Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Alternative Version of the Twenty First Century Sailor

About six weeks ago, I got an email from the Navy announcing their newest website, featuring the Twenty First Century sailor initiative.  Normally, I instantly delete the mass emailed spam that contains indecipherable Navy Message Traffic ALL CAPS format, but for some reason this email caught my eye. 

My optimistically na├»ve excitement that this would be an innovation portal for junior leaders to exchange ideas was almost instantaneously quashed upon clicking the link.  Instead of featuring the things the innovation generation finds energizing, nearly the entire site was devoted to politically correct platitudes and vague aspirations -- particularly the News and Media portion.  These are elements that make it difficult to create a unified, cohesive warfighting service.   

According to the Secretary of the Navy, the twenty first century sailor needs to be ready, safe, physically fit, inclusive and afforded the best transition services possible.  Much like Air-Sea Battle, where we plan to bring lots of firepower to places where threats exist using things we buy and put to sea, this vision lacks a transformational, inspiring philosophy.  

The misapplication of what the 21st century actually requires is unfortunately indicative of a broader institutional misunderstanding of how to motivate the current generation.  This is especially apparent when very few seem to actually know about the initiative – and if they have found it, have no way to interact with or comment on the material, aside from outside linked blogs.  

Among the things notably absent are any mention of combat effectiveness, and the adaptive, innovative integration of new technologies and ideas by creative sailors.  The particular emphasis on sexual assault awareness was no doubt driven by concerned Members of Congress, and as we are at their beck and call, “what interests my boss fascinates me.”  But the additional elements missed a grand opportunity to set forth a compelling vision extolling and encouraging our best tactical sailors. 
Despite the fact that our senior leaders claim our current service members are the most capable and intelligent our nation has ever seen, it says a lot when the Navy’s primary personnel vision focuses on sex-crazed, out of shape, PTSD-laden, discriminatory service members.  It may surprise some to know this is not representative of the military population as a whole.  

This focus, combined with the curious mandate that all sailors be given breathalyzers upon coming aboard ship for duty, implicitly assumes commanding officers and junior leaders are unable to police their own charges.  These are both descriptions completely at odds with the volunteers I serve with on a daily basis.  This is also completely at odds with the more horizontal hierarchies that define successful information age organizations.

As I happen to believe that 95 percent of sailors aren’t worthy of instant suspicion (except in port...), and are instead ripe resources for great ideas and new ways of thinking, I offer up a different version of “The Twenty First Century Sailor,” followed by some back of the envelope musings about what the website would ideally contain.   

Innovative:  In rebuilding the wartorn countries of Afghanistan and Iraq, our sailors have managed to do more with less, and adapt to cultural norms they never saw coming.  They have created counter-piracy strategies while aiding tens of thousands in disaster prone areas.  We killed bin Laden.  All this has been a result of rapidly adapting existing resources to local conditions with innovative and impressive talent.  We need leaders willing to leverage these skills and apply them to creating tactics to defeat future wily adversaries. 

Risk-tolerant:  Our sailors are adults.  They understand that winning wars means taking risks.  The characteristics required of combat leaders sometimes translate to adventurous off-duty interests.  They usually make informed choices, and while occasionally make mistakes, have bonds of friendship that keep them in line.  Whether it be in combat, or at home, when faced with a tough choice, they can figure a way through.  When they cannot, we provide resources to help them.  While mitigating unnecessary risks, they are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our country and their families when required.  They are, on the whole, trustworthy.  As junior leaders, we are capable of disciplining those that are not.  Our sailors must embrace "good" risk, and exploit success and an enemy's weakness when they can do so. 

Emotionally and Intellectually Fit:  More sailors than ever have college educations and beyond.  While physical fitness is important, our ability to solve complex problems in a rapidly changing environment is our greatest asset.  We have put up with consistent 8-10 month deployments.  Our families feel the strain, but are proud of what we’ve accomplished.  We will continue to educate ourselves, because in the information age, knowledge counts for more than industrial age strength.  A Sound Body certainly contributes to a Sound Mind, but brains, not brawn, will win the wars of the 21st Century.  We must encourage our future leaders to expand their minds by interacting with diverse civilian thought leaders, and make it easy to get the education they need. 

Meritocratic:  Our sailors have grown up in an age where nearly everybody has been given a fair shake.  They have served beside women in combat.  They’ve absorbed the lessons of diversity and have learned immensely from those different than themselves.  More than anything, our sailors want the best people to be promoted, and are tired of a system that continually tells us to be cognizant of the “other.”  We’re not racist or sexist – we’re all Americans and "meritist."  If you’re a good leader, we don’t care what you look like or sound like.  Stop insulting our intelligences, and let us get on with the business of fighting wars.  Our promotion systems are not perfect, but there is not systematic discrimination.  We must focus on combat metrics and 360 evaluations to truly find the leaders of tomorrow.  

A Boon to Society:  We’ve had experience in the most difficult of environments.  We’ve managed many millions of dollars in assets.  We’ve traveled the world, and interacted with cultures throughout.  We have a greater perspective and understanding of what America truly stands for.  Our skills are varied, but acute.  We’re problem solvers and bursting with good ideas.  Unleash us, let us meet our potential, and see what happens. Only by embracing the innovative impulses of the twenty first century will our Navy reach its full potential. 

With these in mind, what does a true 21st Century Sailor portal look like?  It is freewheeling – twitter feeds, discussion forums, idea incubators.  A place where ideas can be fed into a database, torn apart, crowdsourced, and then debated by operators at the lowest level.  We don’t need more statements from senior officers, vetted over and over by endless staffs.  What we need are hard questions and vigorous debate from passionate junior leaders willing to experiment and make our service better at the grassroots level.  

The site should also feature true 21st Century Sailors in their own words.  An innovator of the week or month highlighting a junior enlisted person or junior officer who has created a new procedure or discovered an effective new technique.  A meetup-type calendar for in person, ad hoc informal discussions across service communities, where ideas can percolate and take shape. 

Ultimately, the 21st Century sailor is not a cookie cutter, problem-ridden individual.  They are innovative, adaptable, collaborative, creative and focused on the mission of winning our nation’s wars.  Until we recognize this, we risk squandering the true talents of 21st century personnel as they move onto other, non-military organizations looking to leverage their unique talents.  


  1. I agree with you on a lot of your points. The innovator of the week or month is a great idea. But what about "female innovator of the week" as well. We should also highlight a "minority innovator of the week" and maybe add a few more disenfranchised groups in there. We need to be able to muddy the waters enough so that everyone has a voice whether or not that voice is good and therefor no innovative ideas need to be taken seriously. Admirals aren't made by change, they are made by maintaining the status quo. Go forth and be average!

  2. Great article, great reply. Unfortunately this is the "way it is", and I am ashamed and relieved to recognize it is really easy to buy into this BS. I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of the article and the mindset that it creates. It becomes a culture where we are the shepards and these are the sheep, they will never know any better unless we lead them, and we are the ONLY ones who can do it. Alternatively if we empower and train leadership much earlier and allow Sailors the benefit of the doubt I believe we can create a much more formitable Navy!