Tag Archives: Leadership

Fortune Favors the Bold

unnamedHow risk can be good, and why we need more of it

Fortis fortuna adiuuat.  So wrote the 2nd-century B.C. playwright Terence of the Athenian general Phormio who, facing a numerically far superior Peleponnesian fleet, tricked them into self-defeat through an unusual, highly risky corralling tactic.  Once the enemy fleet’s oars were hopelessly tangled, Phormio seized the advantage, rushed in, and won the battle.

Fortune favors the bold.

More recent naval history agrees.  Stephen Decatur’s gamble of a sneak attack on the captured USS Philadelphia in the early 1800s was termed “the most bold and daring act of the Age” by no less than Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson – an officer who knew something of bold and daring naval acts, having triumphed at Trafalgar with highly unconventional tactics of his own.

In World War II, Admiral Nimitz rushed barely patched-up ships to the Battle of Midway in a chancy yet ultimately successful move that defeated a numerically-superior Japanese force, thus turning the tide in the Pacific theater.

It’s clear risk can be good.

However, in the half-century since our country was last seriously challenged in combat at sea, our military has developed what Tim Kane in The Atlantic terms a “zero-defect mentality.”  This relentless insistence on flawless performance induces upwardly-mobile leaders to cling to safe, middle-of-the-road blandness, shunning risk.

Today’s enemies are bold and daring, often blatantly unconstrained by the rules of engagement, red tape and resource constraints that entangle us.  If we do not seize the initiative early and often, they will win.

Our Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen continue to innovate, defying convention to defeat our foes.  Yet our military has become so confused about risk that a successfully innovative leader is more often punished or pushed out than promoted, while paradoxically, thrill-seekers get cheered for dangerous demonstrations of “confidence.”

We must dramatically change our approach to risk.  Instead of implying all risk is bad, we must carefully educate our corps on the difference between good and bad risk.  Then, as leaders, we must encourage innovation and good risk while eradicating bad risk and recklessness.

The first objection to bold, innovative leadership stems from this zero-defect mentality we’ve cultivated.  Won’t risky actions cause mishaps, resulting in casualties and property damage?

The obvious answer is yes, sometimes: sometimes risks fail, and sometimes lives and property suffer.  Admiral Nimitz, when an ensign, ran his ship aground.  Admiral Nelson’s career was littered with failures, including the stinging defeat that took his right arm and many lives.

But, over time, intelligent innovation saves lives and prevents injuries.  This is evident not only in large-scale operations like Decatur’s raid, accomplished without a single casualty, but in more localized innovations like the Holley stick.  Essentially a long stick using simple means like a hook to catch IEDs, this simple yet highly effective tool, invented recently by a Marine in Afghanistan, prevents serious casualties every day.

“If we are too risk-averse to adapt, then in the long run, we make ourselves more vulnerable,” says Marine Corps Capt. Jerome Lademan, a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC).  “The enemy won’t wait on us to develop better weapons, systems or tactics.”

But surely, risk wastes money.  As budgets shrink, can military services afford to take risks?

The better question is, how can they afford not to?  In the long run, innovative processes and products save the military significant quantities of money. 

Six years ago, Navy Lt. Rollie Wicks, innovation cell member and a Chief Network Scientist at the Under Secretary of Defense, Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, urged the Navy to replace its towering stacks of hard-copy maps, charts and targeting imagery aboard ship with equivalent online resources.  Sailors were so overburdened and short on storage space, they often threw out new materials as soon as they arrived.  Yet, the tradition-bound Navy was highly reluctant to risk relinquishing these trusted paper copies.  Wicks ultimately won, and the resulting electronic Geospatial Product Library now saves the military millions of dollars and thousands of personnel hours annually.

“Now is the time to quit throwing funds at bad ideas and the wrong people,” Wicks says.  “The military needs to identify the ‘risk takers,’ surround them with the right mentors, and fund them to innovate.”

A final, frequent, objection to risky action is that it defies convention. The military, papered over in piles of checklists, often worries innovation is nothing but insubordination.  So, why promote it?  Won’t risky behavior undermine the military’s good order and discipline?

It is true that even such an impressively successful leader as Nelson was often tarred by his superiors as insubordinate.  In the Battle of Copenhagen, trusting his tactics, Nelson famously disregarded a command signal to retreat, claiming he never saw it…after intentionally putting the telescope to his blind eye.  Nelson prevailed, in the decision and in the battle.

Innovative military leaders probably will never leave their superiors completely at ease.

But by educating our forces on the different types of risk, we can keep leaders from fearing their subordinates’ potentially unpredictable actions.  Instead, leaders can trust their subordinates will confidently seize the initiative, acting boldly on a solid basis of experience and skill learned from their elders, and employing a keen intuition honed by repeated front-line faceoffs with their foes.

They will know and trust that fortune favors the bold.

Too often, we define “calculated risk” as simply avoiding risk.  Common military risk-assessment tools use numerical scales that suggest high risk is always bad, and low risk always good, often leading to a “green-washing” of all situations as low risk.  Then, without proper understanding of risk, reckless behavior tends to proliferate while innovation is discouraged.

