First Prize, General Prize Essay Contest
Official social media use in the U.S. armed forces is in its infancy. Units across the globe have embraced the technology to varying degrees to connect service members to families, units to surrounding communities, and the services themselves to wide swaths of potential young recruits. This limited sanctioned use stands in stark contrast to almost ubiquitous personal social media use by service members, especially those in the lower ranks. There have been many operational security issues, ethical questions, and personnel problems in the gray areas where official and personal social media use collide, leading decision makers to wonder if social media is worth the headaches it has created.
But beyond the perceived fears and concrete problems of the technology, there is a powerful potential that is already being realized by a small few: Officers can use social media as an additional tool for leadership and professional development, in turn building a stronger and more agile force. The network created by an officer’s social media mentors, peers, and subordinates creates three main benefits: It saves valuable time everyday, spotlights knowledge that would otherwise be missed, and swiftly transmits strategic or operational thinking to subordinates. It is instructive to look back to the 19th century to fully understand how this trio of advantages can be realized, and see how social media is a worthy time investment for the armed forces and their leaders.
A Sailor’s Sailor
Contemporary scholars laud British Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson as the only naval officer in the top-ten all-time military leaders.1 A professional sailor from the age of 13, he famously carried the scars of his work in the form of a blind right eye and missing right arm. He was beloved by his men for his bravery and uncommon concern for their well-being. While “best known as a talismanic fighting admiral, Horatio Nelson brought a powerful, well-informed mind to the art of command, quoting or more often paraphrasing Shakespeare frequently in his correspondence, along with a number of contemporary authors.”2
During his 30 years at sea, Nelson served under myriad commanders, from well-loved “bosses” to fierce disciplinarians. He perceptively observed good and bad traits from each one to help shape his own leadership style, but his professional relationships did not end with a change of station. No matter where his career took him, “Nelson had a knack for forming close ties with senior officers under whom he served, and many of them remained friends and mentors throughout his life.” He then returned the professional courtesy that he received as a mentee by helping his own subordinates with advice, recommendations, or introductions.3 Nelson was a social networker in the original sense of the term, both up and down the chain of command.
On a day-to-day basis, Nelson’s captains were aligned with their admiral’s strategic and operational objectives because of his frequent written “mission directive” memorandums. He reinforced his aims through celebrated face-to-face briefings and informal dinners when possible, stimulating discussions of plans and ideas. These chats built esprit de corps and ensured that when the battle began, every officer knew what to do despite chaos or changing circumstances.4
The Current Model
Within the modern U.S. military there is a marked generation gap of social media use between the ranks. In one telling example, the 21-year-old midshipman and 2015 fall semester brigade commander of the U.S. Naval Academy has been on Twitter for four years, has more than 4,300 tweets, follows 211 influencers, and counts 302 people following her feed. In comparison, the 55-year-old superintendent and vice admiral has no Twitter profile. The dichotomy is not limited to Annapolis. The commanding officers of the two Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps units that serve Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Yale are not on Twitter either.
Clearly a Twitter profile does not make a leader, but the officer corps is missing remarkable opportunities to use modern social media to leverage technology for professional development and force cohesion in ways that Admiral Nelson would have approved. It is true that nothing can replace mission-directive memoranda or—more important—in-person discussions between a leader and his team. But in today’s truly globalized force that must do “more with less” against increasingly capable rivals, social media cannot be ignored as a tool.
The basic tenets of officer development have remained relatively unchanged since the introduction of formal training schools. After initial indoctrination to establish good order and discipline, efficient routines, and a base of knowledge, young officers are sent to the fleet for further instruction and on-the-job training. Besides community-specific training and operational/combat experience, each officer’s development is influenced by three factors: mentors, peer groups, and professional learning. These influences can be characterized as either within the naval service or outside of it, to include other services, government employees or contractors, and the civilian world (see Figure 1).
During each tour, mentors, peers, and the amount of time the officer personally dedicates to professional learning shape his or her overall development. In the naval service, the officer gains mentors with each tour, while losing touch with others. He or she is exposed to a small peer group at the beginning, which expands over time as he or she meets new people during multiple tours. This peer-group influence then diminishes as peers leave the service and transition to other jobs.
