Lead Us!

Lieutenant Michael Mabrey, U.S. Navy

In general, we have an affinity for digital technology and social media. We look for meaningful work in a collaborative environment and value a results-based promotion system over the traditional tenure track. Many of us desire a more sustainable work/life balance than previous generations, and we are willing to work for less money to achieve it. We like to ask “why?” and desire to innovate and change our workplace rather than operate under the status quo. Employment is viewed in a more transient context, making employee retention a pressing challenge. According to the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Millennials plan on switching jobs throughout their career and 6 out of 10 already have. 4

Naval leaders must tap into these traits to prepare us to lead in future conflicts. Naval leadership has not changed significantly with my generation. Furthermore, John Paul Jones’ assertion that “men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship” remains true. To develop us to lead, commanders need to build strong teams focused on meaningful missions and eliminate obstacles to tactical performance. Then, they must encourage JO initiative and empower us.

Command Culture

Inspiring naval leaders throughout history have achieved success by building strong teams around clear goals. These leaders have relied on charisma, personal example, and strong guidance to shape the command culture and integrate sailors into a team. Vice Admiral James Stockdale provides one of the strongest examples in recent naval history of a unifying, inspirational leader. In the face of significant adversity, Stockdale and other senior leaders united American prisoners of war and gave them a common framework for resistance. Simply put, Stockdale led with an inspirational example, mission focus, and clearly articulated principles. The generational personalities and missions have changed, but his principles hold true even in the more benign context of everyday naval operations. In order to inspire and train JOs to lead, senior officers must first provide mission focus and then unite their team around strong cultural norms.

Naval leaders must harness Millennial exuberance and commitment to meaningful causes by clearly articulating and advancing the mission. Sailors know what their jobs are and how to do them, but a leader fills in the why. As a cohort, my generation values meaningful work, and explaining the mission to all hands imbues the most menial tasks with purpose. Unfortunately, units currently on extended deployments operate under vague and empty mission statements such as “maritime-presence operations.” Millennials want honest, transparent communications, and a lack of defined purpose only invites speculative rumors or discontent. Therefore, a good leader should clearly state the national interests and rationale behind his command’s activities. This gives sailors meaning for their hard work and separation from loved ones.

I was fortunate to work in a command where honest communication flowed freely during an unstable work up and deployment schedule. The commanding officer consistently engaged his wardroom in rumor control and the importance of mission accomplishment. He empowered JOs to initiate informed discussions with their sailors, while using larger venues to drive home the “big picture.” For example, at command quarters, a department head played sensor footage of a close-air-support mission conducted in Afghanistan. The particular mission involved troops taking heavy fire from the enemy, medevac helicopters, and the employment of precision-guided munitions. In his narrative, the department head described how each rate contributed to supporting Americans on the ground. His story provided context to justify the monotony of carrier flight operations and reinforce the team mindset within our command.

Additionally, good leaders remove obstacles that impede the tactical development and performance of their sailors. For example, the current threat to naval aviators is reduced flight-hour funding and diminished aircraft parts supply. Squadron COs cannot control funding, but they can release reports that the diminished funding unnecessarily risks lives and equipment. In addition, they can allocate those precious hours toward tactical training and relevant detachments, not flight-hour burn exercises designed to meet arbitrary goals for the Defense Readiness Reporting System–Navy. Leaders also need to push back against the administrative burdens placed on operational commands such as increased general military training. Finally, senior officers need to lead operationally.

Currently, only 16 percent of JOs think squadron COs spend the majority of their time leading the command in its mission. 5 For aviators, the slide away from leadership in the air toward administration and management begins during the department head tour. The need to have senior, experienced, and proficient mission commanders makes this a troubling reality for the Fleet and an impediment to JO retention in the near term. The 2014 Navy Retention Study revealed only 52.6 percent of officers want their boss’ job, and informal conversation on the flight line reveals this is partly tied to the diminished value of tactical performance among senior aircrew. 6

Success through Unity

Each command is made up of a diverse group of individuals with different values and experiences. Leaders must unite different personalities and backgrounds around a common mission and meaningful culture. Millennials tend to collaborate and network to solve problems, and senior officers should take advantage of that and mold us into a purposeful team. Leaders need to clearly articulate acceptable norms while developing camaraderie and an understanding of each team member’s value to the command.

