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The State of the Warfighter Mentality in the SWO Community

By Lieutenant Judith Hee Rooney, USN

Introduction

As the United States shifts focus from the Global War on Terror to peer competitors, senior naval leaders have increased messaging to the fleet that focuses on preparing for war at sea. Considering this shift, I investigated the state of the warfighter mentality in the Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) community to gauge how the community felt about its own readiness as part of my program at the Naval Postgraduate School. Although the Navy gauges readiness in many ways, my goal was to go directly to the source by interviewing members of the SWO community – while avoiding the constraints and endemic fatigue so common in survey methodology. I used semi-structured interviews to identify attitudes, opinions, and trends related to the warfighter mentality across the ranks of O-2 to O-6. I conducted 23 interviews with volunteer subjects, each lasting one to three hours. Participants in this research study came from different commands and their tactical and operational experiences varied widely.

Given the current maritime stakes, understanding the fleet’s mental, tactical, and realistic state of readiness, and identifying the strengths and weaknesses in how we are preparing our warfighters is of utmost importance and was expressed passionately in every single interview conducted. Seven common themes about the warfighter mentality emerged from these interviews.

What Does the Term “Warfighter” Mean?

The survey participants shared a common framework and understanding of the characteristics of an ideal “warfighter.” Traits such as “tactical proficiency,” “sound and timely decision making,” “calm under pressure,” “physically and mentally fit,” “confident,” “competent,” and “leader” were all used to describe and define a good warfighter. However, my research suggests that the culture of the SWO community works against developing these characteristics more than it develops them. The approach to developing the warfighter mentality in the community was described as overly passive, with little to no direct or active efforts outside of entry-level indoctrination and training. As a result, rather than focusing on warfighter development, interviewees described how a “workaholic” mentality that was prioritized instead. Officers who are afraid to fail or make mistakes, micromanage, are erosively competitive, perpetuate the “zero-defect” mentality, and/or play wardroom politics were identified as the major hinderances to community warfighter development.

Another important indicator of the state of the warfighter mentality is the level of trust that SWOs have for one another. My research suggests that there is much more distrust and cynicism in the lower ranking officers than among senior officers. The majority of junior officers (O-2 to O-4) said that they, if given the option, would only follow about 5-10% of all the SWOs they knew into combat with no reservations. Several of them could only think of one or two officers total, who they would follow without reservation. Trust improved significantly with seniority, especially at the O-6 level, where the majority said that they would follow 60–90% of all the SWOs they knew.

On the other hand, the level of dedication SWOs have to their work was identified as a positive aspect of the community and seen to bolster warfighter development. As one SWO put it, “there is a lot of goodness on the waterfront.” SWOs are dedicated to their work and want to ensure that their ships and sailors succeed. Homing in, exploiting the best parts of the community, and shifting focus to operational readiness, as the system was intended, can create confident, competent, and able crews to deploy and achieve mission success in combat. “SWOs are driven, they are proven, they understand endurance, perseverance. They are multitaskers, they can prioritize. They are leaders.” One O-6 believed that “SWOs are the hardest on SWOs. We are very hard on ourselves. There are a lot of great people in the community. If we took the time to recognize the good work that we do, we’d be a lot better off.”

Difference in Perception of Fleet Ability

My research revealed a positive link between rank and optimism regarding the Navy’s readiness to fight and win a war at sea. Senior officers in the grades of O-5 and O-6 were more optimistic about the fleet’s readiness and had more confidence that their ships, shipmates, and selves would endure combat and be successful. Conversely, junior officers had little faith in the same. At the junior levels, most admitted to not seriously thinking about preparing for a kinetic fight. For example, they reasoned that “the surface fleet had not seen real combat in a very long time,” while others were more worried about the day-to-day functions of their jobs that were unrelated to preparing for the realities of combat. However, several officers displayed a conscious and active interest in developing their warfighter mentality, warrior toughness, capabilities, or edge, attributing it to be a product of an internal drive.

It is important to note that the strongest of these convictions came from SWOs who were originally interested in serving in a different community (particularly the Naval Special Warfare community), had seen or experienced life-threatening situations, or were O-5s. In general, however, SWOs do not believe that the fleet is ready for a kinetic fight at sea. Most believed that, in the event of kinetic action, it would be an occasion to rise to; with some stepping up and leading the charge, some needing leadership and direction, and some being rendered completely useless. “The exception [wouldn’t] be those who are extremely willing, able, and capable. The exception [would] be those who aren’t.” Much of this stemmed from the way SWOs feel they are preparing themselves and being prepared by “Big Navy.” One O-6 stated that “at the O-5/O-6 level, SWOs are working hard to ready their ships and crews for battle. However, we are working under a structure that is not supportive of the end goal.” Most interviewees did not believe they were trained for the realities of combat, whether in tactics, guile, versatile skills, or bloodshed. It should also be noted that very few SWOs have ever seen combat, and even fewer have seen combat at sea.

