Bill Parcell’s football “coaching tree” has spawned more successful protégés throughout college and professional football than arguably any other individual in history. He approached coaching as a leader of men who believed great masters were the product of great students. In cooking up his substantial lineage of wins and championships, he was adamant: “If [you] want me to do the cooking, at least [you] ought to let [me] shop for the groceries.” Navy leaders are not so lucky. The ingredients are selected for us, and we are tasked with revealing the culinary masterpieces within. Every ship is composed of a hodgepodge of sailors—a clunky, asymmetric assembly that results in a diverse unit spanning ethnicities, backgrounds, political opinions, and generations.
No two ships share demographic homogeneity. As such, it would be preposterous to assume that some standardized leadership dogma could be prepared to address all situations, because it is not precisely prepared for any specific case. The techniques and philosophies crafted over centuries of combat and military excellence are well constructed and should be the foundation for any leader, but the master chefs of Naval leadership separate themselves not with exceptional “cooking” techniques, but rather a deeper understanding of their “ingredients.”
Naval leaders are beginning to face what might be their greatest challenge to date—individuals born between 1995 and 2012, known as iGen. These young men and women have grown up differently, with much less linear evolution and in lockstep with the technology with which they have been raised. Writer Josh Miller argues that iGen sailors may have more in common in some ways with a 15-year-old child born and raised in communist China than they will with leaders decades their seniors. As the principals tasked with crafting cooperation and unity among these individuals, Navy leaders should be alarmed, astute, and engaged. As leaders, we must undertake an active investigation into the lives of iGen and the distinctive experiences that have crafted their world. By examining the generation’s unique characteristics, leaders can be more prepared to effectively deploy and attune the traditional practices of leadership to accommodate the newest members of our team, ultimately preparing leaders for the challenges of tomorrow.
Traditional correlations between experience and knowledge have become archaic. The technical knowledge once acquired over careers can now be accessed and digested in minutes. With constant access to the internet through smartphones, a sailor has access to more knowledge than an individual could acquire in a lifetime. Gone are the days where you have to go to a yarn shop to learn to knit or travel to Japan to learn how to tie a kimono; there is always an on-demand teacher right in the palm of your hand. While older leaders have struggled to adapt to this, iGen sailors have grown up knowing nothing else. As such, the value in knowledge accumulation has been lost to an arguably more prudent skill of knowing where to acquire it.
However, increases in information acquisition have not correlated to rises in maturity. A recent study concluded that iGen was, as a whole, more supervised and protected while growing up. This has led people of this generation to be more cautious and averse to taking risks. Throughout their early developmental stages, iGen was faced with significantly less “free play” opportunities, raised instead with more structured hobbies. Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that children inundated with extracurriculars have less opportunities to freely organize themselves. Hidden in more organic forms of child interactions, they suggest, are significant opportunities for growth, maturation, and development. As a result, members of iGen have become more apprehensive about living alone, managing their own finances, and engaging in their communities. Furthermore, they are more comfortable with traditional notions of authority than their Millennial counterparts. iGen has proven to be far less comfortable with ad hoc face-to-face interactions. Instead, they prefer to connect under the confines of social media and smartphones. iGen collaborates much better when given a formal structure to conduct themselves within.
Aside from social preferences, iGen has departed from previous generations culturally as well. While iGen is significantly more accepting of different ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds, Lukianoff and Haidt suggest its members are much less tolerant of religion. The shared values offered by traditional religion are eschewed for more independent constructions of morals, ethics, and divinity. Understanding these fundamental differences, naval leaders can examine their leadership more critically to address the needs of future sailors.
However, naval leaders must never abandon the heritage that forms the lifeblood of our kinship. A Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal citation concludes with the words “were in keeping with the highest traditions of Naval Service” as a predicate to the actions that warranted the award. This emphasis on tradition highlights the basis of the Sea Services’ link between identity and heritage. Such rich history provides examples of excellence from previous generations and gives rise to current standards. It can be difficult, in an increasingly adaptive world, to continue the direct application of past to present—but difficulty does not make it unnecessary. To maintain its great tradition of success, the Navy must remain committed to its identity, while preparing itself to be accessible to ever-evolving palettes.
The list of Navy principles that could be addressed under this philosophy of new adaptations is long, but a few stand out for consideration in relation to iGen. First, sailor welfare will always remain at the forefront of leadership. However, the manner in which we care for our sailors must be more intrusive. As iGen members appear to mature more slowly on average, leaders must bridge the gap to adulthood. This includes everything from ensuring your most junior sailor knows how to properly complete a maintenance card to confirming he or she has car insurance before purchasing a car.
Next, teamwork will forever be the cornerstone of naval success. The fifth law of the Navy emphasizes the importance and tradition of teamwork: “On the strength of one link in the cable, dependeth the might of the chain. Who knows when thou may’st be tested, so live that thou bearest the strain.” Author Jean Twenge says leaders may find that their authority will be more readily accepted by iGen, but they will need to provide more structure for effective collaboration. Furthermore, Lukianoff and Haidt note that members of iGen are more critical when evaluating the information they are given. Recognizing and effectively mitigating iGen’s independent and antisocial tendencies are critical to forming the team mentality. Despite the fact that iGen prefers to avoid direct interpersonal interaction, leaders can build teams by exploiting the younger generation’s yearn for collaborative learning. So long as the sailors are learning together, they can grow and bond together.
Last, creating trust and responsibility within subordinates is crucial for success. As the old trope goes: With great power comes great responsibility. Yet, many new leaders are fearful to trust their sailors among the growing complexities of modern threats. The Sea Services need daring sailors who are eager to seek responsibility and take responsibility for their actions. However, many young adults are nervous and hesitant to do so. To ensure their subordinates’ personal and professional growth, leaders must recognize this reservation and assume a more supportive role in encouraging iGen to seek out responsibility. The “school of hard knocks” that teaches many lessons pivotal to a leader’s evolution cannot be fully effective without the student assuming full responsibility for his or her fiefdom.
The fundamentals of leadership will continue to stand the test of time. However, technological and cultural shifts are drastically reshaping the sailors of tomorrow. To continue the Navy’s traditions of success, we must remain adaptive in our application of leadership techniques. The Navy will always produce great “chefs,” so long as it understands the “ingredients” are always evolving. Get to know your sailors—who they are, where they come from, and the world they live in. Through a more intimate understanding of individuals, we can be more prepared to form cohesive teams prepared to confront tomorrow’s challenges. The only thing brighter than the screens of iGen’s smartphones is the future that they will create.