Generation Y (those born between 1980 and 2000) comprises the junior officer ranks currently serving in the naval services. Collectively, they are referred to as “millennials.” They have grown up with social media in the age of community, innovation, connection, and fast progress. As a member of Generation Y, I can attest to millennials’ unique perspective on leadership and authority.
As millennials grew up, technology was part of their world—growing, evolving, and taking on a new role in culture. “A lot of people who aren’t millennials talk about how millennials view technology differently; I don’t even think they view it as something external—it’s simply part of their lives,” said Jeff Watson, partner at Monitor360. “ . . . technology is how millennials live their lives, view their world, and interact with each other.”1
The future of the naval services and other branches of the military will soon rest in the hands of millennials. Already serving as lieutenants/lieutenant commanders and captains/majors, within the next 10 to 20 years they will become colonels, Navy captains, and soon thereafter, flag and general officers.
As evidenced by their social trends and group stereotypes, millennials have established that their military philosophy and approach toward leadership and service is starkly different from that of previous generations. Most notably, millennials tend to be hesitant in adopting the practices of their predecessors and conform to the military institution; they are leaders who have supported the change of the naval service to suit its talent as opposed to the talent changing to suit the service.
So what is leadership to a millennial? For the service, naval leadership must maintain the vision, values, objectives, and standards for the organization, but as a millennial, leadership does not sacrifice advancement and innovation for the sake of tradition and culture. Leadership is not a reward for being the last officer standing or the senior officer in the room. Leadership is simply influencing others to achieve the mission—it is not determined by time or age but by influence.
Leader Versus Manager
To understand the significance of being a “naval leader” one must distinguish the title from that of a “naval manager.” Currently naval officers are asked to be more “force managers” than military leaders. Indeed, force shaping and restructuring has placed a high value on managing “resources” (personnel—military occupational specialties (MOS) and billets, weapon platforms, streamlining logistical capabilities, etc.) versus leading subordinates.
“Naval management” breeds a cycle that encourages interim high performance (for an attention-gaining achievement), followed by the pursuit of the next required credential, culminating in promotion or recognition. This is followed by a new cycle of credential-seeking for the next rank or award—making sure one has all of the wickets met with no mention of the legacy he leaves behind.2 As retired Marine Carl Forsling explained, “In any organization, civilian or military, there are people who seek the most direct path to the top. That’s not so bad in itself—organizations are supposed to reward hard chargers. But do the people the organization promotes actually support the goals of the organization? If the careerist is furthering the organization’s goals, then careerism isn’t bad. In this case, the military’s goal is winning wars, and therein lies the rub.”3
For the millennial leader who has access to the world and believes that one person can have a global influence, the emphasis on management, careerism, and rank progression, with relevance and impact as secondary results, is in conflict with the very essence of what makes him who he is. As Lieutenant (junior grade) Matthew Hipple, a fellow millennial and naval officer, explained in his August 2014 online response to “Millennials Bring A New Mentality” by Commander Darcie Cunningham: “These are uniformed service members who joined up in wartime to make a difference—what they’re looking for is knowledge and relevance, not a fight with their boss or some empty accolade.”4 Millennials are not prone to just being managers who move from one supervisor position to the next—they are ready to act, make a difference, and have an impact.
The consequence of creating a preference toward management rather than leadership is that individuals pursue promotion with no sense of what to do when they obtain it. Naturally, there would be conflict in a system where the millennial leader seeks to do something that causes an effect in his environment but is only allowed to function as a manager of resources.
A Relationship of Influence
In the 21st century, leadership has to mean more than just the title, authority, rank, and seniority. Being a leader is not just about the person—defining a leader has to account for the existence of those who are being led. Successful leadership can be measured only by how many who follow, grow, and develop under the tenure of the naval officer. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6 (MCDP-6), “Command and Control,” describes a leader as someone who influences people to work toward the accomplishment of a common objective. MCDP-1, “Warfighting,” describes a leader by listing the recognizable traits of taking responsibility for decisions, being loyal to subordinates, inspiring and directing Marines toward a purposeful end, and demonstrating physical and moral courage. Both publications focus on the interaction and relationship with those who are following.
The New Leaders defines what leaders do: “Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak to strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal. Great leadership works through the emotions.”5 In short, the cue is taken from the leader.
By nature, people are leader watchers. This is especially true for members of Generation Y, who can “watch” their leaders on multiple social media platforms.
It has been long accepted by the naval service, for better or worse, the leadership of any organization will be infectious. In an interconnected world where not only information is shared but opinions, ideas, and emotions are exchanged, a leader must understand the significance of what they say, do, post, blog, tweet, and Instagram. When the unit is conditioned to emulate and achieve the intent of the leader, every move he makes will count. The success or failure of the leader will be determined mostly by the tone and atmosphere the leader creates among those led. In military terminology, this is referred to as the “command climate.”
