After our commissioning, my junior-officer peers deployed all over the world. My chance to join them was delayed because I was given the opportunity to attend Oxford University.
Thesis supervisors became our commanding officers, and we strived to earn qualifications as junior academics rather than as junior officers in a warfare community. There, some of the brightest minds would challenge and debate every facet of my world view and enhance my ability to address global problems in new ways. This experience exposed me to the deep thoughts of the academics and the insightful questions of the students; I found in them a quality that similarly resides in our naval leaders—one that I hope to bring to the fleet.
The key aspect of leadership that I discovered and aimed to internalize was that of the critical-thought leader. The ability to deeply evaluate situations and actions and decide on the path that will lead to the best outcome is an often overlooked quality of leadership that goes beyond the typical discussions of bravery or perseverance. It is a characteristic that has existed throughout the historical and modern Navy and Marine Corps, however, and one that can be embodied by any service member.
Critical-Thought Leadership in Theory
Leadership essays often analyze famous leaders and their traits: the tenacity of John Paul Jones, the loyalty of Admiral Chester Nimitz, or the endurance of General Raymond Davis.1 While these characteristics are indeed admirable, few analyses question why these qualities and individuals stand out as the prototypes of leaders.
Instead of attempting to expand on vague concepts or various models of leadership, let us begin by questioning the concept. Doing so will pinpoint what it means to be a leader and his or her quintessential qualities. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “leadership” is “the action (or ability) of leading a group of people or an organization,” but to dig deeper, one must examine what it means to “lead.” While many definitions abound, they revolve around a core concept of guiding a group toward a certain end-state. Examples include to “show . . . the way to a destination,” or to “organize and direct.”
The vision or destination thus becomes inseparable from the leader’s purpose, and the best leaders are the ones able to guide their teams toward the best outcome. Determining the best outcome hinges on analyzing every other potential outcome and selecting the best one based on that deep analysis. Thus, I define the purpose of a leader in this essay to be: “evaluating options and deciding the direction that will bring about the best end-state for the group.”
The dictionary’s definition of critical thinking, “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment,” parallels this definition of leadership. Indeed, critical thinkers make excellent leaders because they are able to see the best solution among innumerable possibilities and beyond various assumptions. Thus, this two-part critical-thinking process of deep evaluation and decision lies at the heart of leadership. I call those who embody this characteristic “critical-thought leaders.”
Through this definition, we part from other ways to define leadership, such as to be in charge or command. While many people in positions of authority exhibit outstanding leadership, we know from practical experiences, such as the commanding officer who is unable to establish rapport with his or her subordinates, that a command role is only an indication of leadership potential rather than a necessary condition. Another example is Marine First Sergeant Dan Daly’s force of character and famous battle cry at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918—“Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” This simple act underscored the fact that leadership can be embodied by anyone from seaman to admiral or private to general. Thus, defining leadership must be separated from one’s bureaucratic position or rank.
Critical thinking also forms the basis of many other ideas associated with leadership, which I divide into two groups: external actions and internal characteristics. External actions include leading by example or from the front, setting the command climate, or various communicative actions (for example, giving a motivational speech or a rallying cry). For leading by example: In order to know what example to emulate, one must critically evaluate the situation and potential courses of action. For instance, “does the situation require resolution or compassion, and how do I exhibit either one so that the group takes the feeling on board?” To lead from the front, one must critically think about the direction toward which to lead, or if now is even the right time to advance toward that front.
In order to establish a positive command climate, one must examine the root causes of the poor environment and critically evaluate the steps to solving the problem. For example, addressing the recent outcry of millennials dissatisfied with naval commands requires deeper thinking. These may include: In what ways are millennials dissatisfied with the way our organizations are arranged, what are key attributes that separate them from other groups, and how do we structure our organizations to use their full potential? The leader must then evaluate and determine the best answer to this challenge.
Communicative action similarly requires examining how and what one communicates and deciding the best method for achieving that action’s goal. For First Sergeant Daly, the courage to charge forward under fire was certainly admirable, but even more crucial were his evaluation of the potential timing for the charge, the probability of success for the assault, and the inspirational words to use. Although that thinking process took seconds, his counterattack succeeded because of critical evaluation, and his word choice makes us remember the story decades later. Thus, prior to every external action—and even within the split-second timing of battle—a leader critically evaluates and decides what he or she should do, both in the sense of which outcome to strive for and the steps to achieve it.
