The U.S. Navy is in the throes of a major cultural transformation: integrating women into traditional male warrior roles. To be successful in this undertaking, naval leaders—both military and civilian—must understand and respect the Navy’s culture and work to communicate their vision to its members.
Fifteen years ago, the study of cultures was left largely to anthropologists and dealt primarily with regions, nations, tribes, and religions. Not until relatively recent times has the existence of cultures within major business entities and other large organizations been considered worthy of serious study by behavioral scientists and students of organizational theory and management. Many case studies now in use in graduate schools of business administration deal with ways leaders have used organizational cultures to facilitate desired change—or, in some cases, to preserve traditional ways of doing things in the face of significant challenge or turmoil that threatened the status quo.
Today, it is generally accepted that most large organizations have distinct cultures that can be described and studied. In fact, very large organizations may have more than one major culture. Multidivisional corporations such as General Motors, Ford, and General Dynamics are examples. An even better example is our own U.S. Navy, with its three warfare communities: surface, air, and submarine. There are, arguably, several subcultures within each of these as well (e.g., attack and fighter aviation, rotary wing aviation, amphibious warfare, and antiair warfare).
There are as many definitions of organizational culture as there are researchers on the subject. The one 1 ultimately settled on, though, was: “Organizational culture is that combination of practices, habits, customs, history, traditions, rituals, symbols, myths, taboos, stories, relics, beliefs, ceremonies, values, heroes, legends, and ideals, written and unwritten, that characterize an organization and its people and influence their behavior.” The last part of that definition is highly significant. A strong organizational culture can be an extremely powerful force in influencing organizational behavior and a useful predictor of the individual behavior of its members.
Changing or transforming an established culture in a large organization is extremely difficult. Cultures develop their own defense mechanisms and immune systems, which can overcome an intruder like antibodies attacking an invading virus. That’s why cultural transformation, if it is to succeed at all, must originate at the top of an organization and be modeled by the daily behavior—not just the pronouncements—of the organization’s top people.
Transformation of a mature culture should begin with a thorough understanding of all the components of the main culture or cultures and any subcultures and countercultures. There are no real shortcuts to this process, and that is why external consultants—however skillful—rarely are successful in facilitating change unless that change is compatible with the established culture.
It usually takes insiders who have the respect and trust of most of the organization’s members to transform a mature organizational culture, and it takes more than one change it. It also requires working patiently with the members of the organization so that a common vision of the desired change can be established. It cannot be done by fiat or directive. It is essentially a democratic process, and that is precisely why it has been so difficult to effect meaningful cultural transformation in the armed forces. Military organizations are not, by nature, democratic. Nevertheless, cultural transformation in a military service or component is possible.
One of the most common mistakes is to begin by attempting to discredit the existing culture or important components of it, such as its customs, traditions, rituals, or heroes. Tradition is an important component of every mature organizational culture and generally is held in esteem by an organization’s members. Efforts to belittle or discredit traditions—even those that deserve to be changed—invariably will be met with resistance and turmoil, which always impede constructive change.
Successful agents of organizational change will exhibit appreciation and respect for the organization’s existing culture and traditions. They will introduce change gradually and empower members to share in their new vision for the organization. They will mode the desired behavior at the very top levels of the organization and act as rob models for subordinates.
Cultural Transformation in the U.S. Navy
The U.S. Navy provides a classic example of a deeply entrenched, mature culture in the throes of a major trans formation. The Navy is a stereotypical male, warrior culture that prizes traditional male characteristics: aggressiveness, physical strength, dominance, and tenacity. But the Navy currently is embarked upon a historic and unprecedented effort to integrate women into the traditional male warrior roles of operating combat ships, aircraft, and other: weapon systems.
