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Second Honorable Mention 1990 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
‘What’s in It for MeV
By Lieutenant A. B. DiLucente, U.S. Naval Reserve
Indulged since childhood, we of the Me Generation never experienced the hardships of economic depression or world conflicts. We grew up in the years adorned by the Space Age, Barbie Dolls, military superiority, and designer jeans. As teenagers and young adults, we found ourselves in an era that witnessed the financial instability of the social support system created by the earlier generation, a time compromised by the confusion of public scandals from Watergate to Iranscam, and repetitive negative predictions on the decline of the United States in the world arena. Gone are the postWorld War II years of dominant power with the concomitant ties that bonded our parents’ generation with a sense of shared cause.
For us, Vietnam exists as an uncertain cloudy memory relived through technicolor films and the occasional remote banter of the senior officers in the ready room. We watch as the only assured foe from our youth, the Communist Bloc, crumbles in its yearning for democracy.
And who wouldn’t crave our life-style? Freedom beyond our wildest expectations, with more discretionary income than ever before and a multitude of products to spend it on. Enraptured with living for the moment, we proclaimed “If it feels good, do it” and “Charge now, pay later.” Unlike our previous counterparts contemplating the draft, we were able to choose our profession and bring into it the new sensitivity of personal “rights.” Ideal, isn’t it? Why, then, are we facing personnel management problems in our Navy today?
Somewhere along the way, our leadership traits drifted away or were shelved back behind the more desirable skills that earned us instant reward or financial gratification. Leadership depends on promoting the good of the group over the specific wants of the individual. It requires fairness for all involved rather than accommodation of exclusive interests. Conducting a 1979 poll for the DuPont Corporation, the James B. Lindheim Company assessed the United States’s youth as “an increasingly self-centered individual with a greater emphasis on self-interest, self-discovery, and an insistence on freedom to decide whether many of the traditional rules of personal conduct are proper or necessary.”1 Admiral Thomas B. Hayward reflected similar sentiments in his CNO Situation Report for 1980, remarking, “I think there has been an unfortunate—not an intentional—migration of the permissiveness of our American society that has sprung up over the last ten or fifteen years into the military in general, and clearly, into the Navy.”2
The United States’s rise to become a great world power was based on hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance. To be
GUESS BY GEORGES MARCIANO
a leader, particularly in the military, meant being on the crest of a wave formed by an underswell of supportive followers. Certain of their goals and jointly dedicated to being Number One, Americans forged ahead, unlimited by economic considerations. They made unprecedented gains and achieved their dominant-power status in less than 100 years.
A hundred years ago, leadership consisted of attending to the physical needs of the men and rewarding heroic accomplishments. Motivational speeches were nice, but not required, as the forces were already inspired by a shared patriotic goal.
However, as the United States slips from its previously enjoyed hegemony to its place as one among many prominent countries, the thrust changes. Leadership now requires recognizing the diversity of individuals and convincing them that the decline of prevalence does not negate their efforts as commanders. In fact, these circumstances demand more of them.
As we determine what tack we need to take, we should first assess where we are starting. Historian Richard D. Lamm noted, "Great civilizations don't suddenly collapse; they get inefficient, dysfunctional, and lose the stern virtues that made them great in the first place.”3 In the 1950s the United States had over 44 percent of the world’s economic product, the world’s highest productivity rate, and continual trade surpluses. By 1989 the generation in charge of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s had run up a $2.6 trillion dollar deficit and the nation had slipped to the lowest rate of productivity growth of any in the industrialized world. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan crisply puts it, “It is an iron law of history that power passes from debtor to creditor.”4
If our demise is inevitable, there’s nothing we can do to alter it, right? How can our simple personal dedication and work ethic possibly swim against the economic tidal wave?
By remembering the importance of the individual. In 1776, a single vote gave the United States English as a national language instead of German; in 1845, a one-vote margin brought Texas in as the 28th state; in 1923, Adolf Hitler won leadership of the German Nazi party by one vote.
