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Second Honorable Mention
Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
We Need Leaders, Not Technocrats
By Lieutenant Jeffrey E. McFadden, U. S. Naval Reserve
“To compete in the world, to serve as a naval officer, today you must have a technical background. If you become an inveterate reader, if an idle moment never finds you without a book in your hand, the broad knowledge will come to you. But without a background in deep technical knowledge,
and without the resulting confidence that moves you to unravel technical complexities wherever you find them, you will always be a wallflower in the ballroom of progress, and your success in our profession will suffer accordingly.”
Thus spoke Admiral Carlisle A. H. Trost, Chief of Naval Operations, at the Superintendent of the U. S. Naval Academy’s change-of-command ceremony in August 1988. His message, that technical competency is the cornerstone of leadership and professionalism, was a declaration of victory in a political struggle dating back to the mid-1970s.
The nuclear-trained officer corps, comprising only a small percentage of naval officers, has recast the mold of tomorrow’s leader in the image of Hyman Rickover. In abandoning the ageless precepts of military professionalism, hallmarks of leadership as old as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, this emphasis on technical competency will prove to be as deleterious to the officer corps of the 1990s as former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s corporate managerial approach was in the 1960s.
The concept of the leader as technocrat has permeated every aspect of our nation’s defense, from the office of the president to the selection, training, and education of officer candidates. This approach to leadership, with its emphasis on details rather than the big picture, on rules rather than judgment, on machinery rather than men and women, dehumanizes a skill that depends on distinctly human attributes: the ability to take a group of individuals from vastly different walks of life and mold them into a cohesive fighting unit in both peace and war.
The Roots of the Conflict
On 30 April 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army. Four months later, Rear Admiral Kinnard R. McKee assumed command as the 47th superintendent of the Naval Academy. These two events marked the end of one revolution in military leadership and the beginning of another. McNamara’s war was over; Rickover was in.
The quintessential engineer, Hyman Rickover imbued in each one of his officers the belief that he could manage any crisis through rigorous familiarization with the most minute workings of any system. Every problem ultimately has a solution, and good leaders must know as much as their subordinates about the policies and programs being implemented in order to keep those subordinates honest.
Unfortunately, this leadership style has produced crippling side effects, such as the inability to grasp or articulate broad policy or strategy and a feeling among subordinates that they are not being trusted to do their jobs and tend to lesser details as they see fit. Despite the hard lessons learned in Vietnam, the Navy of the mid-1970s, in amorous pursuit of high technology, continued to entertain the strategic fiction that the next war was going to be an over-the-horizon, sanitized, push-button affair.
In November 1976, the technocratic leadership revolution spread from the Navy to the nation itself, when another Rickover man, James Earl Carter, was elected to the presidency. Over the next four years, as President Carter arose at 0500 every day to master the minute details of every program and policy undertaken by his administration, the greatest Navy in the world was literally cut in half in numbers of ships, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, terrorists took the U. S. embassy in Iran hostage, and the American people nearly resigned themselves to an inevitable fall of their country’s status as a greater power.
The Naval Academy rapidly became the Nuclear Power Preparatory School. Humanities electives were cut back, several majors were eliminated, and academic performance, rather than military performance, became the chief yardstick for one’s potential for success in the fleet. Nuclear-trained officers put midshipmen under enormous pressure in order to meet recruiting quotas. And, in a decision that the nuclear power community regrets to this day, members of the class of 1980 were drafted into the nuclear power program.
By 1978, voices from other parts of the fleet could be heard. Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, a Medal of Honor winner who spent seven and a half years as a prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam, created a course at the Naval War College (where he served as its president) entitled “Foundations of Moral Obligation.”
Stockdale asserted that his graduate work as a lieutenant commander at Stanford— and a strong foundation in philosophy, ethics, and the classics—prepared him more than any other educational or military experience to withstand the mental and physical brutality and humiliation of life as a POW. In an essay entitled “The World of Epictetus,” he wrote:
“Education should take care to illuminate values, not bury them amongst the trivia. Are our students getting the message that without personal integrity intellectual skills are worthless? ... I believe a good classical education and an understanding of history can best determine the rules you should live by. They also give you the power to analyze reasons for these rules and guide you as to how to apply them to your own situation.”