Similar to the colloquial metaphor of “Happy Wife, Happy Life,” the tone that the leader establishes will infect the members of the organization and their ability to accomplish the mission. As Carol Kinsey Goman wrote on Forbes.com, emotional cues “tend to flow from the most powerful person in a group.”6 The cues are not limited to personal encounters, but for the millennial, all aspects of interaction drive and influence the perception of the “leader.” Therefore, it is critical to both the success of the mission and the longevity of the institution that the tone established in the naval unit is one of progress, empowerment, innovation, discipline, and a high regard for achievement. Ultimately, it is not just what the leader does but how he empowers, motivates, and triggers responses from those whom he is leading—how he makes them feel.
This relationship is forged by millennial leaders employing different tactics than their predecessors; technology has influenced this generation greatly. Growing numbers of units use Facebook, Twitter, and texting as the main mediums of communication for accountability and passing word; leaders friend their subordinates and build rapport by scrolling down their newsfeed or wall.
It would be a logical response to suggest that refraining from all social media or blocking members of a unit would alleviate the risk of overexposing a leader. However, the electronic prowess of Generation Y should not be ignored or underestimated. In addition, as social media has become an integrated element of culture, a leader would run the risk of alienating a large population of his subordinates by having no social media presence—an act that this generation would perceive as contrary to nature.
Synthesis of Tradition and Technology
While technology serves as a leadership enabler, senior mentoring, advising, and coaching are necessary to nurture the basic fundamentals of leadership. The tactics, reasoning, and refined techniques that have proven the test of time will have to be passed down from senior members.
Although the millennial may not be willing to forgo progress for the sake of historical convention, a fusion of new technology and old traditions can produce something greater than either generation anticipated. It is imperative that every member of the Sea Services understands the important relationship between technology and leadership; aspiring leaders must be well versed in both arenas. Former Secretary of the Navy Gordon England emphasized the importance of technology but stressed that adaption to technological change was not the most important strength of the 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.”7
Fortunately, most millennial officers in the Sea Services possess the seeds of true leadership. When tested, they rise to the occasion and often discover they are capable of accomplishing something great, influencing those around them to exceed expectations and accomplish the mission. They will leave a lasting impact on the service and the subordinates they lead. Combined with an intimate familiarity with advanced technology, these millennials possess the raw ingredients to carry on and transform our naval culture.
Nevertheless, while some will become captains, admirals, colonels, and generals, others will leave the service early and enter the civilian world of private business and other areas of government. Upon their departure, the civilian sector will gain the benefits from the many lessons that the naval service taught these young leaders and capitalize on the dividends from the organization’s investment.
America’s Got Talent
The question now becomes, once a leader has been identified, cultivated and allowed to grow, how do you keep him? Identifying a good leader and keeping a good leader are two entirely different topics.
An unintended consequence of an interconnected culture is the desire to do more and the ability to search and discover opportunities that will satisfy that desire. Naturally as the possibilities to achieve more increase for a millennial, less value will be placed on institutional loyalty. Indeed, our talented leaders in the naval service are highly coveted and in many cases, induced to leave the institution for more lucrative and fulfilling opportunities in the private sector. A millennial naval officer’s knowledge and skill base, combined with his discipline and drive to achieve, makes him a prime candidate for poaching.
This does not apply to every junior officer, only to those who are in fact, good leaders. Not everyone is meant to stay—nor do we want them to stay.
As Mike Myatt explained in Forbes, “real leadership serves as a talent magnet—not a talent repellent. If you can’t acquire talent, can’t develop talent, or can’t retain talent you are not a leader.”8 It goes without saying that the naval service wants (and needs) to be a leader in the “talent retention” arena.
So how do you keep him? Besides nurturing his sense of duty, honor, and a calling to serve, acknowledgement of the millennial’s value as more than just a cog in the wheel is the first step. Recognizing the difference in skill and abilities between him and his colleagues is the second.
The Curse of Competence
Eventually, the stronger officers will tend to be tasked with the harder assignments; the more effective officers will draw the bigger projects; and the perceived smarter officers will be given the more complex issues to develop viable courses of action. At the end of a mission it is common for peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich style praise to be dealt out among a group of young officers—spreading the credit around evenly, like you would spread peanut butter on a slice of bread. The predicament created by delegation based on competency rather than equity is the creation of dissension and resentment; work harder, do more, and be compensated/recognized as the same. Equality in recognition is a noble concept, but for the millennial officer, what is the benefit in remaining in the service when the same (and sometimes less) amount of effort will receive greater value, reward, impact, and respect elsewhere?