In a less intense context, leaders must follow Stockdale’s example to unite their command around strong cultural norms. I had the privilege to work in such an environment as a junior officer. During my tour, the CO clearly valued his people “doing the right thing” on the job and taking care of each other on and off the flight deck. He expected the same level of procedural adherence out of maintainers that he required out of aircrew and forgave honest mistakes while holding dishonest actions to account. Largely due to outstanding maintenance officers, the pilots understood that their flight time came from the sweat of maintainers, and the maintainers understood their hard work helped Americans return home alive from Afghanistan. In a basic sense, the pride of being in that unit was felt from the deckplates to the ready room, and we were all the better for it.

The nature of naval operations causes the work environment to blend with personal life, and the camaraderie felt in the ready room and in work centers is what makes a command great. My community, in particular, lessens the severity of our risky profession with a tradition of revelry, banter, and jocular antics. Memories of a squadron tour coalesce around “green lights,” detachment weekend forays, and port calls. Squadron life blurs the lines between work and play, friends and colleagues. An outsider can judge good squadrons by seeing the professional yet familial way that JOs associate off-duty with their department heads and front office. The camaraderie of a ready room appeals to Millennial JOs who value personal relationships and having fun on the job. According to the Naval Personnel study on aviation officer retention, a tightknit ready room is a top reason that a JO may remain in the Navy. 7

Shape the Future Force

Naval leaders have always valued individual initiative. The demands of leadership at sea have made resourcefulness and self-reliance principle traits of naval leadership. Admiral Arleigh Burke summed up this tenet of leadership in 1958:

We believe in command, not staff . . . The Navy believes in putting a man in a position with a job to do, and let him do it—give him hell if does not perform—but be a man in his own name. We decentralize and capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than centralize and make automatons of them. 8

The Navy requires leaders to make decisions quickly in a dynamic environment, often without the opportunity to consult a higher authority. The increasing emphasis on the cyber domain, the challenge of non-state actors, and the rise of assertive near-peer competitors make creativity and innovation critical traits for future senior leaders. Current leaders must develop these traits in Millennials by valuing results more than methods, empowering JO leaders, and mentoring them through the process.

In order to train us to lead, senior officers must first understand and take advantage of our diverging views on work. Millennials want to operate in an efficient workplace that values obtaining results over managing prescribed processes. We want clear direction and timelines on assignments followed by the flexibility to complete the tasks within the given parameters. On the aggregate, we admit our seniors have a stronger work ethic, but we do not accept the premise that time at the job equates with efficient mission completion. 9 Furthermore, our affinity for digital media and social networks gives us nearly unlimited access to information and alternative methods for completing tasks. This does not mean we will always come up with a better way to accomplish a task, but we may try. Leaders need to evaluate us on the results of our efforts, such as our division’s performance on inspections, rather than on perceived judgments on how we operate.

Millennials also want to work for leaders who value superior performance over tenure. The current conversation on JO retention has articulated my generation’s frustration with the archaic personnel-management system. According to the 2014 Navy Retention Study, 69 percent of officer respondents believed timing played a more important role than merit on performance evaluations. Additionally, the Navy’s rigid personnel structure leaves little room for rapid promotion when officers need multiple “early promotes” just to advance. The structural challenges notwithstanding, unit COs should optimize Millennial performance by clearly stating performance metrics and prioritizing contributions to mission effectiveness over and above tenure. Then, an effective leader can use these honest assessments to appropriately guide junior leaders.

Through engaged mentorship, naval leaders should train their young subordinates to take initiative and lead. Millennials want to work for an organization committed to their personal growth and development, and mentors provide a relational avenue to influence and develop sailors. Mentors provide experience and perspective to direct our energy and temper our expectations. The notion that we require excessive positive praise for doing our job is overplayed and insulting. We do, however, desire candid feedback, either positive or negative, more often than previous generations. 10 Finally, mentors must authentically engage their protégés. Mandated Navy-wide programs do not make good mentors, but sincere leaders can create an environment where mentorship can flourish.

The most practical form of mentorship in a command involves individuals learning from their diverse relationships with multiple people or groups. This concept, known as developmental networks, occurs naturally in a command with a strong team mindset. 11 The most significant relationships during a junior officer tour occur among fellow JOs, with senior enlisted advisors, and the sailors they lead. However, leaders can leverage these networks by creating an environment where courteous and professional criticism is welcomed at all levels. Mentorship, like other elements of leadership, is regenerative. Authentic relationships developed at the top should replicate throughout the chain of command. 12 My JO squadron had a positive command climate that fostered these types of relationships, and I was able to learn from superiors and subordinates. However, the most important mentors I had were other junior officers. The training officer and senior JO taught me how to fight, instruct other pilots, and act appropriately in the ready room, and the senior maintenance officers taught me how to lead sailors on the deckplates.