Later that same year, another former POW, Rear Admiral William P. Lawrence, relieved Admiral McKee as superintendent of the Naval Academy. Firmly espousing the educational philosophies of Admiral Stockdale, Lawrence set about shifting the focus of leadership education back to more humanistic, less technical principles.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the subsequent appointment of John Lehman as Secretary of the Navy, came an apparent end to the reign of the technocrats. Lehman, a former student of philosophy, politics, and economics at Cambridge University in England and the University of Pennsylvania, shook the technological temple to its foundations by “retiring” Admiral Rickover in 1982, and then by issuing SecNav Instruction 1531.2, a directive that radically altered admissions- and majors-selection criteria
for naval officer candidates.
Drafted with the help of such people as Admiral Stockdale and then-Assistant Secretary of Defense James H. Webb, Jr., the instruction removed the 80%/20% quota on technical and nontechnical majors, directed that math and verbal SAT scores be given equal weight in the admissions process (versus a three to one weighting in favor of the math score), and established honors programs in the humanities. Lehman, like Webb and Stockdale, firmly believed that institutions charged with producing combat leaders were not doing enough to develop character through study in the liberal arts.
By late 1987, faced with a migration of midshipmen to nontechnical majors, Admiral McKee, Admiral Trost, and Vice Admiral Nils R. Thunman, Chief of Naval Education and Training, reacted to the policy change. Memoranda began circulating among these officials, all nuclear-trained, and the then-superintendent, Rear Admiral Ronald Maryott, discussing a proposal to reestablish a quota (tentatively set at 70%/30%) on the technical/nontechnical majors split and to weight math SAT scores two to one against verbal for administrative purposes.
Lehman’s SecNav instruction, though not officially superseded, is all but a dead letter now that he and his successor, James Webb, have both left office. Lehman’s insistence that SAT math and verbal scores be weighted equally in the admissions process for all officer candidate programs has been overturned by local instructions.
How Concepts of Military Professionalism Are Taught Today
Where do virtues like duty, honor, integrity, and moral courage find a forum for their exploration in a high-tech, analytical learning environment? Leadership is an art, not a science. Like any art, a leadership education requires a foundation in classical concepts. It is impossible to be a good painter without studying Rembrandt, to be a good composer without studying Mozart, and to be a good naval leader without studying John Paul Jones. By delving into the style and techniques of the great masters that have gone before, the artist/leader incorporates those artistic principles into his own unique style. Undue reliance on technical competence is to leadership what paint- by-numbers is to Impressionism.
Every technical problem has a discrete, derivable answer. But to master the fine art of leadership, one must learn to operate in the “gray areas,” a skill rarely called for in technical problem-solving. This distinction denotes the line between education and training. Taking its cue from other training commands in the fleet, the junior officer leadership curriculum teaches far more about management and administration than it does about leadership. Critical topics, such as the fear of dying in combat, the markedly different values of enlisted personnel, or the decision to disobey an order, give way to Maslowe’s hierarchy of needs, Navy Alcohol Safety Action Program counseling, and decision trees.
A Return to Humanistic Leadership
The need for technical competence in the portfolio of the modem naval officer is unquestionable, but its preeminence in the current hierarchy of military professionalism is suspect. Perhaps its relative value is best expressed in the simple yet telling advice Admiral Lawrence gives to future officers: “Know your job, know your people, know yourself.”
An undue emphasis on the first tends to give short shrift to the other two, much to the detriment of both leaders and followers. Leadership education for the officers of the 1990s and beyond will require the far greater emphasis on the inquiries into human nature that knowing one’s people
and knowing one’s self demand.
To that end, renewed emphasis must be placed on the educational philosophies that underpinned Admiral Stockdale’s “Foundations in Moral Obligation” course and SecNav Instruction 1531.2. Leadership education at the Naval Academy, Officer Candidate School, and at Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps units around the country must begin redefining military professionalism in terms of timeless, undeniable moral principles. Social science and management must give way to philosophy, politics, and humane studies. The endless memorization of force structure facts and figures should be replaced by a mandatory course in professional ethics—a part of the core curriculum found at both West Point and the Air Force Academy.
