Leadership Forum - Make Morale Our First Priority

By Captain David Tyler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Morale is the cumulative balance of positive and negative emotions held by individuals in a group. More than enthusiasm, it defines the will, unity, and capability of a group. As U.S. Army Brigadier General Edward Munson put it, “It has a sterner element. It is that mental training and mental hardening which, in a body of troops, continues to function after everything else has broken.” 3 Morale is a productivity barometer. If it is low, output is poor. If it is high, output climbs. Morale is related to motivation, esprit de corps, and cohesion, yet each represents a distinct quality. Motivation is the measure of the will of an individual. Esprit de corps is a higher concept that conveys the pride and loyalty of a group toward a cause. Cohesion describes the purposeful coordination and efficiency present in a group.

The scope and intensity of morale depends on the purpose of the group. Recreational gatherings have a narrow, benign purpose and low-level emotions. At the other extreme, political ideologies can ignite lethal passions among millions of people. During hostilities when hardships and emotions rage, morale becomes potent or fragile, depending on the ability to maintain discipline.

Morale is a multifaceted sentiment that is better understood by decomposing it into smaller subcomponents. Different ways to see morale include:

• Confidence to achieve group goals

• Enthusiasm to perform daily activities

• Optimism that success is achievable

• Belief in the group’s capability

• Resilience in the face of adversity

• Leaders value all members

• Mutual trust and respect

• A sense of loyalty

• Social cohesion among members

• A commonly accepted purpose

• Subordination of self-interest

• A sense of moral rightness

• A concern for group honor

Each item in this list represents a bond among members in a social group. When morale is low one or more of these subcomponents is lacking. These perspectives also reveal an ethical quality to morale. Ethical standards enable individuals to accept the added risk of working with others and serve as a foundation for acceptable behavior among members. Morale is the collective conscience of a group.

Attitude Is Everything

Attitudes are the result of thought patterns and habits molded by experience and culture. William James wrote that,“mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results.” 4 Attitude is an emotional response to a circumstance. Key ingredients in a good attitude are gratitude, wonder, and resiliency. Gratitude is the thought that one’s condition is better than the alternative. Wonder is the feeling of amazement or admiration that arises in response to something out of the ordinary. And resiliency is the ability to recover from a setback. In essence, good morale is the product of the positive attitudes.

A distinguishing characteristic of our species is group affiliation, which gives a context for self-identity and a sense of meaning. Groups form around common values and are held together by interdependencies from which members glean a sense of belonging. Belonging provides a benchmark for who we are and what we can do.

In a healthy member-group relationship there is a balance of give and take. Individuals bring ideas, energy, and resources to the group and in exchange gain self-worth and benefits otherwise unattainable. Close-knit groups have advantages and vulnerabilities. Within tight networks, emotions spread rapidly. In this condition the qualities in a single person can lift or demoralize the outlook of a group. Emotional contagion occurs because people synchronize and mimic the moods and behaviors of those in their group. Studies show that emotions are correlated with memories and vice versa; so when someone feels an emotion, memories consistent with that emotion are stimulated. Thus, when someone radiates enthusiasm, pleasant memories arise in others that cause a chain reaction of good emotions.

The battle for favorable emotions is difficult because humans have evolved to lock in negative thoughts as a way to avoid repeating unpleasant or dangerous events. Positive vibes then are inherently disadvantaged within groups. Thus it falls on leaders to counteract this disparity by continuously projecting and promoting a winning attitude.

Good morale requires clear, unifying goals. Studies show that when people see a goal is within reach they are more inclined to work to obtain it. Clear objectives not only guide progress, but generate incremental fulfillment. Small achievements have a compounding effect, so that each achievement provides fuel to accomplish the next task.

Art of Morale

Leaders are the chief mood-setters and guardians of morale. Those who see an organization as a social network held together by emotions are better positioned to optimize group performance. Sociologist Robert Merton asserts that “leadership is not so much an attribute of individuals as it is a social transaction between leader and led.” 5 Framing goals in the context of an admirable cause fuels a quest for achievement and inspires self-improvement.

The lifeblood of a network is communication. Morale requires two lines of information: one that communicates mission objectives in technical terms to lower ranks, and one that conveys sentiments and social concerns from the lower ranks to upper management. Too often the latter becomes short-circuited. Morale-oriented leaders listen intensely for subtle emotion-related signals from subordinates and know that bottom to top communication requires presence and trust. They know that a genuine, on the spot word of encouragement is one of the most effective ways to sustain morale.

Honesty enables rapid communication. A climate of honesty requires leaders who exemplify expected behavior, communicate in emotional terms, enable others to excel by delegating, and encourage heartfelt, sincere relationships. 6 Ways to build morale resiliency include facilitating informal gatherings, asking questions about personal interests, rewarding good attitudes, and linking praise with goals. In short, whatever fortifies trust or clarifies goals will improve morale.

Leading is more than convincing others to act in a desired way. It also involves engendering mutual confidence within people so they can succeed. Since confidence is acquired through successful repetition, leaders must press subordinates to master the fundamentals of their craft to the point of habit.