Every SWO interviewed experienced at least one mishap or near-mishap while serving on a ship; most of them being near-miss, close quarters situations due to negligence, complacency, training deficiencies, or confusion. While some SWOs expressed that they remained calm and controlled throughout their situations, others admitted to feeling flustered or panicked alongside their watch teams, some instances to include the CO or XO. Several officers also expressed that the pressure of performing sometimes led to putting the ship and crew in precarious situations, even when it was not mission critical or time sensitive.

Not All SWOs Are Created Equal

The professional development of SWOs seems to largely depend on a few random factors. A lack of mentorship was identified as one of the biggest challenges they face, as it seems to be dependent on being in the “right place” at the “right time.” Mentorship was also described to have to be individually sought out up and down the chain of command, suggesting that commands do little to foster mentor-mentee relationships.

Another major challenge identified was the varied standards of qualifications. According to interviewees, there is no real standardization when it comes to training or major qualifications, such as OOD, SWO, EOOW, or TAO. While the PQS system exists, the rigor and standards of qualifications are set at the command level, meaning that the quality of qualifications and professional development are fully dependent on the standards set by the ship’s CO. As a result, officers are developing differently across the fleet, sometimes even within the same wardrooms. Several interviewees expressed concern about “give me” qualifications awarded by their previous COs despite them not being proficient, capable, or knowledgeable enough to “sit the seat.” This approach to professional development helped to “degrad[e] warfighting because it makes being a SWO mean less.”

Lastly, onboard training and drills were seen to differ by experience and priorities. Some interviewees described trainings and drills to be taken seriously and felt that they were effective. However, the majority had contrary views on how their ships conducted trainings and drills, even if that meant sending ships on deployment ill prepared after cutting corners. In their experiences, training and drills were done more so to be able to say a requirement was met (e.g., “check in the box”) rather than to prepare crews for operational employment; some went as far as to describe them as “rehearsals” for inspections and assessments. Most training scenarios were described to be “unrealistic, poorly constructed, and a series of people going through the motions.” One officer believed that “people don’t take it seriously because they don’t truly think that something like this is going to happen.” Another stated that “it’s better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war, and right now, we are just a bunch of gardeners.”

When questioned why the fleet’s approach to training lacked focus, interviewees across the board believed that there were too many aspects of the job that took away or distracted from effective warfighter development. Administrative requirements, a “zero-defect” mentality, flaws in the maintenance system, unforgiving ship schedules, and deployment rotations were just a few examples. The combination of these distractions was seen to result in ships and crews deploying without the necessary skills to win in a kinetic fight. Many SWOs, including ship captains, expressed that ships are being sent out “administratively ready” but that deployments were the ideal time to conduct actual “effective and realistic training” as there is no pressure from outside entities or competing priorities. Conceptually, however, the ship and crew should already be at their peak capability prior to going on deployment.

SWOs across the board would like to see better and more effective training onboard ships at all stages of the training cycle. They recognized deficiencies the system and believed that improvements in training would make the biggest difference in proper system execution and warfighter mentality development. They believed that the structure of the cycle, the “crawl, walk, run” approach to surface warfare, had a lot of potential to be effective and made sense. However, the execution of this system was widely criticized. SWOs want to see changes to reflect and support realistic, relevant, and serious training met with a motivated and bought-in crew. Departing from the “check in the box” approach could be the most influential shift for warfighter development in the fleet

The Ethics of Readiness

Several officers shared that they, or others close to them, acted unethically in response to external pressures when reporting readiness levels. Even for major certifications like COMPTUEX, both assessors and participants alike described that certain parts of scenarios were sometimes modified to give ships the “green light to deploy.” Due to the overwhelming and compressed training cycle, constant turnover, and undermanned crews, ships are being forced to complete integral training and development at faster rates, making it difficult for SWOs to manage every program simultaneously successfully and effectively. Additionally, the “get it done attitude” was described to be detrimental because “it doesn’t seem like ‘Big Navy’ cares about how we get it done. They just want it done and a green spreadsheet…this leads to people cutting corners and presenting a false state of readiness to higher ups just to make them happy and to make themselves look like good leaders.”

Interviewees expressed a sense that there was very little room to fail without creating more pain and suffering for the crew; some ships were unable to send their sailors home before deploying for seven to nine months as a result from failure. Therefore, meeting requirements, keeping up with the ship’s operational tempo, and doing it all “in the green” were all sources of stress felt by SWOs, contributing to the “zero-defect” mentality, and, in some cases, unethical behavior.