We must reverse this debilitating trend if we intend to outwit, outmaneuver and ultimately conquer our many 21st-century opposing maritime forces.  Instead of reducing risk to a simplistic equation of numbers or, worse, a series of stoplight colors, we need to educate our troops on the important difference between good and bad risk.  Then, we must relentlessly encourage innovation while working tirelessly to eliminate recklessness.

It is time to replace “risk reduction” with “risk promotion.”

As Navy Petty Officer First Class Jeff Anderson, CRIC member and Electronics Technician on the USS Independence, points out, “Wars require the risk takers in charge, not the risk-averse.”

In other words, fortis fortuna adiuuat.


U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Heather Bacon-Shone is a member of the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC).  The CRIC, hosted by the Naval Warfare Development Command, is composed of hand-picked junior officers and mid-grade enlisted personnel and civilians who partner in innovation with leaders in business, industry, and the military in order to solve tomorrow’s naval problems today.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Navy.

Sea Control 16 – More with CAPT Moore (1)

CseacontrolemblemAPT Dan Moore, USN Ret, joins us for the first of his monthly series on naval leadership, “More with CAPT Moore.” In today’s episode, we discuss the education of 21st-century naval leaders by discussing examples from the present and past, such as GEN Mattis, LT Sims, and ADM Nelson. Some of the set-up and helpful readings are found in an earlier introduction article. Enjoy our newest episode of Sea Control, “More with CAPT Moore” (Download).

The Fourth Generation of Video Games: Professional Training Rewards beyond ‘Killstreaks’?

Training Tool or Entertainment?
Training Tool or Entertainment?

The age of Fourth Generation Gaming is upon us.  With the launch of the PlayStation 4 this week and the Xbox One next week, the younger side of me emerges from its shell with interest.  As we step into this new age of gaming, one has to wonder if these new sophisticated gaming devices have the potential to contribute to professional military training and education in an age of fiscal austerity.  This article argues that specific video games provide users the opportunity to practice ground and naval warfare tactics in addition to leadership skills.


Going Beyond the Call of Duty


The Quiet Solace Prior to a Firefight
The Quiet Solace Prior to a Firefight

When one simultaneously thinks of the military and video games, notable first-person-shooters (FPS) such as Call of Duty and Battlefield come to mind.  As fun as these games may be, they unfortunately serve the military little purpose besides acting as a recruiting tool.  Yet, one title that focuses on land warfare (and dabbles in the maritime area) is the Arma series.  Based off of the Virtual Battlespace engine, Arma II and the recently released Arma III bring unparalleled realism to the gaming realm.  Accurate bullet ballistics, radio communications, wounding, and scale of the terrain are several features among many that create a multiplayer (players against players, not AI) platoon or company level large scale engagement.  In addition to these realistic features, the Arma series features a comprehensive and versatile, but yet easy to use mission editor allowing users to set-up almost any tactical engagement in mind (I personally created a mission entailing a situation in which USMC forces had to assault a captured oil rig with helicopters and small boats; this mission exposed the tactical difficulties of VBSS as my team did not anticipate searching every inch of the complex platform for OPFOR.)


Although the educational benefits of playing a FPS video game may appear to be nonexistent, the Arma series illustrates that tactical lessons at squad, platoon, and company levels can be learned.  Players can simulate a variety of engagements ranging from 300+ meters in mountainous terrain modeled after Afghanistan to larger conventional fights with armor and mechanized infantry (a typical Arma engagement video).  At the squad level, players practice moving as a unit in different environments (rural and urban) against different enemies (unconventional guerrillas, rag-tag Third World armies, and sophisticated Russian and Chinese militaries).  A different set of challenges confronts players commanding a platoon or company as they have to not only ensure that their units remain organized and move coherently, but also penetrate the fog of war to determine how to best apply their forces strategically, practicing combined arms operations (a skillset with potent consequences if forgotten).


Other games such as Combat Mission Shock Force and Flashpoints Campaign:  Red Storm also provide players with the opportunity to experience with small-unit tactics, but the dynamic pace of the Arma series challenges players in ways these other games lack.  Although the Arma series fails to embrace the maritime domain of war (with a few exceptions such as my team’s bungled oil rig assault), fortunately other games are available to provide players with this opportunity.


Bringing a CIC to Your Living Room


CIC:  Christ I’m Confused
CIC: Christ I’m Confused

Less than a handful of video games embrace the concept of naval warfare, but the few that do surpass their users’ expectations.  Many mimic the style of the notable Harpoon series by featuring an interface similar to a CIC rather than amazing visuals.  One recent title, Command:  Modern Air/Naval Operations, simulates naval tactics and operations by allowing players to command a variety of units ranging from a single destroyer tasked with ASW to all of the assets under the command of the 5th Fleet (even nuclear weapons are included, with dangerous consequences).  Players command their unit(s) through a CIC-type interface.  Accompanying the game is an enormous encyclopedia containing an endless amount of statistics for every ship, aircraft, and weapon automatically factored into gameplay.  Unfortunately, all of these variables make playing the game itself a hard experience with a difficult learning curve (grasping the controls while being pummeled by Russian Backfire bombers does not help).  Yet, this illustrates the complexity of how a carrier battle group functions.  Fortunately, some of these features can be delegated to the Al (such as engaging with the most optimal weapon).  For further information about Command, USNI published an excellent review.