Internal characteristics include personal philosophies (for example, stoicism or the meaning of failure), personal ethics (honor or loyalty), or personal qualities (selflessness, courage, charisma, or confidence). For various personal philosophies and ethics, each necessitates a critical evaluation of the tradition or the value’s foundations, and the decision to adopt one based on that evaluation. If one does not examine or understand the roots of either, the question arises whether they are embodying the true essence of that way of life or whether they truly understand what it entails. For personal qualities, critical thinking helps to determine when and in what amount to exhibit each trait. If left unevaluated, courage soon becomes foolhardiness, confidence becomes arrogance, and perseverance becomes stubbornness. Rather than exhibiting each quality to its maximum, thereby forming a counterproductive excess, critical thinking helps to channel each of these concepts into its perfect balance point.
Critical-Thought Leadership in History
To check this conceptualization of critical-thought leadership as a two-step process of critical evaluation and decision, one can look to examples of this quality in action. Indeed, the Navy and Marine Corps have a rich history to draw from and learn lessons.
Historically, our services’ role models—typically known for the well-examined traits such as courage or perseverance—have embodied critical-thought leadership. As the U.S. Naval Academy Museum’s recent “Warrior Writers” exhibit demonstrated, leaders critically evaluated for years the issues and challenges of the day, even before they achieved their high status or positions.2
Admiral Stephen Luce is one such leader. Naval Academy midshipmen often associate his name with the building dedicated to him, but his influence spread far beyond his tenure from 1865–68 as the Commandant of Midshipmen. He began writing his first textbook on seamanship while a lieutenant and later gave a lecture on “The Manning of the Navy and the Mercantile Marine,” which became the first Proceedings article. While Luce exerted the commonly examined external and internal types of leadership as captain of the USS Nantucket, his greatest ability was to think deeply about potential solutions to the issues of the day, including naval training and the instillment of critical thought in other naval officers. Through evaluating the need for advanced schooling and the methods by which he could achieve this vision, Luce secured approval to establish the Naval War College, and many Navy and Marine Corps officers thereafter internalized the essential trait of critical thinking that Luce strove to perfect.3
Alfred Thayer Mahan was one such officer who saw the opportunity to hone his critical thinking and who, encouraged by Luce, developed his evaluation on maritime strength in his seminal book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783, published in 1890.4 This book became a foundation for naval strategy, and through its lessons, Mahan led the future direction of the Navy and Marine Corps. Various leaders would continue to extend Mahan’s vision, including Admiral Stansfield Turner. Turner’s Naval War College Review article in 1974 first outlined the Navy’s four core missions: strategic deterrence, sea control, power projection, and naval presence.5 These four missions remain a part of our strategic visions today—a testament to their conciseness and clarity, which derived from Turner’s critical-thinking process.
Critical-thought leadership extends beyond the halls of the War College and is just as useful in the heat of combat as it is in the scholastic setting. Admiral Raymond Spruance provided one example of applying critical thinking during the Battle of Midway in 1942. Quickly evaluating his options on when to engage the Japanese fleet, Spruance determined that by sailing the carriers east, north, and then west, the maneuver would position his fleet in the right location at the right time to allow both a strike at daybreak and a position to defend Midway.6 Had Spruance relied on courage or perseverance alone rather than a critical-thought process, he may have played into the enemy’s advantage and would not have thought of the unique maneuver that ultimately led to victory.
The Marine Corps has its own set of historical critical-thought leaders. General John Lejeune is one such Marine who critically examined the concept of a military officer. By deeply evaluating the position of Marine officers within the Corps, he reconceptualized the individual officer into a single body of officers, thereby establishing the interconnected, solid, and respected identity of excellence found in every Marine officer throughout the years and to the present.7 Such a profound redefinition required a re-examination of the image of a Marine that many took for granted and questioned the very identity of the Marines.
With the naval services’ heavy reliance on technology, innovation is one area where critical-thought leaders are able to demonstrate their strength. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper demonstrated this skill in her evaluation of computer programming during the 1950s. Analyzing the problem of why computers seemed obscure and incomprehensible to the general public, she began evaluating the central issue of why man and machine were divided. Her solution was to develop a compiler program that enabled computers to understand human languages rather than binary numbers, thereby making them accessible to a wider audience. Although she would develop many other world-changing innovations, compilers alone paved the way for others to mentally engage with new technology; her efforts allowed many to apply their own critical-thinking skills toward computers, resulting in the explosion of today’s technology.8 The new technology on board our naval vessels and in the loadout of many Marines owe their existence to Hopper, who critically examined the assumption that computers could only speak in numbers.
Critical-Thought Leadership Today
Critical-thought leaders, however, are not relegated to history; we see examples of them every day. From the average Navy or Marine junior officer’s perspective, one leader we interact with often is the commanding officer either of the ship, company, or battalion. If we assess the role of the CO, we find that critical thinking is at its core. For example, the CO’s primary duty is not to man the helm or handle the mortar rounds. Instead, he or she evaluates the options and decides what course the ship must take to reach the objective, or where the application of firepower will have the greatest impact.