Economically devastated by war and spiritually shamed by surrender, Japan had only its personal virtues on which to rebuild. And yet;
“With an irony that defies descrip
tion, the U.S. and Japan, in 40 years, traded reputations. When the 1980s began, the world’s largest corporations were in the United States; when the eighties ended they were in Japan. When the eighties began, the world’s largest bankers were American; when the eighties ended they were Japanese. When the eighties began, the world’s largest stock market was Wall Street; when the eighties ended it was in Tokyo. . . . While Japan trained engineers and scientists, the U.S. trained lawyers and accountants. One in 400 Americans was a lawyer; one in 10,000 Japanese was a lawyer. Japan trained 1,000 engineers for every 100 lawyers; America, the reverse. . . . Japanese students went to school 240 days a year; U.S. students went 180 days. In 1985 Japan graduated 96 percent of its students from high school; the U.S. graduated less than 75 percent. . . . There was a terrible breakdown in the American family; the U.S. had a divorce rate 25 times that of Japan.”5
If each one of us contributed a small effort to improve our world and our Navy, the collective results would be overpowering. It’s time to put away our selfishness and devote ourselves to the betterment of the next generation. The Philadelphia Inquirer had a splendid cartoon last year: Uncle Sam perched on a ladder, watching the Communist world through field glasses and exclaiming, “Imagine! Communism just self- destructing like that!” Behind him are homeless people, dilapidated schools, soup lines, drug sales, and hold-ups.6 Instead of worrying about our fitness report marks and career ticket-punches, we should return to the basic tenets of leadership—personal responsibility, obedience, courage, and loyalty.
We are inheriting uncharted waters to travel; low-intensity conflicts, fraud, waste, and abuse. We must be able to deal with these moral dilemmas. Omission or silent consent is a gross violation of the special trust and confidence bestowed on us as a result of our commissions.7 As recommended by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Gregor in his 1988 Chase Essay, “The most important action to be taken is to maintain the high standards we learned as newly commissioned officers. Keep the fire alive! So many officers become old in spirit as well as body as they progress in their careers.”8 In our own Fundamentals of Naval Leadership, we are reminded that “Personal integrity has always been demanded of U.S. officers, and in an age of rapid scientific and technological development, the leader must never forget that this is still the prime ingredient of the naval officer.”
But what’s in all this for me, you may ask. The payoff is a Navy and a world made just a little bit better and a lot more enjoyable by your contributions. As the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so does one move on the road of improvement. If government procurement atrocities are too much to handle, start smaller—how about returning all those black Skilcraft pens that have found their way into your desk drawer at home? You may laugh at the idea, but multiply one or two pens by thousands of sailors, by years, and we’re looking at our own tax dollars vanishing.
Do you lecture your troops on the standards of conduct annually and then reproduce your income tax returns “at government expense”? Are you inclined to look the other way when your yeomen use the ship’s computers to play video games? What about the squadron tool room control on weekends when the corrosion team is refinishing someone’s car instead of an aircraft wing? Do you counsel your workers about their lackadaisical attitude one minute and gripe about the “old man” the next? Are you taking the time to invest in discipline when it is needed, or are you also delegating that as someone else’s problem? We are probably all guilty in some fashion.
High expectations and leadership by example are what’s in it for us. We get the invaluable gift of self-satisfaction, a sense of worth, and the legacy of providing for future generations. These are assets we can retain throughout our lives, and neither falling interest rates nor stockmarket crashes can take them from us.
'James A. Nathan and James K. Oliver, The Future of U.S. Naval Power, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and London, 1979, pp. 167-168. 2VADM William P. Mack, USN, Retired, and CDR Albert H. Konetzni, Jr., USN, Command at Sea, Fourth Edition, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1982, pp. 156-157.
3Richard D. Lamm, The Rise and Fall of the American Civilization, from a commencement address, 1989.
4Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Wall Street Journal, Friday, 22 December 1989.
5Lamm, op. cit.
6Schlesinger, op. cit.
7Captain Alfredo Longoria, Jr., USMC, “Ethics in Low-Intensity Conflict,” Marine Corps Gazette, April 1989.
8Lieutenant Colonel Christopher J. Gregor, USMC, “Of Clerks and Marines,” Marine Corps Gazette, Volume 73, Number 4, April 1989.
Lieutenant DiLucente is serving as the Air Intelligence Officer at Fighter Squadron 124, Naval Air Station Miramar, San Diego.