Empowered to Lead

Leadership, like flying, is an art best refined through practice. Therefore, senior officers should empower JOs to lead by giving them meaningful opportunities. Currently, only 14 percent of sailors believe junior personnel are utilized to their full potential. 13 Leaders need to break this mindset and entrust significant opportunities to junior officers, while providing them with the resources for success. This does not mean a leader disengages from the process, but simply observes from afar and stands ready upon request to offer appropriate guidance.

During my JO tour, I assisted a department head in running a month-long squadron detachment. The department head entrusted me with planning and executing the majority of the operations, but when he went home on emergency leave my CO assigned the work I had already done to other more experienced officers. The mission was successful, but the opportunity to lead was taken away.

Conversely, I recently watched a talented peer of mine prepare his squadron for a critical maintenance inspection that had significant implications for the command. The CO entrusted him to develop and implement a plan that ultimately led to their successful completion of this major milestone. Meanwhile, the process prepared him to run a maintenance department in the future. In both cases the mission was a success, but only the latter took a JO further in the leadership development process.

Leaders not only need to empower their junior officers, they need to give consideration to their suggestions as well. Front offices and department heads spend a large amount of time managing the requirements of their own command, and they have little time to look deeply into a particular process to improve it. As JOs, we spend our time in the trenches of planning and executing operations, and our generation is eager to impact the service.

I am fortunate to work in a command that relies on JO initiative and responds favorably to innovative ideas. My squadron supports upward of 21 detachments a year, and sometimes we must conduct simultaneous operations in three separate locations. Junior officers consistently lead these detachments with broad guidance from our front office. This process does more than produce replacement aircrew; it creates future department heads and COs out of the instructors. Our leadership has gone a step further and consistently encouraged JOs and implemented our ideas to improve the training process. This encouragement and my peers’ initiative has led to improved target complexes, enhanced adversary-support programs, and influential papers on reforming the beleaguered personnel system. 14

National policies, geopolitical contexts, and generational personalities have changed over the years, but the requirement for each sailor to stand ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations remains constant. As indicated by the CNO, the current security environment and fiscal constraints require flexible, innovative approaches to provide combatant commanders with combat capability. Millennials want to work for an inspiring organization, operate in a results-orientated environment, innovate and impact their workplace, and engage with mentors to improve over time. This pairing of policy requirements and generational personality appears timely, but we need the steady hand of experience to shape us into combat-ready leaders.

1. ADM Johnathan Greenert, USN, “Navy 2025: Forward Warfighters,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 137, no. 12 (December 2011), 18–23.

2. CDR Darcie Cunningham, USCG, “Millennials Bring a New Mentality: Does it Fit?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 140, no. 8, (August 2014), 10.

3. Dennis Finn and Anne Donovan, PWC’s NexGen: A global generational study . (PricewaterhouseCoopers: 2013), 8.

4. Paul Taylor and Scott Keeter, The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Council: 2010), 48.

5. Andrea Doyle and Geoffrey Patrissi, 2014 Naval Aviation Officer Retention Study (Washington, D.C.: Naval Personnel, Research, Studies & Technology: April 2014).

6. CDR Guy Snodgrass, USN, and LT Ben Kohlmann, USN, 2014 Navy Retention Study . September 2014, 22.

7. Doyle, 34.

8. Joseph J. Thomas, Leadership Embodied: The Secrets to Success of the Most Effective Navy and Marine Corps Leaders (Naval Institute Press: 2005), 148

9. Taylor, 15–16.

10. Michael Rendell and Justine Brown, Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace (PricewaterhouseCoopers: 2011), 25.

11. W. Brad Johnson and Gene R. Andersen, Formal mentoring in the US military: Research evidence, lingering questions, and recommendations (Newport, RI: Naval War College Review, vol. 63, no. 2, (Spring 2010), 113–126.

12. LT Erik Sand, USN, “Triggering Innovation and Initiative,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 139, no. 11, (November 2013), 70–74.

13. Snodgrass, 23.

14. LT Austin Hulbert, USN, “A Bad Time for Timing: An Analysis of the US Navy Officer Promotion Process,” 2014.

Lieutenant Mabrey is a 2005 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and currently serves as an F/A-18A-F instructor pilot attached to VFA-106. This article won third place in the 2014 Leadership Essay Contest, generously sponsored by Dr. J. Phillip London and CACI International.


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