Jon Paris joins us to discuss his article, The Virtue of Being a Generalist, Part 1: A Day in the Life of Sub Lieutenant Snodgrass. We compare the Royal Navy and US Navy processes of creating officers for their surface fleet, the nature of being a maritime “professional,” improvements for the American model, and generally gab on for about 36 minutes.
By Matt Hipple
In the most recent edition of Proceedings, CDR Darcie Cunningham, USCG, describes what she sees as the strategic challenge of cultural friction between millennial expectations and the rigors of professional military duties in an article titled, “Millennials Bring a New Mentality: Does It Fit?“
Now, mind you, I can be pretty dismissive of my own Millennial generation at times, but the reality is that our newest generation of Sailors are professional, courteous and – based on the fact we are the most kick-ass navy on the planet – doing a damn fine job. For the USCG, the service of the author, I’m often jealous of the exotic, far-afield deployments of their Mobile Training Teams and the challenging mission they do with our partners. As a Patrol Coastal guy the Gulf, I was glad to have the WP’s there to carry some of the load. Here at home? The response during Hurricane season is always a testament to the Sailors of the Coast Guard. Is there REALLY a strategic “millennial culture” problem or are we using the idea to run away from our REAL problems?
To answer the first part of that question, I will endeavor to respond to 12 major points posed by CDR Darcie Cunningham. I hope this better frames the reality of the “millennial issue.”
1. “This generation has me questioning how they can acclimate to the highly traditional, structured U.S. military.”
To the cognitive bias about “traditional (&) structured” – let’s talk about a generation in “general” terms being able to acclimate to those traditions and structures. The article is right – the millennial generation cannot row for days on end and do not like the sound of leather drums. I also find the horned helmet a bit heavy and the hamlets we burn down a bit boring. I also do not feel it necessary to fire cannon salutes upon the departure of the CO’s dinghy – I would note that getting Non-Combat Expenditure Allocation (NCEA) can be a pain, and I’d like to maximize the ammunition I have for training. I would also likely die if subjected to liberal use of lashings. Barring that, I would then likely chafe at the idea of paying for my commission or being rejected due to my family’s social standing. I also do not have the disdain for my steam plant engineers that other Union Officers have. Finally, I do not, in fact, know how to splice a mainbrace. That said, we do power some of our ships by rending apart the very base material of the universe. The ships that burn boring ol’ dead dinosaurs can shoot a bullet down with another bullet in space. You take what you can get, I guess.
2. “The younger generation postures to work only the bare minimum number of hours required. Additionally, they continuously request more time off in the form of early liberty, shorter workdays, the ability to go home after an office luncheon, and so on.“
With greatly decreased crew sizes and 8-10 month deployments, can we REALLY complain when people try to get some extra leave in? Can we even claim they “work less”? Long-gone are the times of a 300+ DDG crew and a rope-yarn day. Is this “extra” time off, or just normal requests that are now a bigger deal due to the normal workload. Now, that said, if there is time for an “office luncheon”, likely there is nothing critical going on and no reason to stay around the office for tradition.
3. Upon hearing they would not be in-zone for promotion or advancement in a given year, these younger members declare they are fed up with the service and wish to resign. They have an expectation of accelerated advancement through the organization, without regard for the value that experience provides to those in leadership positions.
People complaining about being looked over for promotion would seem completely in-line with reactions since the time some random Athenian strategos was looked over for command during the Peloponnesian War.
4. There are an increased number of negative confrontations between very junior members and senior leadership. Rather than saying “Yes Sir” or “Yes Chief” when tasked with a project or simple task, our newer members frequently question why they have to do it.
