The seagoing profession has evolved throughout the centuries, progressing through the Age of Sail, the Age of Steam, and the Industrial Age. Today, our sea service is experiencing yet another transformation in the age of information. Within the past decade, computer-based tools, systems, and programs have revolutionized how the naval service conducts business. Electronic mail has greatly improved the flow of information, and the Internet has provided increased accessibility to relevant information. A chief petty officer can access advancement information immediately from the Bureau of Naval Personnel's Web site and brief personnel in her division. Online college courses and graduate programs have expanded the opportunities for personnel to earn degrees and subspecialties. By allowing crewmembers to use e-mail to stay in touch with friends and family, a commanding officer can greatly improve morale during a deployment.
In the operational arena, technology also has improved the manner in which we fight. With the wide variety of Web-based resources, collaborative chat, and planning tools, not only is the war fighter better informed, but he also is better equipped to perform a multitude of command-and-control functions. Cell phones, chat rooms, and video teleconferencing capabilities have become a less expensive means for senior leaders to remain in contact with forces. Elaborate networks incorporating real-time satellite imagery and stored information such as target locations and threat levels not only provide a commanding officer the information necessary to make informed decisions during a targeting process, but also can provide real-time battle damage assessment. For those who have been part of the Microsoft Navy since commissioning or enlistment, it is hard to imagine what the military was like without the technology available today. This growing dependence on hardware and software, however, has had far-reaching side effects for leadership.
Leadership from the Sidelines
Despite its advantages, technology has hindered leadership at the operational and tactical levels. The vast number of tools available to the senior leaders and composite warfare commanders at sea inadvertently have taken away basic leadership responsibilities from junior leaders and placed them in the hands of those with more rank and responsibility in the chain of command, far removed from the action. Equipment such as forward-looking infrared radar onboard an SH-60B helicopter can provides real-time imagery to the combat information center when downlinked. While this gives commanders the opportunity to view a maritime interdiction scenario as it unfolds, it also allows them to micromanage and provide direction to the crew from the safety of the ship. The current war in Afghanistan has been a prime showcase for the wonders of information technology. U.S. Central Command has been able to perform many functions stateside, rather than in theater. Nonetheless, this shift in operations has led some to question whether those in charge are leading the fight or commanding and controlling from the rear. Some leaders have become so reliant on technology that they have become inflexible and unwilling to operate without equipment "in the green." In certain respects, the overwhelming amount of information technology products in the fleet has complicated the battlefield.
Technology also has had a significant impact on the day-to-day operations of a command. Before computers were commonplace, those in charge would blame their full inbox for their inability to spend more time with their people. Unfortunately, the electronic inbox has merely added its contents to the daily workload. Although e-mail and software programs specifically designed for the Navy have allowed personnel to get work done faster, these capabilities also have created more work, more e-mail to answer, and more taskers to whom an immediate response is required. As a result, an executive officer might be more compelled to respond to his 87 new e-mails and to complete the E-5 evaluations instead of spending time walking through squadron spaces or observing operations on the bridge.
Reduced Interaction with Subordinates
While there is no question that e-mail is vital, it has inadvertently introduced a new leadership style: Leadership by e-mail. This mode of communication serves as a cyber shield behind which leaders can hide and send out comments, criticism, or praise without interacting and dealing with their subordinates. Leadership by e-mail also has made it more difficult for a subordinate to determine the urgency of a task or to catch the tone of voice of his boss, leaving a lot open to interpretation. A department head might deem his own writing style as matter-of-fact, but the recipient of his e-mail might interpret the tone as offensive and overbearing. Video teleconferencing has made it possible for those separated by oceans to meet in cyberspace, saving money, man-hours, and travel time. This feature, however, has made it more difficult for leaders to evaluate their subordinates' performance since the only face time they get is the impression on the screen. Overall, both forms of interactive information technology have contributed to the loss of personal interaction that is essential to good leadership.
A New Set of Priorities
It is also easy to place importance on technology, rewarding those who understand it and dismissing those who do not. In many commands, the underlying priority is not on the development and use of operational and leadership skills but the ability of a person to use software programs and troubleshoot systems.
Highlighting the issue in an April 2000 Wall Street Journal article entitled "What's Your Point, Lieutenant? Please, Just Cut to the Pie Charts," author Greg Jaffe questions how a piece of technology that was supposed to improve communication became a barrier to it as military officers began to spend more time and energy creating the perfect brief than of practicing shiphandling and flying skills. While many junior officers joke about earning their Microsoft 1000-hour patch instead of their 1000-(flight)-hour patch, there is serious concern about whether emphasis has shifted from being able to take charge and lead people to becoming computer gurus. There is an inherent danger of granting most-favored junior officer status to the individual who can develop a polished PowerPoint presentation complete with graphics and animation instead of to the junior officer who excels as a division officer and is well respected by his peers and subordinates.
New Rules and Regulations
A senior enlisted advisor who is responsible for correcting personnel on lax uniform standards now has additional items to add to his list. He now might be forced to order them to remove the beeper and/or cell phone hooked to their uniform belts. These days, lectures on operational security might involve not only teaching service members not to leave a safe open or talk on a nonsecure telephone line, but also instructing them not to enter classified information or schedules into personal Palm Pilots and to shut off cell phones during classified briefings. Commanding officers also have additional Uniform Code of Military Justice offenses to deal with at captains' masts. They are more apt to see personnel brought up on charges such as viewing unauthorized Web sites, accessing nonwork-related sites during working hours, and leaking information about future port visits to loved ones via e-mail.