Beyond the CO and at the highest echelons of command, the flag officers confront issues that can be solved only by critical thinking. Through decades of experience and honing their thought processes, they are able to evaluate and decide the best solution for our naval services. These solutions, for example, may come in the form of “guiding visions,” like the Navy’s Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.9 The many hours and intense work in strategic evaluation and writing that the Chief of Naval Operations’ office puts into documents like these embody a task that is an amplification of the CO’s duty: evaluating and determining the best course for not just a single ship, but the entire naval service.
As noted before, exhibiting leadership is not contingent on the CO title or a star on one’s collar. Indeed, critical-thought leadership is just as prevalent among the enlisted ranks. One example is in the everyday solutions pioneered by enlisted members that reverberated throughout the armed services and often served as the key to victory. In World War II, Sergeant Curtis Culin’s critical evaluation of Normandy’s thick hedgerow bushes allowed him to design a plow that could easily be welded to the front of tanks and made from the metal obstacles prevalent on the beachheads.10 While his counterparts today instead analyze the barriers to broadcasting video feeds from aerial drones near the Syrian border, they share the same quality of critical-thought leadership.11 As long as a person can think critically, every member of the team—whether enlisted, officer, or civilian member—has a chance to lead the group toward mission success.
A Call for All to Lead
The recurring theme of critical-thought leadership as accessible by all—regardless of rank or status—also carries with it an actionable conclusion: If anyone can exhibit this quality, then we as members of the armed services ought to fully embody this characteristic. Especially in the 21st century, our thoughts are easily translatable to venues such as online forums. Anyone who has critically evaluated and decided for themselves the ideal path for our group—whether that group is a club, the nation, or our global society—is able to share their idea and lead the public discussion.
As Naval Academy Museum Director Claude Berube describes, we went through two eras of “naval enlightenment”—the development of The Naval Magazine and the founding of the Naval War College. We now find ourselves on the epoch of the third era.12 Indeed, weblogs and online journals now range from examples such as War on the Rocks, the Center for International and Maritime Security, and even the Duffle Blog (whose unique brand of satire allows for insightful commentary). But the rate of growth and expansion of this media in recent years is extraordinary. These forums continue to make the discussion on naval matters more accessible than ever before, and there has never been a better time to take advantage of this wave of intellectual evaluation. We must make the most of this opportunity to critically think and, as the Naval Institute motto goes, “dare to read, think, speak, and write.”
1. Joseph J. Thomas, Leadership Embodied: The Secrets to Success of the Most Effective Navy and Marine Corps Leaders (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).
2. U.S. Naval Academy News Center, “Naval Academy Announces New ‘Warrior Writers’ Exhibit,” www.usna.edu/NewsCenter/2015/09/naval-academy-museum-announces-new-warrior-writers-exhibit.php.
3. John B. Hattendorf, “Stephen B. Luce: Scholarship,” in Leadership Embodied: The Secrets to Success of the Most Effective Navy and Marine Corps Leaders, Joseph J. Thomas ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 35–38.
4. Hattendorf, “Alfred Thayer Mahan: Professionalism,” in Leadership Embodied, 51–54.
5. Christian Le Miere, Maritime Diplomacy in the 21st Century: Drivers and Challenges (Routledge, 2014), 21.
6. Jeffrey G. Barlow, “Raymond A. Spruance: Analytical Thinking,” in Leadership Embodied, 121–124.
7. William J. Moran and John Hatala, “John A. Lejeune: Pedagogy,” in Leadership Embodied, 55–58.
8. Kurt W. Beyer, “Grace Murray Hopper: Technical Innovator,” in Leadership Embodied, 160–164.
9. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready, U.S. Department of the Navy, www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf.
10. Leo Daugherty, Battle of the Hedgerows: Bradley’s First Army in Normandy, June–July 1944 (Zenith Press, 2001).
11. Bryce Hoffman, “How the Army Got Soldiers to Share Their Great Ideas,” Forbes, 1 September 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/brycehoffman/2015/09/01/how-the-army-got-soldiers-to-share-their-great-ideas/.
12. Matthew Hipple, Interview with Claude Berube, Sea Control—CIMSEC, podcast audio, 14 September 2015, www.cimsec.org/sea-control-93-warrior-writers-with-claude-berube/18820.
Ensign Chock is a candidate for a master of philosophy degree in international relations at Oxford University with a focus on East Asian security studies, and is scheduled to graduate in July. He is a 2014 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Ensign Chock won Second Prize in the Leadership Essay Contest sponsored with Dr. J. Phillip London and CACI International for this contribution.