresy or Fiscal Imperative?”; and LCDR Benjamin Armstrong, USN, “Fix Navy PME!” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , July 2012, 30, 12.

5. Light, “The Navy’s Moral Compass,” 141.

After graduating with honors from the University of Kansas (political science, 2007), Lieutenant Hilger completed the submarine training pipeline and reported to the USS Maine (SSBN-741) (GOLD) in February 2009. He served in a variety of billets, including main propulsion assistant and communications officer. He completed four strategic deterrent patrols and then transferred to the Naval Postgraduate School in December 2011. Currently he is a student there in mechanical engineering.


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