Traditionally, personal reading, professional journals/magazines, and official reading lists such as the Chief of Naval Operations’ Professional Reading Program are the foundation of professional learning. In his essay “The Relevance of History to the Military Profession,” Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper explains how he trained Marines at Quantico: “The primary ‘weapon’ that officers possess remains their mind, [and] books provide the ‘ammunition’ for this weapon.”5
In the non-naval service arena, the officer gradually gains occasional exposure to the world outside the Navy through varied joint postings, civilian graduate school, and fellowship programs (Congress, think tanks, or the corporate world). He or she might also connect with a few non-Navy mentors over the years. Professional learning includes getting to know how other armed services or government entities conduct business, and trying to stay up-to-date on applicable technology trends through classes on “Lean Six Sigma” or by reading business magazines such as Fortune or Forbes. Other reading comes from a dozen or so respected editorial magazines or newspapers such as The Economist, Foreign Affairs, or Foreign Policy.
As the officer finishes a fifth tour, the model shows a professional development necessarily and appropriately skewed toward the naval service, with a well-rounded quantity of mentors, peers and knowledge of the “outside world.” The officer has a few important mentors with whom he or she corresponds and occasionally touches through reunions or email (indicated by thin lines on the model), but has lost touch with others. As the officer gains military rank, peers leave the service for private sector jobs.
The current model has remained generally unchanged for decades, but new technology has some positive impact. Email provides better connectivity than handwritten letters for mentors and mentees; e-readers allow for more professional reading while on the move or deployed; and computer-based learning helps officers get continuing education concurrently with sea tours. This model works, but something is missing: The officer corps has not realized how social media could revolutionize officers’ development and enhance mission effectiveness.
More Capable Officers
Ever-growing daily commitments have made it difficult to find time for professional development. When properly harnessed, social media saves valuable time each day by providing custom-curated content for officers, while in the long term providing a foundation for a larger and better-connected network of peers and mentors than ever before. In the Future Professional Development Model (Figure 2), a social media–savvy ensign is taught during initial training how to effectively use social media as part of a daily routine. Using two of today’s most important networks, Twitter and LinkedIn, the young officer already follows multiple important “thought leaders” and “influencers” across all of the services as well as the civilian world. Upon reaching a second tour, the officer already has twice the mentors and peer influence than his contemporary in the Current Model.
Professional social media networks prioritize quality of communication, ease of maintaining connection, and validation rather than a contest of quantity. With the small investment of a few minutes a day, the Future Model officer has all the benefits of in-person mentoring and peer interaction from the Current Model and much more. By opening Twitter on his or her smartphone in the morning, a second-tour Navy lieutenant can see what enterprising Air Force captains are thinking about unmanned aircraft development, lessons a Marine Corps second lieutenant recently learned during a combat deployment, or an important Navy retention article from Proceedings shared by a mentor. The officer knows that devoting precious time to these works will likely prove worthwhile, as he or she knows and trusts the knowledge and judgment of those who posted them. If preparing for a short under way or a deployment where Internet connection will be suspect, the officer can save the articles to an iPad to read later, share them on LinkedIn, or retweet them for future reference.
For more senior officers, the social media space provides the all-important discussion area that Admiral Nelson would have coveted. It will never replace the value of leader-to-leader conversations that he used, or should it. But by tweeting or posting relevant articles, discussions, or news pieces on their personal social media pages, leaders can shape the development of their subordinates near and far, mentees from last year or the last decade, and sailors fresh out of high school or college and new to the fleet. Rare mentorship interactions that previously only happened by chance can now become a daily occurrence.