First, we now have different mechanisms of enforcement. Before my time, there was the threat of getting roughed up – that no longer exists. Naturally – mechanisms exist in NJP, counseling, discussion where appropriate, etc… but threats & violence were damn scary, and likely without it there will be naturally more friction than before – and a good thing too BECAUSE…
Our systems are increasingly based on technical knowledge that decision makers will not have without prior in-depth training. There will be no more Da Vinci-like experts of all things. Where once it was possible to master the knowledge of a ship in 10 years – it can now be a challenge to truly master the nature of some single systems in 20. While belligerence is not excusable, is all this actually belligerence from the subordinate or sensitivity from the superior? I’ve seen some Petty Officers forced to get pretty bellicose in order to avert a stubborn lurch towards disaster. Once in awhile, I was the one lurching – and thank God for their candidness! These are motivated, intelligent, and dedicated folks. Maybe part of leadership is to know when that “why” or “what” comes from a place of honesty – I find it is not for the purpose of avoidance or excuse, but a desire to understand or improve. It’s an opportunity.
If I may, I would also quote Alex Smith’s lovely post at the USNI Blog, the “Call of the Deep.” In it, he notes, “Mahan’s diary as a junior officer is a fascinating read. Many of his entries lament about his fear of drinking too much and his abhorrence of superior officers. ‘The Captain has annoyed me, and I have felt and spoken angrily and sullenly.'” Oh, that rascal millennial and his complaints – and a diary? Pshaw!
5. Customs and courtesies are eroding. Juniors are no longer smartly saluting seniors or verbally acknowledging higher ranks. On an almost daily basis, I hear, “Hi, how’s it going?”
There is some truth here. Perhaps we can be a bit more informal at times. It’s not a deadly sin, if a sin at all, but I suppose there are places where we could shore things up a bit. I, for one, do find more use in candid superior-subordinate engagements that usually lead to a bit more informality. That said, once I leave my office for lunch, I am pretty much saluting until I get back indoors if there is heavy foot traffic. I don’t see any slack in the saluting department and, personally, I like it. It allows me to salute back- which is the part I like. Call me a romantic.
6. Texting is becoming the primary mode of communication. It has already become a means of jumping the chain of command as a condoned communication tool.
Before we start, let us be clear about the problems here – “Jumping the chain of command” is not a “texting” problem. That is like saying a negligent discharge is a “bullet” problem. We shall touch on both.
To jumping the chain of command: Do we really see that much? I would say no. Let’s not stop there, however. When we do, is it always so bad? Is the problem one of people being sneaky or people trying to get things done in a timely manner. We all read the message-to-Garcia story as MIDN – is an hour of work-stoppage waiting for approval acceptable in an already daunting pile of PMS and repair issues? Of course, we do have an increasingly large number of supervisors and mangers running in parallel… perhaps an up-tick in “jumping the chain of command” is a natural side-effect of the increased number of bosses and not a symptom of generational issues?
To texting: there was a time when Sailors crossed the brow and didn’t come back until the next day – or Monday. There was no command expectation to have a cellphone leash at all times. In fact, many commands now require Sailors to have cellphones so they can be recalled. Texting is a short, to-the-point communication that can be sent to the entire command’s pocket – the ability to “leave a text” so someone comes in after a major casualty or maybe just a quick tool for finding people in one’s work-center. Sounds like a success for readiness.
7. We must educate them on the importance of patience in our systems.. If this doesn’t sit well with a young member, he or she should be subtly reminded of the current economy and associated unemployment rate.
A subtle reminder that if many of our management methods were used in a competitive market, our company would be exterminated within months. Anyone who clung to these systems because they were “what we had”, advocating for them merely because they were what they knew, would be quickly fired. Anyone who could think critically about these issues would be well on their way to success (though, granted, those who just complained about them endlessly would ALSO probably be fired). Must we automatically ascribe selfishness to the folks who think we can do better? If our service members expect our world-class military to function on a world-class level, good on them! If we say we’re the best, we should want to be the best.
8. They need to be “course-corrected” immediately if they show signs of insubordination or disrespect.
This happens every day – I have seen it, done it, and had it done to me. It is correct and appropriate. However, we must be careful to realize that, while the line may be fuzzy, informality is not “disrespect” and disagreement is not “insubordination” – the latter especially.
9. We must get back to basics. Customs and courtesies are the foundation of our military traditions.
While I embrace the fact that we have a new generation that’s better educated, technologically astute, and poised to preserve our nation’s liberties, I also hope we can find a middle ground that will capitalize on their strengths and preserve our proud traditions.