Forward, Armed with Morale

Despite its vague nature, morale should never be neglected. Morale in the Navy must become a primary objective. Morale based on discipline, trust, and purpose will harden the framework and add punching power to our forces.

The Navy would reap significant benefits by developing a spirit of positive morale, and, to be fair, some steps have been taken already. Establishment of the 21st Century Sailor Office and the Naval Leadership and Ethics Center are indications the Navy wants to improve morale. It remains to be seen whether these endeavors focus on preventing undesirable behaviors or enhancing morale for warfighting purposes.

The Navy must make a sustained effort to ensure morale-building techniques stay on pace. Indepth research and study is paramount, as is a systematic attempt to thread the theme of morale into concepts, doctrine, guidance, and leadership courses. Practical steps such as emphasizing and measuring morale in unit awards, command surveys, and personnel evaluations would help. Ironically, though unit awards are designed to recognize and foster good morale, they lack metrics for measuring internal morale.

The Battle Effectiveness award, for example, could include more about morale. This could be done by converting or creating a command excellence award that recognizes units that have superb morale. Another way would be to include questions in command climate surveys that reveal the state of the previously listed subcomponents of morale. This would help leaders isolate and reinforce weak points.

In addition, personnel evaluations could be used more effectively to assess and reward morale-lifting achievement. Modifying a trait to specifically measure an individual’s contribution to morale, and holding leaders accountable for accurately documenting said behaviors, would help institutionalize this valuable characteristic.

Morale must become the first order of business for every leader, every day. Leaders must approach the challenge remembering, “when dealing with people you are not dealing with creatures of logic but with creatures of emotions.” 7 Bearing the mantle of optimism is hard work and requires a tough, confident spirit. Leaders who take a genuine interest in others and can communicate on a personal level will tap a wellspring of energy and increase effectiveness.

1. Guy Snodgrass, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon”, U.S. Naval Institute Blog, March 2014, http://blog.usni.org/2014/03/20/keep-a-weather-eye-on-the-horizon-a-navy... . Not Attributed, “America’s Military Adrift,” Military Times, 7 December 2014, www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2014/12/07/americas-military-a-forc... .

2. Gerald, Baynes, Morale, A Study of Men and Courage (London: Cassell & Company, LTD.,1967), 107.

3. Edward Munson, The Mana gement of Men (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921), 4.

4. James, William, The Principles of Psychology, authorized ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1950), 112.

5. Robert K. Merton, “The Ambivalence of Organizational Leaders” in Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1976).

6. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

7. Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936), 13.

8. Gerald Astor, Wings of Gold: The U.S. Naval Air Campaign in World War II (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2007), 95.

9. Walter Lord, Incredible Victory (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).

10. Colonel B.P. McCoy, USMC, The Passion of Command: The Moral Imperative of Leadership, (U.S. Marine Corps Association, 2011).

Captain Tyler is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former commanding officer of Helicopter Combat Support Special Squadron 4.


Morale and the Military

Against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution and birth of social sciences, the management of emotions in military units became an important field of study. Much is owed to early thinkers such as Carl von Clausewitz, who recognized the importance of emotion in military operations. Twentieth-century military theorists such as J.F.C. Fuller elevated morale, contending it is the force that enables a commander’s will to be realized.

The U.S. military took a serious look at morale after World War I, going as far as to organize a Morale Branch in the Army. Led by Brigadier General Edward Munson, the group summarized what contributed to good and bad morale during the war. Studies continued after World War II. Works by S.L.A. Marshall and Samuel Stouffer affirmed that the dominant factor in morale is personal bonds. The Vietnam War generated a sober understanding of emotion in war. Authors such as Paul Savage attributed weak morale to the negligence of career-minded officers. More recently, Retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd saw morale as a center of gravity that could be attacked to shatter an opponent’s cohesion.

Inspired individuals and their social bonds are the true enablers of military power. The U.S. Navy has long known the importance of morale and used it effectively against foes. Countless examples attest to the fact that morale gives strength and resiliency in stressful conditions. Two such examples are aviators in the Battle of Midway and Marines in Iraq.

The high-stakes game of carrier warfare in the Pacific placed tremendous pressure on aviators to strike first and defend at all costs. Navy Lieutenant Commander John Waldron knew the importance of morale in battle. The night before the Battle of Midway, he distributed a message to his flyers that reflected the general attitude of the Fleet: “. . . I want each one of us to do his utmost to destroy our enemies. If there is only one plane left to make a final run-in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with us all. Good luck, happy landings, and give ‘em hell!” 8 Throughout the book Incredible Victory, Walter Lord describes the powerful impact morale had on the outcome of the battle. “Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit—a magic blend of skill, faith and valor—that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory.” 9

During the race to Baghdad and later in the slugfest in Fallujah, Marines demonstrated high morale in a continuously changing combat environment. In The Passion of Command, a study into the behavior of Marines in Iraq, Colonel B.P. McCoy, USMC, attributes superior performance to “trained instinct.” The fighting spirit that enabled his Marines to prevail in the chaos of battle was born of ingrained habits that inspired group confidence, aggressiveness, a bias for action, and courage. It was a disciplined morale that united independent action in a common cause. McCoy points out that the seeds of morale were planted well before Marines went “over the top.” 10



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