The immensity of this cultural transformation cannot be overstated. There are senior Navy and civilian leaders who will play major roles in this culture transformation who will believe until the day they die that the conduct of war is not a proper role for women. Transforming an entrenched culture is a tough enough task for skilled leaders who believe deeply in the changes they seek; it will be immensely frustrating for leaders who—however committed to carrying out the mandates of higher authority—have been socialized and conditioned to uphold the traditional ways.
The traditional career rotation policies in the armed forces also militate against success in cultural transformation. Short assignments of 18 to 36 months create a turbulence and lack of continuity that is inimical to cultural transformation.
Policies and procedures can he changed on short notice, but organizational cultures change slowly. Leaders who would be agents of organizational change simply have to believe in the efficacy of what they are doing to the point of being willing to take personal and career risks, if necessary.
Effects of Tailhook
Contrary to popular opinion, the transformation of the Navy from a masculine culture to a more androgynous one was not expedited by events associated with the Tailhook scandal. Indeed, the process may have been impeded
Critics claim that the Navy’s decision to seek to open all aviation and shipboard billets to qualified women was a result of public pressure in the aftermath of Tailhook. In fact, the Navy began integrating women into non-traditional aviation and shipboard roles in 1979, far ahead of serious efforts by the other services to make comparable policy changes (with the exception of the Coast Guard, which recently had integrated women into the crews of its cutters). Then Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral James Watkins, stated in 1979 that the Women in Ships (WINS) Program was being implemented because, first, we needed their talents and, second, it was the right thing to do.
But many naval leaders do not believe it is the right thing to do. And no one says it will be easy. Those who are emotionally opposed to the idea of women in combat have deep-seated philosophical and emotional beliefs based upon decades of socialization and conditioning. Their concerns cannot be dismissed lightly, and it is asking a lot—perhaps too much—to expect them to lead a successful cultural transformation.
The Trashing of Tradition
The Navy is by far the most tradition-laden of all the services. These traditions, some of which may appear to need an overhaul, have been cherished by its members for two centuries. Naval heroes, some of whom would not be considered socially enlightened by today’s standards, are revered nonetheless by the organization’s members. The same is true for its legends, myths, and rituals. The Navy has them all.
Leaders cannot change cultures simply by issuing orders and policy changes, and it is a mistake to start by discrediting the current culture. The Navy clearly made a mistake in dropping tradition from its list of values. Organizational values are what the individual members jointly value. The Navy cannot function as a democracy, but neither can it dictate values from the top. You simply cannot tell people what to value or believe.
Dropping tradition was a blunder of considerable magnitude. The implication, of course, was that there was something pretty shameful about our traditions. Whether or not it was intended by the wizards who handed down the “new” values, that was what many—if not most—members inferred.
Traditions, myths, and legends need to be viewed through tinted lenses. They may not be exact prescriptions for behavior today, but they are powerful motivators for which people fight and die.
The Armed Forces as Agents of Social Change
The military services are a reflection of our society. They often have led the way in both technological and social innovation. There is, however, a temptation to use the services as laboratories for social change. This temptation must be resisted if the armed forces are to remain able to accomplish their primary mission: to deter wars and to fight and win them should deterrence fail. That purpose must never be subordinated to any social agenda or notion of political correctness.
Integration of women into nontraditional military roles, however, is not a social experiment. In other words, there is no turning back now. Those military managers who truly believe that this program is a prescription for disaster and who inwardly hope and expect that history will some day prove their fears to have been well-founded cannot effectively facilitate this cultural transformation except by getting out of its way.
This is not a pejorative assessment of their contributions and abilities. Their concerns are certainly not unfounded. It’s simply that the most effective change agents are true believers, not those who dutifully comply but harbor severe doubts that it will ever work. It will work because it must work. How well it works is directly correlated to the quality of our leadership.
Honest reservations and concerns regarding the effects of cultural change upon the military mission must be allowed without the threat of censure. Constructive criticism should never be stifled because of fears by the organization’s leaders that it makes their job more difficult. If members’ concerns are stifled by higher authority, they quickly can lead to resentment, resistance, and the formation of countercultures.
