Picture a dynamic, strategic leader—what type of person comes to mind? A four-star general or admiral? Someone wearing a uniform covered in insignia and ribbons? As career members of the Sea Services, we expect senior officers and enlisted service members to model ideal leadership. We have sought the advice and followed the examples of those above us when faced with complex situations. This traditional model of military leadership has met service needs and should remain the pillar of the military leadership philosophy. But what if the services could expand leaders’ capabilities by looking beyond the traditional military leadership to leaders across all sectors—public, private, and nonprofit—to increase operational effectiveness and mission success?
During the spring and summer of 2019, we engaged in a deep leadership study through the Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) program, a midcareer leadership development initiative sponsored by the presidential libraries of George W. Bush, William J. Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Through this unique experience, a variety of leaders shared their wisdom with our cohort. From former Presidents, cabinet secretaries, chief executive officers (CEOs) to current and former legislators, we learned from those who wrestled with difficult business and policy decisions, many at the forefront of national security. These leaders exemplified our preconceived image of a leader, such as retired Army General Wesley Clark or former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, while others, such as Keith Hennessy, chief economic advisor to President George W. Bush, and Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Johnson, challenged traditional notions of leadership.
Perhaps the most surprising yet powerful lessons were learned from our fellow scholars—particularly those who, by their very appearance and presence, challenged our model of traditional leadership. Our recent class of scholars are building STEM-based schools in central Afghanistan, advocating for responsible gun safety, and humanizing homeless citizens in urban areas by reconnecting them with friends and family, just to name a few examples. The personal connection to these civilian leaders expanded our understanding of leadership well beyond the traditional uniformed military view. We returned from PLS as better officers and leaders because of the diversity of experience and perspective in our cohort.
During the PLS program, and now through the alumni program, we realized the power of external leadership development and urge our respective services to support these opportunities as a complementary resource for growing the capable and competent leaders the force requires.
Leadership Development in the Current Environment
Traditionally, military officer leadership development has been inwardly focused until the relatively senior ranks. Accession leadership training within each service, such as the Marines’ Basic School, allows junior officers to develop baseline communication skills and fundamental group leadership dynamics while familiarizing them with tactical proficiency and operational growth. Similarly, joint professional military education (JPME) at the midcareer level, and courses such as the Coast Guard’s Midgrade Officer and Civilian Training Course (MOCTC), focus on continuing these skills at the O-3 and O-4 ranks. These efforts help midcareer officers understand the services within the broader operational spectrum and the joint interagency sphere while building a shared understanding of service leadership. Unfortunately, it is not until the senior ranks where military leadership development begins to look outward to the broader political, government, non-governmental organizations, and private sector for strategic leadership development.
While this development arc has served the Sea Services adequately, it is not enough. The operational environment is shifting from multidimensional conflicts to complex joint and coalition operations. Greater reliance on interagency partnerships requires flexible, collaborative, and innovative leadership. The challenges of tomorrow are significant, ranging from humanitarian crises and natural disasters to multinational coalitions and cyberspace partnerships. They will demand visionary, creative leaders. Compounding this need is that the services remain less diverse than America as a whole and are losing talent as the public and private sector adapts to a more interconnected and dynamic world. The Sea Services must begin to grow its strategic leaders much earlier by exposing them to a range of leadership styles, problems, and decision-making processes.
Leadership Development for Mission Execution
Often, more can be learned from outside perspectives—and from failure—than from the well-worn path. Retired Marine Corps General Paul Van Riper, who has spoken and written about the need for critical and creative thinking among leaders, once asked a Marine Corps audience about the last time they attended a ballet. Perhaps ballet has little to do with warfighting, but the question suggests that a different perspective can be a spark.
Similarly, retired Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen reflected on engendering new perspectives and creating a unity of effort across multiple organizations. Whether overseeing the federal government response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or leading the massive response to Hurricane Katrina, Admiral Allen realized the need for flexible leadership. He argued that effective leaders must embody intellectual curiosity, creativity, and flexibility. He went on to explain how leaders who conform to familiar decision-making pathways and information assessments may miss opportunities to achieve success, especially within dynamic and shifting crises. Such complex operations will require an uncommon approach to service leadership to achieve mission success.