We defend the constitution; we fight and win our nations wars – THAT is our “basic”. THAT is our foundation. THAT is our #1 priority. In Norfolk, there is a stand that claims to hold the lovely wooden helm from the USS MAINE – replaced for metal as our relationship with Spain began to strain. The customs and courtesies that change with time and tide as we pursue the mission are for us to decide and are of secondary importance.
As for where that tradition comes from, from E-1 to O-9, we all take part in creating a service-wide culture that merges tomorrow’s yesterday with ours. This gets at the subtle problem with the turn of phrase used here. Customs and Courtesies are not the foundation of our military tradition. Our military tradition is defined by our customs and courtesies. The article is right – things have changed. They always have. Harness that and use it – many of these things have changed for a reason. Tradition is not something we keep preserved in a jar passed to us in perfect form from the first Sailor. From our youngest SN with his iPad to our flush-faced comrades in the Continental Navy after a night of grog – each of Sailor in their own time is creating tradition for the next generation.
10. They also need positive feedback early and often. Little gestures such as going to their offices and offering accolades for jobs well done gives encouraging reinforcement and the feedback for which they hunger….
I’ll be the first to admit there are many things about my generation I cannot stand, though I reject that this characterization is correct for our warfighters – but, let’s entertain a small kernel of truth here. Why DO millennials sometimes engage in such childish shenanigans?
It’s this very perspective that enables nonsense. No, don’t treat your grown-up, educated subordinates like children; they are not gentle flowers. Do not create the self-fulfilling prophecy by choosing the easy, comfortable route of leadership by coddling and participation trophies. What they’re looking for is constructive input – good and bad- not blind accolades.
11. And finally . . . this needs to be said: We must be prepared for the tough conversation. Will they truly be able to adapt to the service?
Truly realize who we are talking about. These are uniformed service members who joined up in wartime to make a difference – what they’re looking for is knowledge and relevance, not a fight with their boss or some empty accolade. It is a mature desire, one informed by a drive to defend our way of life, in the best way they can, at potentially shattering cost.
12. “If millennials are more focused on what’s in it for them, they may not be the right fit.”
I may have neither risked nor sacrificed as much as many of my friends who served on the front lines of the Global War on Terror, but I did serve on the USS FIREBOLT and refurbished the 3 stars embedded in the floor of the mess decks. From the 2004 terrorist attack on ABOT and KAAOT, one of those stars belongs to DC3 Nathan Bruckenthal, first USCG wartime casualty since Vietnam. He didn’t ask what was in it for him.
Millions have gone out to the front lines of our global war against terror and not asked what was in it for them. Thousands have not come back – they did it for what was in it for us, the ones that live. They are all Americans, but one could throw a superficial label like “millennial” on many. Remember, when we write these kinds of articles, we are talking about leading people who, in the course of war, will have to kill – and some may have to die – in the service of their country. This kind of “millennial this” and “millennial that” talk doesn’t match that reality. This kind of talk is NOT what -we- should have “in it for them.”
I by no means think the purpose of this article was to ignore the great work of our shipmates, the ultimate sacrifice of our comrades, or the potential of so many others to bear that burden as well – but nevertheless, this kind of sentiment ultimately ignores it.
Matthew Hipple is a naval officer by choice and millennial by cruel twist of fate.
This post is a response to an article in the August issue of USNI’s Proceedings by Commander Darcie Cunningham, U.S. Coast Guard, titled “Millennials Bring a New Mentality: Does it Fit?” So if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you start there.
Where to begin? To her credit, Commander Cunningham asks an important question: “how does our structured military culture adapt to this new generation?” It’s also clear her frustrations are borne of personal experiences in command. Unfortunately it’s a question she fails to answer (more on that later) and in doing so perpetuates myths and patronizing generalizations. [Full disclosure: I’m in the millennial generation, on the older end of the spectrum, and like all such groupings the term “millennial” is a debatable construct but I’ll accept her definition (those born in the 80s and 90s) for argument’s sake.]