Command’s ultimate benefit is its vast scale.  The ability to employ nearly any naval or air unit in any corner of the globe allows players to experiment with various situations and conflicts including counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, transiting the Strait of Hormuz while being harassed by dozens of Iranian missile boats, counternarcotic operations off the coast of South America, and repelling Chinese A2/AD forces in the Pacific.  Some units and methods work almost perfectly in some situations but fail in others.  Players experience both the tactical and operational challenges in these various scenarios.  Although the game lacks stunning visuals or sounds, it gives users a vast sandbox to practice a wide array of naval tactics.


Leadership:  Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More


Complete Chaos or Organized Command?
Complete Chaos or Organized Command?

The previous two games discussed both allow users to practice maritime and ground tactics.  These skills are incredibly important but by themselves do not make a great officer.  I argue that leadership is another key trait.  Although leadership (in my opinion—many others would disagree) is a natural trait that not everybody possesses, those that have this trait only improve their leadership abilities through experience; typically, the more someone leads, the better leader they become.  There are almost infinite amounts of ways to practice leadership, but one that stands out is a video game titled EVE: Online.


Thinking of EVE as a tool to practice leadership may appear to be out of this world (literally because of the science-fiction feel), but it is not.  EVE is a science-fiction space game in which players fly their ships around different star systems for combat, industrial, commercial, and exploration purposes.  In EVE, all players (approximately 500,000) are on the same server, making the game persistent, and player-driven (for example, corporations—or alliances—fight over sovereignty over key systems linking resource-rich areas with market hubs).  Few ‘rules’ exist in EVE (although corporations try to enforce certain laws) allowing players to conduct practically any activities they desire.  The economy is completely player based, making the most expensive ships in the game tradable for over $3000 USD (a lot of cash at stake for a ‘recreational’ video game).


Now, how does this game with spaceships simulate leadership experience?  Essentially, Fleet Commanders in EVE are always applying Col. Boyd’s famous “OODA” loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act); the most successful Fleet Commanders are masters of this process.  Combat in EVE is extremely complex with different types of ships (agile frigates, electronic warfare, logistics, stealth bombers, carriers, dreadnoughts, and many more) that each fulfills important roles; 3 battlecruisers with 3 logistics ships can easily take on 10 battlecruisers.  A Fleet Commander needs to account for all of these variables when in the midst of a 3000+ ship battle.  The Fleet Commander also ponders how he will get his 1000 ship fleet organized and to the staging area in a time efficient manner (Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is just showing up.  In EVE, many “battles” are decided before they commence as players will only risk losing their thousand dollar fleets in fights they can win.), counterintelligence issues from spies embedded in his fleet, and his ultimate objectives.  When targeting other ships (in combat, commanders tend to focus all of their firepower on only a couple of targets at a time), the Fleet Commander needs to analyze the changes in both the enemy and his fleet compositions while sounding confident over communications.


As earlier mentioned, EVE essentially provides players with a dynamic environment to constantly practice the OODA thought process.  Despite its unrealistic setting, EVE demonstrates how a player-driven video game with a complex—but yet simple—combat system can serve as a tool to for users to practice the strategic thinking.  In fact, some may argue that its completely fictional setting removes a commander’s obsession with certain assets and forces him to rely on the core aspects of leadership and critical thinking.


Integrating Video Games into Military Training?


This article is not arguing that the US military institutions should replace their training with video games like EVE (although this may be more reasonable in 2154).  Yet, with the conclusion of major military operations and inevitable decline in military training exercises in an age of fiscal austerity, officers will have fewer opportunities to learn from practicing their leadership abilities and experimenting with different tactics.  Thus, after illustrating several examples of video games providing educational lessons, this article argues that integrating video games with training may serve as part of a solution to this upcoming gap.


Bret is a student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, but currently abroad in Amman, Jordan studying International Politics and Arabic.  The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Sea Control: First Podcast

CIMSEC-LogoSea Control- Doyle Hodges Interview (Download)

So, as required of millennials (or people who know millennials) with opinions, we’ve started a weekly (we hope) podcast. Think of it as your moment of PowerPoint Rehab.  Our first episode is with Doyle Hodges, author of the 1998 USNI Article, “Listen to the JO’s“. We intended to talk about leadership, which we made a great college try of. In the end, we segwayed into sea stories, technology, and other things. I am easily distracted and he has a beard. What do you expect? I suppose that’s at least ONE advantage of the “Next Slide” button.

If you have any suggestions, want to get involved, or have ideas for the show, email me at NEXTWAR@CIMSEC.ORG. If I know what I’m doing (which I don’t) it may be on Itunes soon.