It may seem paradoxical, but in order for the naval officer corps to provide the best leadership while projecting combat power at sea and in the air, wardroom leaders should sit down and ask their junior officers, “What would you do if you left the Navy tomorrow?”
This question is not aimed at sending our best into corporate consulting, medical sales, or commercial airlines. Instead, it gives an officer a unique perspective into his or her leadership style, accomplishments, and, most importantly, areas to improve. This question gives rise to many other intriguing topics that are typically not contemplated during our fast-paced daily routines, such as:
“List ten accomplishments of your military career. Why did you decide to become an officer/pilot/etc.? What is your leadership style? Do you ever use negative motivation? Discuss a challenge or failure in your career and how you overcame it. Are you a team player? Give an example of when you effectively used teamwork.”
These questions seem simple, almost self-evident. But the first time I sat down to consider them was more than seven years into my career, only after I began a program with a corporate headhunter to prepare for a possible transition to the civilian world. To groom transitioning officers for interviews with Fortune 500 companies, recruiters get paid thousands of dollars to spend months developing well-polished answers to these questions. While I am now committed to continuing my career as a naval officer, confronting these seemingly simple hypotheticals forced me to look inward, self-evaluate, and, as a result, improve. It takes serious self-reflection to produce quality answers. The process also caused me to wonder: Why don’t we ask each other these questions more often?
The current officer evaluation system of periodic fitness reports does little to foster true leadership development. Officer rankings and promotion categories are used not as honest benchmarks for performance, but instead as ways to manage seniority and transfer timing.
While informal mentorship and camaraderie events are common throughout the fleet, there is a glaring lack of candid, institutionalized self-, peer- and superior-evaluation. Junior officers draft their own evaluations, debrief the finished product with their commanding officers, hope for the best on the rankings, and then continue their quest to the next qualification. This almost-empty feedback loop has a direct impact on what Commander Guy M. Snodgrass highlighted as two of the top threats to future retention in his 2014 work Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study: risk aversion among senior leaders and a shift toward centralization of command authority.
I am not advocating another bureaucratic set of online surveys or “360-degree” feedback. Instead, wardrooms need to take a cue from their civilian counterparts and embrace the corporate retreat. Let’s call it “Face to Face.” While typical “training days” are filled with hours of mandatory lectures, wardrooms should set aside one or two days a year to meet off-site in civilian clothes to delve into these questions. Unlike large group reunions such as Tailhook, a Navy “Face to Face” would consist of unit-level meetings strictly focused on individual and group leadership development. Once officers become accustomed to sharing successes, failures, and best practices, more robust weekly or monthly programs could be developed that also include senior enlisted.
Skeptics may contend that setting aside already scarce training time is wasteful, impossible, or unbecoming of the organization—leave the “touchy-feely” stuff to the corporate types. Or they might claim that dynamic commanding officers should already be instituting this type of feedback, and a lack thereof is simply a failure of existing norms. During almost 11 years on active duty, I have served under several innovative skippers or department heads who have tried to implement one version or another of this type of system. But the lack of institutional support and high operational demands always limited effectiveness.
The leadership stakes are immeasurably higher for naval officers who elect to continue to serve compared to those who have left for Proctor & Gamble, Medtronic, or Kraft. That is why it is time to embrace “Face to Face” within wardrooms, making leadership development an institutionalized priority, and allowing officers to change when it still matters the most.
Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm is a P-3C Orion pilot currently assigned to the National University of Cuyo in Argentina as part of the Olmsted Scholar Program. He is a 2004 Naval Academy graduate, a Spanish linguist, and holds an MS in engineering and analysis from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.