We ultimately compare leaders based on their rank vs. performance or the complexity of their assigned billet. In his piece “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study,” Navy Commander Guy Snodgrass characterized 2013 as one of the worst years in history for officer retention within the special warfare community, noting that a record number of O-3 officers declined to remain in active service for the next pay grade. He pointed out that 60 percent of respondents “feel they are making a difference in their job, but regardless of what they do—64 percent don’t think they will be rewarded in any way by superior performance.”9
As Marine Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Marx explained in his August 2014 policy paper for Brookings Institution (citing the findings of Snodgrass), “Because current policies allow colonels and lieutenant colonels to remain in active service longer than necessary, newly selected officer ranks are forced to wait longer for promotion. The waiting period . . . discourages officers who must wait an unreasonably lengthy period before promotion opportunities.”10
Another challenge for the millennial naval officer is the moral dilemma of voluntarily separating from the force for a more rewarding opportunity or remaining in the service until your number comes up. Learning from Joanne G. Sujansky and Jan Ferri-Reed, who explained a few of the unique characteristics of Generation Y in their book Keeping the Millennials, this generation of young officers expects to be promoted “when they are ready, not when they are tenured enough.”11 In short, waiting around for someone to get out or until they have reached a magical number of “time in grade” or “time in service” is contrary to the millennial culture that expects continuous progressive movement.
Although an approach to promotion as described above may lead to younger commanders and lieutenant colonels, it will ensure that the service retains the brightest and most innovative minds. While maintaining a healthy balance of experience and knowledge with enthusiasm and creativity, the naval service must adapt to a culture that no longer requires years of “living” to gain an appreciation for the world. With a few clicks, this generation can capitalize on the experiences of their counterparts across the globe in a matter of minutes.
Hit the ‘Like’ Button
The world continues to be a faster and ever changing system of cultures, knowledge, conflicts, and beliefs. Millennials know they will need to change quickly and strategically if they want to stay ahead of the game. The members of this generation have lived most of their adult lives during a period of war and conflict. They have fought and deployed to some of the most austere environments on this planet. They have confronted murder, destruction, and evil on a global level. While their approach may be unconventional and occasionally at odds with tradition, history will have no choice but to remember them as a generation that was well versed and experienced in the conduct of war, navigating conflict and sustaining defense.
As the nature of our society is continuously evolving, so too must be the innovative minds that lead the nation’s warriors of the sea. The ability to grow and be open to new ideas is essential if the service aspires to continue to develop the world’s premier officers; it too must accept that change will need to occur in the way that this generation is recruited, trained, promoted, and retained. While our traditions keep us grounded, they should never hold us back. Click on “Like” if you agree.
1. Jason van den Brand, “Ready or Not, Millennials Are Changing How We Do Business Forever,” The Huffington Post, 26 June 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-van-den-brand/ready-or-not-millennials-_b_7673932.html.
2. Although male gender-specific terminology is used throughout the essay, this discussion is equally applicable to all genders, race, and sea services.
3. Maj Carl Forsling, USMC (Ret.), “There Is a Cultural Clash Erupting Within the Military,” Task & Purpose, 20 April 2015, taskandpurpose.com/there-is-a-cultural-clash-erupting-within-the-military.
4. Matthew Hipple, responding to article by CDR Darcie Cunningham, “Millennials Bring A New Mentality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol.140, no. 8 (August 2014), 10, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-08/now-hear-millennials-bring-new-mentality-does-it-fit.
5. Dan Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership Into the Science of Results (London: Little Brown, 2002).
6. Carol Kinsey Goman, “Great Leaders Are Positively Infectious,” Forbes, 11 April 2012, www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2012/07/11/great-leaders-are-positively-infectious/#4464763b314f.
7. Former Secretary Gordon England, USN, “Our Mission is Clear But SecNav sees a long and difficult struggle,” SeaPower, December 2001, www.doncio.navy.mil/CHIPS/ArticleDetails.aspx?ID=3639.
8. Mike Myatt, “Why You’re Not a Leader,” Forbes, 23 January 2013, www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2013/01/23/why-youre-not-a-leader/#1322a5935a4e.
9. CDR Guy M. Snodgrass, USN, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study,” Naval War College Review, www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/66837e4f-702f-4293-b653-cfa9dd4df1ab/Keep-a-Weather-Eye-on-the-Horizon--A-Navy-Officer-.aspx.
10. LC Aaron Marx, USMC, (Ret.), “Rethinking Marine Corps Officer Promotion and Retention,” Brookings Institution, August 2014, www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2014/08/04-rethinking-marine-corps-officer-promotion-marx/rethinking-marine-corps-officer-promotion-73014x2.pdf.
11. Dr. Joanne G. Sujansky and Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed, Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies Are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation—and What to Do About It (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2009), 53.