“Kids These Days!”
Commander Cunningham begins by noting several behaviors that are supposedly unique to millennials: that they “posture to work only the bare minimum number of hours required,” that their “customs and courtesies are eroding,” and that “there are an increased number of negative confrontations.” It is entirely possible that this is what is happening at Coast Guard Base Los Angeles, it is certainly her perception. But more likely it is just that: perception. Such perceptions have existed about pretty much every generation when they were in their youth. That doesn’t make them accurate.
Let’s return to the important question: “how does our structured military culture adapt to this new generation?” Beyond the advice to use positive feedback to keep the crew motivated, the Commander Cunningham offers nothing. Instead she says they must be “educated,” “course-corrected,” and evaluated for whether they will “truly be able to adapt to the service.” And that’s the thing – this isn’t really an article about adapting the military to millennials, it’s about adapting millennials to the military, as reflected in the title. Which is not all bad. To be sure respect for rank and proper military etiquette are just good manners, and appreciation for a service’s traditions, structure, customs, and courtesies are the marks of a professional.
Yet here is where it gets downright galling. The commander moves to close by questioning whether millennials are just “focused on what’s in it for them.” This is flat-out wrong. As the Washington Post reports, millennials “want jobs that affect social change, and they give what they can. A 2012 study found that three-quarters of young people surveyed gave to a charity in 2011, and 63 percent volunteered for a cause.” It bears remembering that this is an all-volunteer force. While many undoubtedly join the military in part for other reasons – heck I joined partly to pay for college and to travel abroad – I would submit a vast majority, such as myself, also joined in part for the ideals that military service embodies and a belief that such work is work towards a better world.
Instead of playing to these motivations, however, Commander Cunningham advises reminding these servicemembers that there are “long lines” waiting to get into the coast guard and that the economy is not the best. There’s so much wrong in this.
First, it’s unclear if the commander thinks that since “millennials…may not be the right fit,” they can be replaced by one of the other five generations she says she oversees, or if she’s referring to individual millennial members. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt she means the latter and that she’s not saying that taking on the challenge of motivating millennials may just be too hard and that they should be written-off en masse.
Second, there’s a reason these individuals are the ones in service and not in the supposed long lines. It’s because these they were the top qualified candidates. Even those who aren’t top performers in service are not likely to have too much trouble finding work outside the military, or using their benefits for further education, so this threat rings hollow except for those really troubled individuals threatened with a non-honorable discharge. And that’s to say nothing of how trying to scare one’s employees isn’t typically the best management or leadership strategy.
Third, because these were the top qualified candidates this also means that any millennial you give up on is going to be replaced by…another millennial…who by and large won’t be as qualified. Sure you can keep up the numbers, but again, what does this say of the quality of your talent pool?
One complaint the commander makes that does ring true is that “younger members…have an expectation of accelerated advancement through the organization.” In Commander Snodgrass’ 2014 Retention Survey he notes that 60% of respondents “feel they are making a difference in their job, but regardless of what they do – 64% don’t think they will be rewarded in any way by superior performance.” This should not be an indictment of millennials but a recognition of a drawback of military service in comparison with civilian organizations, as well as an opportunity to prove one’s leadership bona fides.
Yes, we millennials want positive feedback and to know whether we’re doing a good job, and yes we wish we could rise through the ranks commensurate with our talents rather than in accordance with organizational and statutory limitations. Leaders would be well served to look for alternatives such as creating opportunities for crewmembers to prove themselves through increased responsibility or challenges. If the military can’t keep up with the rest of the world in reasonably advancing its people, Commander Cunningham should at least be able to explain what is or isn’t in her control and that she will do what she can to position her people for success.
There are going to be bad apples among us, as there are in any generation. But tarring an entire generation with questionable generalizations is counter-productive. While this article may ask the right question, it doesn’t really attempt to answer it. What most millennials want is appreciation, when earned, an opportunity to make a difference, and a voice that is heard if not always heeded. The military, the top employer of millennials, still needs to make a serious attempt at understanding how to best take advantage of what this generation has to offer.