The hopes, fears, dreams, and values of today’s enlisted men and women are best explored through history and literature, “broad knowledge” that no naval officer is going to be able to stuff in a sea bag after graduation and carry on board his first ship. Officer candidates must be confronted with issues ranging from the pain of family separation to the moral ramifications of killing the enemy long before they enter the training pipeline that will ultimately qualify them in their warfare specialties. In a survey of more than 60 Naval Academy graduates who had majored in English, many of whom serve in the nuclear Navy, the vast majority agreed that above any other leadership skill, their ability to communicate, both orally and in writing, sets them apart from and ahead of their peers. Why is it, then, that the Navy is again outdone by the Army and the Air Force in not requiring a semester-long course in professional writing and public speaking at its officer training commands?
This is the course the Navy must set for itself into the 21st century, if its professional institutions are to be more than sophisticated trade schools. We must fill the gaps in the moral and ethical education of officer candidates, and minimize repetition of training, if we are to ensure that our officer corps is the paradigm of military leadership around the world, thus guaranteeing our continued preeminence as a maritime power.
Lieutenant McFadden is currently a lecturer in the Department of English at the U. S. Naval Academy. He previously served on the personal staff of James H. Webb as Special Assistant and Speech- writer to the Secretary of the Navy, and he served as a nuclear engineer. Lieutenant McFadden expects to receive his J. D. from Georgetown University Law Center in February 1990, and he is a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy.
The United States Naval Institute and the Vincent Astor Foundation take pleasure in announcing the Sixteenth Annual Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest for Junior Officers and Officer Trainees
of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The contest is designed to promote research, thinking, and writing on topics of leadership in the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
FIRST PRIZE: $1,500, a Naval Institute Gold Medal, and a Life Membership in the Naval Institute.
FIRST HONORABLE MENTION: $1,000 and a Naval Institute Silver Medal SECOND HONORABLE MENTION: (two to be awarded) $500 and a Naval Institute Bronze Medal. The first prize essay will be published in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. The Institute's Editorial Board.may elect to publish any or all of the honorable mention essays in any given year, but is not obligated to do so. The Editorial Board may, from time to time, publish collections of the award winning essays and other essays in book or pamphlet form.
The contest is open to:
1. Commissioned officers, regular and reserve, in the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard in pay grades 0-1,0-2, and 0-3 (ensign/2nd lieutenant: lieutenant (junior grade)/1st lieutenant; and lieutenant/captain) at the time the essay is submitted.
2. U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard officer trainees within one year of receiving their commission.
VINCENT ASTOR MEMORIAL
- Essays must be original and may not exceed 4,000 words.
- All entries should be directed to: Executive Director (VAMLEC), U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland 21402.
- Essays must be received on or before 1 February 1990 at the U.S. Naval institute.
- The name of the author shall not appear on the essay. Each author shall assign a motto in addition to a title to the essay. This motto shall appear (a) on the title page of the essay, with the title, in lieu of the author’s name and (b) by itself on the outside of an accompanying sealed envelope. This sealed envelope should contain a typed sheet giving the name, rank, branch of service, address, and office and home phone numbers (if available) of the essayist, along with the title of the essay and the motto. The identity of the essayist will not be known of the judging members of the Editorial Board until they have made their selections.
- The awards will be made known and presented to the successful competitors during the graduation awards ceremonies at their respective schools, if appropriate, or at other official ceremonies. Mrs. Astor or her personal representative will be invited to present the first prize each year.
- Essays must be typewritten, double-spaced, on paper approximately 81/z x 11". Submit two complete copies.
- Essays will be judged by the Naval Institute’s Editorial Board for depth of research, analytical and interpretive qualities, and original thinking on the topic of leadership. Essays should not be merely expositions or personal narratives.
DEADLINE: 1 FEBRUARY 1990
UNITED STATES NAVAL INSTITUTE Annapolis, Maryland 21402 (301) 268-6110