Losing Sailors, Leading Civilians
Division officers, division chiefs, and command career counselors have the added responsibility of convincing subordinates who serve in technical rates to remain in uniform and serve their country. It has been difficult for many to win this battle when civilian companies are offering five times the amount of a government paycheck to hard-working and technically savvy sailors. The incorporation of information technology tools into the military workplace also has presented the challenge of leading civilians who are more technologically competent than their uniformed commanders. As a result of advancements in systems, the military has relied on contractors and civil service employees who possess skills set not taught at any "A" school. Commanding officers and department heads suddenly are held responsible for learning the guidelines, regulations, and evaluations systems for civilian employees.
Behind the Technology Curve
Naval officers must be intimately familiar with the various systems that run a ship, submarine, aircraft, or command. Unfortunately, the basic knowledge required to understand the various information technology systems sometimes exceeds the limited working knowledge that the average officer might possess. In many cases, there are no formalized courses to teach users about the hardware and software for which they are ultimately responsible. As a result, leaders often are forced to take the word of a troubleshooter when systems fail, when programs do not work, or when the "blue screen of death" appears. According to retired Navy captain Neil Byrne, there are many instances where "some poor guy whom they just got off the bridge of his submarine, cruiser, or air squadron" is suddenly put in charge of something he does not know much about, such as computer war games. "There may be a uniform who is titularly in charge," Byrne said, but the officer knows so little about the specialty that the man's subordinates usually end up using him "as a ventriloquist's dummy."1
Overall, the misuse of or the failure to understand information technology can fracture the personal interaction between those in charge and those they lead. It can remove the decision-making capability of the most junior of leaders and place it in the hands of their reporting seniors. At all levels, service members must use technology as a tool that complements good leadership. To ensure that leadership is not sacrificed, the following must be considered:
- Use technology to lead and manage, not to micromanage. All leaders, particularly at the senior level, need to ensure that personnel are empowered to make decisions that are commensurate with their ranks and grades. It is important to leave the strategic- and campaign-level decisions to the senior officers and the tactical decisions to the junior officers and senior enlisted ranks. Micromanagement and a total reliance on machines and equipment will only go so far. The trust and confidence that the tactical operators have in senior leadership can be greatly affected.
- Lead from the front, not from behind a computer screen. In the early 1980s, business expert Tom Peters coined the phrase "managing by wandering around" to emphasize the need for those in charge to observe their personnel at work.2 Taking the time to interact with subordinates serves a dual purpose. Not only do the leaders become informed about how their personnel are functioning, but officers and sailors also recognize that they have interactive and personable supervisors who are capable of more than simply sending out memorandums, reminders, and taskers via e-mail. Whether mandating quarters for the command or officers call for the wardroom, spending an hour in a different division each week, or visiting ships in the battle group, it is important for leaders to be visible. Innovation should not serve as a substitute for personal interaction between seniors and subordinates.
- Evaluate subordinates on all their abilities and skills, not simply on their technological capability. When ranking or grading subordinates, it is important to focus on the complete person. The information systems technician might have upgraded the command network from Windows 97 to Windows 2000 and prevented the spread of several computer viruses, but these accomplishments alone should not catapult her to a number-one ranking and a check in the early promote block. Instead, the mess management specialist second class who earned an enlisted warfare qualification, kept the morale of the crew high with creative meals, and is a true team player might be more deserving. Leaders must keep in mind that the "professional knowledge" block is only one of the grading categories on a fitness report or evaluation. To be considered a 5.0 sailor or officer, an individual must earn a 5.0 in every category.
- Become educated on the basics of technology. Navy personnel must know how to employ all systems within a command and direct the personnel that run and maintain those systems. In the 21st-century Navy, information systems must be included. A typical surface warfare officer has a functional and well-rounded understanding of the engineering plant, the navigation system, and the communication equipment installed. That individual also should know what bandwidth is, how much is available at sea, what it means when a server is down and when files cannot be transmitted. Naval leaders will continue to be at a disadvantage if they do not have a basic understanding of all the equipment they use on a regular basis.
- Involve operators in technology development. Software programs and equipment often are designed and procured without input from the operators. Testing and feedback often come late in the development process and, as a result, the end products sometimes do not meet the expectations of the fleet. What makes perfect sense to a computer programmer with a Ph.D. from MIT might be hard for the operations specialist or watch officer to understand. A radar system developed within the confines of an office by an individual with no military experience might present difficulties when installed in the cockpit and the pilot is faced with an overload of information and a multitude of buttons to push. It is critical to include the end user in the development of technology from start to finish to provide not only the best products, but also the most practicable and user-friendly products for the naval service.
It is important for those in the seagoing service to understand the important relationship between information technology and leadership and become an expert in both arenas. The Secretary of the Navy may have summed it up best. In the December 2001 Sea Power, Secretary Gordon England emphasized the importance of information technology but stressed that adaption to technological change was not the most important strength of the U.S. Navy. "People and leadership are the real foundations of our naval capabilities," he said. "They also are, as they always have been, the backbone and enduring strength of our great nation."
Lieutenant Dunne is stationed at Naval Special Warfare Group ONE at NAB Coronado, California, as the assistant operations officer. A 1992 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she completed a masters in global leadership at the University of San Diego in 2000.
1. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., "Reforming the Ranks," National Journal, 4 August 2001. back to article
2. Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best Run Companies (New York: Harper and Row, 1982). back to article