One of the most overdone and overstated notions associated with the military is the idea that civilian control of the military requires that no dissenting opinion be voiced by those in uniform. Civilian control, of course, means control by politicians who follow political agenda that frequently change. Our political bosses deserve the honest, consistent, and professional judgment of uniformed professionals, who are blind to political and social pressures. Those who express contrary opinions, of course, must be answerable for them, and there are practical limitations that should be dictated by judgment, loyalty, common sense, and the overall good of the organization. Organizational culture, especially tradition, should set the ground rules here.
Navy leadership has not really acknowledged the need for a selling process and an exchange of concerns. The values that the leadership seeks to change, after all, are the members’ own values. Concerns need to be aired and acknowledged before values can be changed. Junior officers, chief petty officers, crew members, and various warfare and technical communities need to be heard from on issues such as the integration of women into combat roles and the ban on homosexuals in the service. Yet this need may have been sacrificed to the notion that each service—indeed, all services—should speak with one voice. Blind adherence to political correctness and principles that stifle dissent are inimical to successful cultural transformation.
Homosexuals in the Military
In the midst of its integration of women, the Navy was faced with President Bill Clinton’s pledge to lift the Department of Defense’s ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces. This controversial social and moral issue could not have been visited upon the services at a worse time.
In the study of organizational theory, it will be a textbook example of poor timing on the part of the Commander-in-Chief. It will become a case study on the pitfalls of imposing change on a mature organization without first understanding its culture and on the folly of attempting to impose cultural change by fiat and by attempting to discredit an important component of the existing culture (i.e., regarding the long-standing ban on homosexuals as a last vestige of discrimination that needed to be purged from the tradition-bound services).
President Clinton’s decision to rescind the ban was made in ignorance of the deep-seated feelings of a majority of service members and without the benefit of prior consultation with military leaders. Only after the enormity of the blunder was apparent did he and his advisors seek advice. Unfortunately, it was too late to avoid political damage and the need to fall back to a weak compromise that pleased no one.
It was a mistake to muzzle military members on the subject—a mistake, at least, from an organizational theory viewpoint. The opinions of the service members at every level mattered. It was they, after all, who had to live with the consequences of the enormous cultural change implicit in acceptance of acknowledged gays in the military. It might have given Mr. Clinton a greater awareness of what was involved.
The Navy has a distinct culture. Indeed, the remoteness and autonomy associated with shipboard life over the centuries has contributed to an exceptionally mature, robust, unique, and resilient culture. There is much about it to commend and some things, perhaps, that need to be reviewed in light of an American society that is becoming more androgynous and tolerant of individual differences Cultural transformation can be a useful tool in facilitating the desired behavioral changes.
In the case of integrating women into nontraditional combat roles, cultural transformation is not just an available tool; it is a necessity. This change is an enormous undertaking: converting a traditional male warrior culture into an androgynous yet still warrior culture without sacrificing effectiveness.
For centuries, sailors have gone down to the sea and left their women and children behind. Soldiers marched off to war to fight for God, for country, and for the women in their life. From now on, women will be lined up beside them on the firing line and in the combat zones.
Men are not used to fighting with women. They are| used to fighting for them. They have been socialized for generations to protect and shelter them. This is changing, of course, but the process is slow and we aren’t there yet. To say that this cultural change will be difficult is an understatement of heroic proportions.
Patience will be needed; less punishment and more patience.
Captain Kelly served more than 30 years in a wide variety of ship and staff assignments, including commanding officer of the Parsons (DDG-33), the Fox (CG-33), and the Dixie (AD-14), as well as the U.S Navy Personnel Research and Development Center. He earned his master’s degree in management and his doctorate in leadership. Dr. Kell) did his doctoral dissertation on the transformation of an organizational culture in a mature business enterprise and has written numerous articles on women in the military.