“Because we’ve always done it this way,” might be one of the most dangerous phrases used in the Navy. It is oppressive to talent, innovation, and ideas that could potentially be the difference between winning or losing the war at sea.
However, the Navy would be remiss if it completely discounted the practiced, seasoned, and experienced approach of a sage, old sailor. You cannot train experience. It is hard-earned and irreplaceable.
There is a side of the Navy that seems to be abandoning history, heritage, and, at times, respect for senior personnel—what some call the old guard who stand in the way of progress. There seems to be a caricature of a weathered gatekeeper who is tightly clutching dated instructions and a disdain for change. Alternatively, there is a side that looks at junior sailors and perceives them as entitlement personified, glued to their phones and overly-sensitive. The word “millennial” is thrown out with a side eye and a sigh whenever there is talk about the new generation of sailors coming on board (including Generation Z).
The Navy has been focusing on this dichotomy between tradition and technology, the old and the new, and us vs. them. There is a mistaken exclusivity between honoring heritage and welcoming positive change—almost as if it is either one or the other.
It is hard to miss this clash of cultures between khakis and junior sailors. It has been splashed across social media, blogs, and podcasts.
But the stakes are high. Today, U.S. adversaries present threats that are moving targets compared to more traditional challenges and mission sets. It is more than a near-peer competitor following a Navy ship in the South China Sea. Violent non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, are using cyberspace and other means to disrupt networks, gain access to sensitive information, and cause harm to U.S. troops and allies. It is more than physically fighting from and protecting the sea lanes; today’s threats exist from the sea floors to space. Because of this, it is important to tap into every resource and asset on the Navy team. If not, the Navy will be outpaced and outsmarted by its adversaries.
Before looking to defeat adversaries, the Navy must first stand up to the threats within its own teams—mistrust, judgement, and disrespect. The Navy needs to shift rudder from internal conflict and competition to coordination and collaboration.
At the end of the day many of us want the same things—to feel valued, understood, and respected. How can people make the shift from judgment to curiosity about one another? Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
Curiosity drives the Navy toward talent management to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and how to best navigate through them. More importantly, curiosity contributes to empathy, compassion, and loyalty to one another, developing a deeper appreciation for who sailors are as individuals—not just as crew members, but as neighbors, friends, and human beings.
Navy personnel must approach one another with an open mind, ready to listen and understand. Some will mistake this for a singing circle of “Kumbaya,” but realistically people need to be civil, respectful, and kind to one another. Studies have shown that incivility often leads to a decrease in productivity, retention, and a willingness to contribute ideas and fruitful work.Dare to disagree, just be civil.
To harness the Navy’s full potential, it is imperative to recognize that mentorship goes both ways. It goes up and down the chain of command as each sailor is as much a mentor as an apprentice. There is great humility in owning the fact that not one sailor has all the answers. There also is a beauty in the fact that he or she does not have to. They just have to be good at giving and receiving help. That is the “Power of We.”
Not only should workspaces be a safe place to share ideas, but they should be inviting and encouraging of courageous thinking. An open and approachable environment serves as a breeding ground for creativity and innovation. Leaders must listen and take calculated risks for worthwhile ideas that can bring value and progress for Navy people, policies, and programs. Junior sailors must also be willing to accept constructive criticism, candid feedback, and lessons from more seasoned sailors who have a breadth of knowledge to share. No idea is fully developed at inception, but it is brought closest to its potential through trust and by challenging assumptions.
Building trust as a team requires compassion and common sense. When a sailor brings a supervisor a real problem, it sometimes requires a personal approach to their specific situation, instead of citing an instruction that might be impersonal and detached. Former Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson often said, “We’ve got to stop getting in the way of ourselves.”
Admiral Richardson’s challenge was to use good order and discipline wisely, while doing the thing that makes the most sense. Leaders and followers alike must empathize with one another through the course of action that seems most appropriate based on knowledge, skills, and abilities. No one is infallible and everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.
While traditions and heritage matter, it also is about creating a culture that best fits the Navy in this era of great power competition. Each sailor has a voice in how the culture is shaped—regardless of rank or age. The best part is that we get to decide together how to pen this chapter of naval history. Fortunately we are bound together by a legacy of sailors who have come together in the face of adversity with hard-earned experience and ingenuity to prevail at sea. Sailors such as Doris Miller, who challenged limitations, broke barriers, and saved lives by rising beyond expectations at Pearl Harbor.
"The Navy has both a tradition and a future—and we look with pride and confidence in both directions." – Admiral George Anderson, CNO, 1 August 1961.