I don’t have a good answer for you,” the highest-ranking U.S. Marine told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, responding to a question from a fuming Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) about the discovery of nude photos of female service members being shared online. His response made me cringe. It should have made military leaders of all ranks cringe.
At a loss for words to explain the way forward from this modern-day reality, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Robert Neller replied, “We are going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we treat each other. That’s a lame answer, but ma’am, that’s the best I can tell you right now.”
It was uncomfortable to watch and a stark reminder that we all—even a four-star general—report to someone. At the same time, I was embarrassed by the degradation of female members of the U.S. military. We train every day to fight adversaries. We are supposed to trust men and women wearing the same uniform. As a team, we cannot condone toxic behavior whenever and wherever we see it. Nowadays online is simply where we see it most often.
We are all stakeholders in this failure, and it is incumbent on every military leader to become a stakeholder in the solution. At quarters, enlisted leaders routinely check that their Sailors are in the proper uniform of the day, verify that shoes are shined and grooming standards are within specs, and perhaps even check for a whiff of alcohol. We ensure Sailors understand the plan of the day and the day’s work schedule, and we pass along any relevant information. We do this to maintain good order and discipline so our Sailors can accomplish the mission. We preach to our Sailors how they represent the command and the Navy whether they are turning wrenches or on liberty.
But as leaders, how often do we check whether our Sailors’ profile pictures on Facebook are appropriate, whether their tweets are inflammatory, or whether the content they are sharing on Instagram is consistent with Navy values? We walk around during cleaning stations to ensure our Sailors are not “skating” in a fan room somewhere, but are we routinely monitoring or engaging them about the potential perils on the web?
The public relations section of The Blue Jacket’s Manual (Naval Institute Press, 2017) states, “You represent the U.S. Navy whenever you put on your uniform, you are in effect performing public relations duty every time when you come into contact with someone outside the Navy. What people think about the Navy is influenced by what they see its members doing.”
There is a saying that chiefs are always “The Chief” even in shower shoes and a towel. Well, in the digital age a Sailor in a towel and shower shoes with a mobile device can communicate to the public using any number of social media platforms—in effect performing public relations for the Navy. Social media allows a Sailor to represent the Navy not only in the local community, but also worldwide. He or she may do this unaware of the potential reach or impact of a single post.
We cannot rely on Sailors to instinctively understand that the Navy’s core values and ethos extend to their conduct online. We must remind them that crude jokes, sexual harassment, and disrespect are not only inappropriate in the work center and mess decks, but also in cyberspace.
Sailors are a microcosm of society, and to be effective at shaping new recruits, Navy leaders should be aware of some alarming societal trends. A survey conducted by Pew Research in 2011 concluded 95 percent of all young persons ages 12–17 are online, and 80 percent are users of social media. The survey found 88 percent of those social-media-using teens witnessed other people being mean or cruel on social network sites, and 15 percent had been the target of online meanness. A study in 2012, published in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found 28 percent of high-school students surveyed had sent someone a naked picture of themselves. Teens of this generation are now serving in the Navy, and it can be assumed that toxic behaviors online do not stop automatically when a person takes his or her oath of enlistment.
At its core, the most recent scandal, like other bad behaviors, comes down to mutual respect and human decency. Nonetheless, this requires leadership on several fronts to shape the culture and bring Sailors into the fold of our Navy values. During the work day, traditional deckplate leadership—which starts with pulling away from the computer and walking the spaces and engaging with Sailors—is a long-standing, proven approach and method for shaping behavior. After working hours, it also might be prudent for leaders to get back on the computer and see what their Sailors are doing and posting online—a form of modern-day shore patrol. Lead petty officers and chiefs are challenged to know what Sailors are doing on liberty and who they are hanging out with. The same expectation should extend to the digital realm.
The Navy needs digital deckplate leadership. Deckplate leadership requires being visible and knowing your people. Today’s communication age requires leaders to get into the trenches of social media. Leaders must be where the Sailors are, where the culture is, and where it is shaped. That place is online, whether it is social media, online games, or other activities. Do not take my word for it; ask your Sailors.
Each leader must answer the question, how much should one interact with subordinates on social media? To friend or not to friend? I have long wrestled with this question. For me, I decided to refrain from friending subordinates, but will friend them if they request it, and use this social media interaction as another opportunity to push messaging to them, often promoting professional development and encouraging positive behaviors. It is incumbent on leaders to formulate a personal policy and ethos when it comes to engaging with Sailors online. Many sites, however, such as Twitter and Instagram, do not require a connection for an individual to see what someone else is posting.
The question for leaders is how much do we want to immerse ourselves—or be intrusive—in the activities of our Sailors online. Our engagement should never be about constraining freedom of speech or expression. A foremost pillar of leadership is being a role model, and setting a positive example on social media for all to see is key. If you can see your Sailors’ activities on social media, they can see your activity, too.
Much of the talk about social media focuses on its perils. But it is an equally powerful mechanism to communicate and lead Sailors. More and more Sailors stationed afar use social media for mentorship. It is quicker and more efficient to reach out to Sailors after working hours using Facebook Messenger, and the app even notifies you when they have read the message. It also makes you more accessible to them. Leaders can post content to various pages that help Sailors understand the mission better, or inspire professional development, promote productive activities, or perpetuate Navy messages like “don’t drink and drive” and “take care of your shipmates.” Social media allows leaders to see what Sailors are doing in their off hours; it gives them insight into how they are feeling and the ability to police and educate them on their online presence.
None of this substitutes for traditional deckplate leadership. Digital deckplate leadership is simply the cyber version of what we expect of every enlisted leader. Formalized training, quarters, all-hands calls, and walking the spaces are all proven ways to communicate with and develop Sailors, but another great tool is in your pocket—your mobile device. Smartphones and other such devices can either be an enemy in the Navy’s struggle to eliminate destructive behaviors or one of its most effective weapons. Done correctly, the presence of leaders on social media and productive engagements among Sailors can help prevent suicides, liberty misconduct, and drinking and driving; it can aid in professional growth and promote positive attitudes. Most important, it can shape the culture so all service members are treated with dignity and respect whether in a berthing, on the mess decks, or online.