Twenty-first-century mission execution requires a 21st-century leadership mind-set and dynamic mission execution must be paired with dynamic leadership. The midgrade officers of today are the battlefield commanders of tomorrow. The Sea Services must give them every opportunity to develop into true strategic leaders—with the perspectives and empathy to make tough decisions. Strategic partnerships across federal, state, local, tribal, and international spheres are more common and more essential than ever before. The publication of 21st Century Seapower underscores the complex and dynamic battlespace of the near future, which will require increased understanding of global nuance and multilateral partnerships. The services must make leadership investments to develop leaders for tomorrow’s challenges.
Leadership Investment for Talent Retention
The military faces an ongoing retention challenge, one exacerbated by growing private sector workforce flexibility and developmental investment. Unable to hire midlevel talent, the military must focus first on recruiting people with high-performance potential, then grow that workforce for the future. The Sea Services must attract and retain dedicated, creative, and ambitious people with a wider range of skills and experiences who view military service as an opportunity to contribute, grow, and serve. This will require more flexible career path structures and an openness about the characteristics and skills of a successful service member. To keep pace with the changing and increasingly interconnected and multilateral operational environment, the Sea Services also need to consider diversifying leadership experiences for its members.
Over a career, technical skills and leadership development have created successful career military members, a few of whom become senior service leaders. Retention strategies largely have been based on financial incentives and employment security; but bonuses are not enough. The workforce has shifted. The percentage of younger citizens willing to conform to stereotypical career paths with predictable benchmarks, identical requirements, and unforgiving family expectations has significantly dropped. This has mirrored the overall decline in young Americans who are physically able to serve. Currently, only 15 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds meet the basic physical and cognitive standards to even join the services. Low accession rates combined with the premature exodus of military members with impressive talents, leadership skills, and creative ideas creates a hierarchical structure that appears homogenous as the ranks are climbed.
In addition, those who join have fewer reasons to stay. A recent RAND study of female retention showed beyond five years, Coast Guard female service members leave the organization at a rate nearly double their male counterparts, decreasing diversity in mid and senior ranks in both the officer and enlisted workforce. Critical skill retention is being similarly affected, as seen in aviation attrition rates across the Sea Services despite increased financial bonus programs. Sustained investment focused on growing unique leadership skills for both personal and professional benefit is one solution to this complex problem.
In numerous studies, investment in employee development is a key component to worker satisfaction, productivity, and retention. A 2018 LinkedIn study noted that companies that invest in employee development see significant retention improvement, as evidenced by the 94 percent of private sector employees surveyed who said they would remain with their current employer longer if they received increased training and development opportunities. The exposure to new ideas, people, and a broad range of perspectives develops leaders.
Bringing Leadership Lessons Home to the Military
There are no silver bullets to leadership development, and PLS is only one of many civilian leadership and professional development programs outside the traditional military structure. Opportunities such as the White House Fellows program, the Council on Foreign Relations Term Member program, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies National Security Fellowships, the Truman National Security Project, the Milken Institute Military Leadership Circle, and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum are a few examples of programs available to military members that differ from the traditional military leadership development paradigm. Other corporate training opportunities, civilian-based leadership courses, and micro-fellowships should be sought by service members and encouraged by the Sea Services. Diversity of thought and experience is critical to future mission success. The services also should encourage an environment of curiosity and enable service members to pursue these non-traditional opportunities as much as possible. Perhaps we do not all have to go to the ballet every week, but seeking out and encouraging leaders to embrace outside opportunities for leadership growth can only help us.
This past year, we all learned that each journey toward becoming a creative and effective leader is unique. However, it must be approached with a wide aperture, leaving comfort zones with in the service and producing new wisdom from experiences outside of the service. This is the essence of PLS and thus it has made us into different leaders—we are now more curious, more thoughtful, more open to outside ideas and creative solutions, and more connected to one another as a team. Because of PLS we don our uniforms today as more effective officers and leaders, in turn providing a direct benefit to our services and our society. For that, we are deeply grateful. We urge our fellow service members to seek their own opportunities for leadership growth beyond the military, and we call on our services to support its members in that journey.