A final general analysis of the Future Model provides good news. An officer who uses social media from the start still ends up with a professional development properly biased toward the naval service. By having stronger and more frequent connections aided by social media (illustrated by thick black lines in Figure 2), the officer will possess a more robust naval service development—more contact with more mentors and more contact with peers across tours. Social media spotlights opportunities the officer might have missed otherwise, whether knowledge or personal relationships. As Joe Byerly, Army combat arms officer, blogger, and member of the Military Writers Guild, notes about social media in his recent piece for War On the Rocks:
Because of the power that can be harnessed from these mediums, military professionals should take the time to learn them, be active on social media sites, and find innovative ways to use them within their organizations. These platforms present an opportunity for military professionals to extend their span of influence beyond the chain of command, cut through multiple layers of bureaucracy, and potentially develop a personal form of “soft power.”6
Byerly’s “soft power” expressed through Figure 2’s Future Professional Development Model provides unquantifiable benefits for the effectiveness of the force as a whole. Social media is a unique tool to help develop officers more broadly, both in the joint realm and with best practices or technological developments from the “outside world.” While still overbalanced to the naval service, the Future Model allows officers to build and maintain a much wider base of mentors, peers, and knowledge of the world beyond the Navy.
In the Current Model, officers usually meet mentors or influential peers by happenstance when stationed in the same unit, base, or school. These interactions are limited by the whims of the military personnel system, world events, or personal networks. Social media purposefully breaks down these 20th-century barriers, allowing ambitious and innovative members to connect in meaningful ways despite geography, service, nationality, or corporate affiliation. Senior officers can stay better connected with their contemporaries who left to work in business to create mutually beneficial contact. Air power strategist Eric Murphy’s recent blog post puts these high-tech connections in easily understandable martial terms by boldly declaring: “Social media is a force multiplier.”7
The way social media can challenge the traditional service and private-sector “stovepipes” comes at an opportune time for the armed forces. While debates rage about the leviathan military acquisition system, antiquated personnel management, and the future of warfare, the Department of Defense is trying to bottle the magic of Google and Apple to compete with increasingly competent rivals such as Russia and China. In an attempt to catch up in the information age, the DOD has opened a ten-person office in Silicon Valley.8
The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) is a good start. But instead of just taking the DOD to Silicon Valley, it would be more powerful and efficient to take Silicon Valley to the DOD through social media. Twitter, LinkedIn, and other networks “crowd source” military innovators across the globe, in real time, every single day. Military stakeholders on the front lines can participate in debates, provide opinions, and analyze results in ways just as relevant as a few experts in a Cupertino lab. Hundreds of leaders of all ranks, across all services, and from allied nations are already participating in innovative thinking across social media.
Two shining examples are the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) and Military Writers Guild.9 The DEF was founded in 2012 by “an energetic group of military officers in the various services gathered (largely over social media) to build a community of like-minded individuals who wanted to foster a culture of innovation in the Department of Defense.”10 (See “The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum Strikes Again,” pp. 64–68.) The Military Writers Guild is a throwback to the groups of professionals from the 15th to 18th centuries who organized to further their expertise, and comes from an idea recently reborn in Silicon Valley “to build and strengthen peer ecosystems and collective resources.”11
A New Battle Rhythm
Officers and the naval service must implement the proper use of social media into professional development thoughtfully and methodically to avoid the risks inherent in any organizational change. First, we must collectively break the negative paradigm that social media represents only a threat. While there have been incidents where improper or ill-advised social media posts have endangered lives or missions around the world, the medium itself is not the enemy. If used properly, social media can be an asset much like radio communications or public affairs offices: Its use will prove that the benefits outweigh the costs. As observed by defense consultant and former Green Beret Lino Miani, the “social media myth” begins at the top with senior leaders:
Why do I pick on senior military officers? Because although they accept social media is important, they almost uniformly resist using it. Their reasons range from concerns about privacy and security, to perceptions that social media is a venue for teenage nonsense rather than the serious business of military commanders. This lack of engagement and experience with the tool deprives them of understanding and leads to misperceptions.12
Second, we must intelligently implement the use of social media through case studies of best practices, determining how what the innovators are doing can be applied best to the larger force. History is littered with well-intended technological programs designed to improve productivity or increase combat effectiveness that, in reality, did just the opposite. Fundamentally, the use of social media in professional development must be personal and democratized. Much like the Navy tried to implement a formal mentorship program a few years ago, social media professional development cannot be rigidly implemented through “ALL CAPS” instruction. Not everyone is a “thought leader.” The whole purpose of social media integration is to focus on important themes, ideas, and innovations to make us better. If the integration is done improperly, it will just increase the amount of noise and, in turn, lower effectiveness.