A good place to start exploring the issue is Air Force vet Tim Kane’s Bleeding Talent, NYT review here.
Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.
The most impressive intellectual leader working today is a one Bill McRaven.
By Robert Caruso
William McRaven is the most charismatic military leader since Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.
Perhaps more than any other serving officer, McRaven has postured the US Armed Forces to be better prepared when conflicts arise. He is the most accomplished flag or general officer of our time.
The future of what the U.S. armed forces looks like is uncertain, but one constant will be the mark McRaven has left. He is preparing to retire as the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, the nerve center of the effort to combat terrorism and other threats in the unlit spaces. While the past decade has been dominated by Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States cannot take its eyes off the threat of transnational terrorism nor the special activities of a Russia, Iran, or China.
To combat those threats, McRaven, his staff, and his counterparts have engaged willing nations the world over in building capacity, strengthening capabilities, and solidifying partnerships.
All national security professionals should know that more than any other serving officer, McRaven has postured the force to be better prepared when conflicts arise.
He holds the title of “Bull Frog”— the active-duty UDT/SEAL operator with the longest period of cumulative service.
SOCOM recently stood up J-3I, an operations directorate focused exclusively on international cooperation under McRaven’s guidance. A global network of special operations forces will be imperative to the future fight, as the nation increasingly turns to a global network of partners to combat a global network of threats.
Concurrently, he has increased SOF’s stature in Washington and established a framework to lead the interagency in the fight against globally dispersed networks.
During his time leading Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane stood up a customer advocate shop, devoted to resourcing special operations forces—a trend the rest of the sprawling Pentagon equities took to replicating with gusto.
When then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wanted to boast of the United States’ success at hacking al Qaeda, she took to the stage at the annual special operations conference, introduced by McRaven.
It was his deputy, Air Force General Marshall Webb, who is featured in the iconic White house situation room photo the night Osama bin Laden was killed.
McRaven is a proponent of the joint approach: early on in the global war on terror, the Pentagon “merged the two commando teams and headquartered the reflagged Task Force 121[McRaven] in Baghdad,” reported The Washington Post.
Indeed, the forces under McRaven’s command time and again revolutionized the way technology was used to win the fight. Much of modern social analysis and mapping techniques, as well as Palantir’s tools and software like Analyst’s Notebook and Webee instant messaging, owe their success with government to organizations he led during his career. And if that wasn’t enough, his 1993 thesis,”The Theory of Special Operations”, is required reading across government.
Many career FBI personnel believe this thesis revolutionized the way FBI looks at counterterrorism. It is considered such a seminal work that Coast Guard special operations forces created a doctrinal foundation based almost exclusively on its contents. In 2012, the President and the Secretary of Defense released new defense strategic guidance, emphasizing the need to rebalance toward the Pacific. But the majority of the crises that the United States will be called on respond to won’t always be in Asia. Globally postured and forward deployed, McRaven has left an indelible mark on the Armed Forces that stabilized the Government of the Philippines, defeated the Islamic Courts Union, captured Saddam, and killed bin Ladin.
In 2012, the President and the Secretary of Defense released new defense strategic guidance, emphasizing the need to rebalance toward the Pacific. But the majority of the crises that the United States will be called on respond to won’t always be in Asia. Globally postured and forward deployed, the Navy that once fielded thousands of river rats to fight in Vietnam and put Seabees on the ground in Afghanistan will be called upon again and again to augment special operations forces. SOCOM will play a large part in the execution, with or without a SEAL at the helm.
As McRaven first said in his June 2011 testimony: “The world’s strategic environment has evolved toward one that is characterized more by irregular warfare activity rather than major nation state warfare […] we must confront this ‘new normal’ and posture our forces to be successful in it.”
The U.S. armed forces and a grateful nation are better prepared to face those challenges because of McRaven’s contributions.
Robert Caruso is a veteran of the United States Navy and served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Department of Defense, in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the Department of State and as a contractor for the Department of the Army. He is an Associate Editor at CIMSEC, and concurrently serves as the Tampa Chapter President.