I may have said too much. In remarks at the U.S. Naval Institute's Annual Meeting, I explained to the assembled admirals and generals why their best junior officers are leaving. "We feel ignored," I said. "Get back in touch with your people. Talk to us, one-on-one, without all the filters." Nine retired admirals later sought me out and shook my hand. From our conversations over the course of the conference, we identified three major challenges facing the Navy today.
Command Culture Is Dying
History used to matter. Command histories once gave ships and squadrons an appreciation that their units helped keep the United States free. For too many of us, command histories have become mere paperwork. But in losing our past, we lose a powerful tool for instruction and motivation and an invaluable element of command culture.
Barriers to forthright communication without fear of reprisal are everywhere. A zero-defect mentality still exists, and it stifles honest, respectful dissent. The toughest issues in wardrooms these days are not getting the attention they deserve.
The politics of feelings also has stifled communication. At its worst, sensitivity before honesty is a lie. When the truth is bent to please superiors or subordinates in the name of "keeping the peace," the ideals we swear to uphold are betrayed.
The ship used to be home. In an emotional if not physical sense, a bond once existed with the workplace that lasted beyond normal duty hours. The people you worked with were family. And as strong as the wardroom was, the wives' club was stronger. For better or worse, those days are over. Changing demographics are largely to blame. Unfortunately, the notion of "ship as home" will never recover because of it.
In the old days, individual commands retained an identity that transcended the personalities of their members. Today, it becomes almost impossible to define the mission of a unit without becoming entangled in the politics of present leadership. Without that constancy of purpose, without that culture of command, our warfighting ability as a nation suffers.
Professional Priorities Are Backward
When service beyond self is the very reason a profession exists, as it is for those who defend freedom, then selfishness and professionalism cannot endure together. The impression among junior officers is that our leaders today have their priorities reversed.
When faced with tough choices, too often the first thought is: "What decision will most enhance my career." The right question gives way to the simple one, the tough decision yields to the expedient one, and the hard fact is hidden by the comfortable lie. Several years ago an F-14 skipper sent a hazard report describing his squadron's lack of readiness, knowing it could ruin his career. We need more men like that in charge.
As a misplaced priority, community survival runs a close second to career advancement. In too many cases, money and sweat are poured into systems on the brink of obsolescence. At the other extreme, communities fearing the budget axe refuse to ask for what they need.
Long-Term Thinking Is Discouraged
When long-term needs are sacrificed to fit short-term budgets, the Navy suffers. At the heart of the problem is an apparent lack of courage among senior military leaders and the civilian officials they advise. Asking for lots of money now to save even more money later takes guts.
The fact is, most of those in power today probably will not be in power when credit is due for such decisions. If the vision of the planners extends only as far as the next election or promotion board, then our Navy will continue to waste money on short-term fixes to longterm problems.
Myopic planning also infects lower tiers of power. The reasons are similar. Skippers' tours last roughly one year, so incentives for wise forward thinking are even fewer than in Washington. We ask for spare parts now to get our systems back online, when what we really need in many cases are newer systems. The commanding officers face an uphill battle, and without access to the Navy's purse strings they probably deserve more sympathy than blame.
Communication Is the Answer
Perhaps the most alarming signal of a Navy in trouble is the mass exodus of its best young officers. Communication is the key to ending this. But ideas do not travel well in today's Navy. Together, we must change the conventional wisdom. Read the professional journals. Publications such as Proceedings and Navy Times are the only legitimate forums for the free exchange of ideas that tend to avoid the censors. Develop relationships outside your community. Junior officers, speak out. Senior leaders, listen up. Recovering this loss of faith will require that we talk to each other on a personal level, not across packed auditoriums during hit-and-run visits.
I ended my speech by saying that I still believe in the system. Leaving the podium, though, I wondered if I had just ended my career. The people who shook my hand afterward, however, told me that I had done the right thing but that I had not done enough. Much more will be needed to change enough minds to make a difference. So I did not say too much after all. In fact, I am just getting warmed up.
Lieutenant (junior grade) Harbaugh won First Honorable Mention in the U.S. Naval Institute’s 2000 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest. He thanks all of the senior officers who gave him counsel on the ideas presented here.