The details of implementation are also extremely important. Officers (and more important, the press) must learn that “following, [retweets], and links [do not equal]endorsement.”13 Force protection and operational security should always remain paramount. While democratic ideals and disruptive thinking should be encouraged, officers should be trained in the basic legal implications of social media. Above all, leaders must stick to the age-old adage that military writers have used for decades: “Be a ‘purple-suiter.’ If you can’t convince yourself that your writing will be positive for our nation and its security, don’t write it.”14 Good order and discipline must be maintained.
A More Effective Force
Done right, the use of social media could greatly broaden the professional development of the officer corps. Once social media is part of a new daily routine, it will only require an investment of a few minutes per day. It is not a replacement for traditional reading, mentoring, or peer interaction, but an instrument to enhance them.
Some may perceive social media use as a move toward corporate “horizontal organizations” that are incompatible with the required military command structure, or that the movement represents a “millennial” view that focuses on the individual more than the well-being of the organization. On the contrary, it is something that Admiral Nelson would recognize and smile upon: leaders taking charge of their own development, connecting with others who can make them better, and readying themselves for a time when they need to think on their own without technological crutches or input from above.
Such a time occurred just prior the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson ordered transmission of a final communication to his fleet using the means of the day: signal flags. He knew he had prepared his subordinates for the coming battle and eschewed a message of detailed instructions or tactics. Instead he sent an inspirational phrase: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”15 Appropriately, it was a message fit for Twitter—short, sweet, and less than 140 characters.
1. Carnes Lord, “The Nelson Touch,” Claremont Review of Books, vol. 4, no. 1 (Winter 2003/04).
2. Andrew Lambert, “Nelson’s band of brothers (act. 1798),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press), May 2015, www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/96379.
3. David Hurst, “The Full Nelson: Leadership Lessons from a British Naval Hero,” LIA, vol. 26, no. 6. (January/February 2007), www.davidkhurst.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/The-Full-Nelson-Leadership-Lessons-from-a-Naval-Hero-2007.pdf.
5. Paul K. Van Riper, “The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: An American Marine’s View,” excerpt from The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, eds. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
6. Joe Byerly, “Harnessing Social Media for Military Power,” War on the Rocks, August 2015, http://warontherocks.com/2015/08/harnessing-social-media-for-military-power.
7. Eric Michael Murphy, “Social Media as Force Multiplier,” Medium, 6 December 2015, https://medium.com/the-bridge/social-media-as-force-multiplier-8ab8051ac6fe#.r9b8qkmck.
8. Cheryl Pellerin, “DoD’s Silicon Valley Innovation Experiment Begins,” DoD News, Defense Media Activity, 29 October 2015, www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/626602/dods-silicon-valley-innovation-experiment-begins.
9. http://defenseentrepreneurs.org. http://militarywritersguild.org.
10. Byerly, “Harnessing Social Media for Military Power.”
11. Peter Sims, “The Return of the Guild,” Silicon Guild, 6 December 2014, https://thoughts.siliconguild.com/the-return-of-theguild-4fbe6742fbe8#.6e3bb0bv4.
12. Lino Miani, “The Social Media Myth,” The Affiliate Network, 25 June 2015, http://affiliatenetwork.navisioglobal.com/2015/06/social-media-myth.
13. ADM John Richardson, USN, “@CNORichardson,” Twitter, accessed 1 December 2015, https://twitter.com/CNORichardson.
14. CAPT John Byron, USN, “Ten Commandments for Proceedings Writers,” www.usni.org/print/728.
15. N. A. M. Rodger, “Nelson, Horatio, Viscount Nelson (1758–1805), naval officer,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004–15).
Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm is a Navy pilot currently assigned to Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19 (VUP-19) in Jacksonville, Florida, as an aviation department head and MQ-4C Triton air vehicle operator. He is a 2004 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, a Defense Language Institute Basic Spanish linguist, holds an MS in systems engineering and analysis from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and will graduate in June from the U.S. Naval War College with a master’s in national security and strategic studies (Latin American Focus).