SWOs Endure Extreme Stress About the Same Things

SWOs across ranks believe that their job-induced stress comes from the same things. Almost every interviewee expressed that they put an immense amount of pressure on themselves to succeed. As many SWOs are described to have “type-A” personalities, having control over their work is comforting. Throughout the interviews, officers often referred to “the grind never stops” mentality and the perpetuated “get it done” attitude. These mindsets have existed in the SWO community through decades of experience, budget cuts, optimization plans, support for landlocked wars, maintenance backlogs, etc. They feel that this pressure, in addition to the tight deployment work up schedule, creates “high stakes” for ship captains and their crews to complete evolutions, drills, assessments, and certifications without fail. Many SWOs feel like they are constantly “burning the candle at both ends.”

Fear of failure seems to contribute to the risk averse culture in the SWO community, which was highlighted as an aspect that degrades the community overall. SWOs expressed a fear of making mistakes as they believed it would negatively affect their career projection. Whether it was a junior officer with aspirations of commanding a warship, a department head close to retirement, or a ship captain eyeing major command or a star, they believe that one mistake or a single bad fitness report could derail their entire careers. According to the officers interviewed, this fear results in the timidity, hesitancy, and micromanagement seen across the community. Not only did they feel that their careers were on the line by their own actions, decisions, and judgments, but by those of their subordinates as well. This kind of pressure was seen to keep SWOs on edge, toxically competitive, and risk averse. While taking the slow, smooth, methodical, and careful approach to operations have kept most SWOs out of shallow waters, it has also left many wondering if they would be able to exercise the grit, toughness, and quick thinking required in times of extremis and threat.

Attraction to the SWO Community

The majority of SWOs interviewed did not originally want to be SWOs, although there were a few distinguishable factors about being a SWO most believed to be favorable. Because SWOs start their service obligation almost immediately, they “hit the fleet” faster than any other community. Unlike pilots, submariners, special warfare operators, and Marines, who go through lengthy training pipelines before entering the fleet, the SWO community traditionally sends their officers straight to ships to begin on-the-job training. Almost every interviewee liked the idea of getting to the fleet sooner. Whether they wanted to start repaying their service obligation right away, set the conditions to laterally transfer to a different community, or bypass lengthy and rigorous training commands, the notion of apprenticing in a job coupled with working with sailors was appreciated by all. Being given the opportunity to lead sailors sooner was particularly appealing and there was a significant theme of servant leadership across ranks. Specifically, a common motivation within the SWO community is to serve and work for the betterment of their subordinates, even when times are tough. This approach to leadership is extremely apparent at the junior officer level.

Mental Fitness is a Priority, Physical Fitness is Not

Physical fitness was seen to be one of the easiest things to ignore when other requirements emerged. Other aspects of the job were often seen to prioritize above physical health, although most officers interviewed believed it to be an integral aspect of warfighting. Not only does physical fitness give one the strength and stamina to run up and down ladder wells, drag shipmates to safety, hold one’s breath under water, fight fires, or stand a watch at General Quarters for hours on end, it also gives you mental clarity, a relief in stressful times, and an opportunity to push yourself past your comfort zone. Yet, outside of “PRT season” when the Navy conducts physical fitness assessments, physical fitness is not a priority for SWOs. One officer stated that “the state of the fleet in physical fitness shows how much we prioritize the warfare part of surface warfare.” However, some commands were described to have tried to prioritize physical fitness when they could. Those command were subsequently described to have had leadership who were physically fit themselves and who prioritized physical fitness on a personal level.

Conversely, mental fitness was seen to have made strides. The stigma associated with seeking help for mental health has lessened in recent years. With that, the message of taking care of yourself, along with the availability of programs and resources, have become more prevalent. Mental health was generally taken seriously at all levels of the chain of command. However, the attention on mental fitness was believed to be very reactionary. Interviewees believed that there was little to no emphasis put on preventative maintenance or proactively developing mental toughness, fitness, or health. Actively working on mental toughness and cognitive development was identified as another way to bolster the warfighter mentality.

Conclusion

My research indicated that the SWO community could benefit from putting more emphasis on actively developing the warfighter mentality among both junior and senior officers. In my thesis, I make several recommendations for how the community can do this. One of them is to publish doctrine that includes SWO warfighter behavioral and cognitive characteristics. Neither I, nor anyone I interviewed, could recall or locate official Navy doctrine, publication, or manual that explicitly describes the values and characteristics of a warfighter as it pertains to the SWO community, nor how to nurture and develop them.

It is important to standardize the vision for who the Navy wants the average SWO to be as far as leadership and warfighting. Publishing and disseminating the key warfighting tenants that the community values can help directing SWOs in the same direction and focusing commanders and wardrooms in cultivating the SWO warfighter as well as the warfighter mentality as the community intends. Another recommendation is to standardize the qualification process in the SWO community. This would ensure that each SWO is being trained and assessed by the same rigorous standards across the fleet at all levels. While on the job training is an integral part of experience and practical knowledge, the difference in the quality of training throughout the fleet was apparent, particularly when considering one’s duty stations, coasts, or countries.

The SWO community has historically been seen as a “catch all” community as it seemingly does not require great skill or aptitude to join the community. There does not seem to be as much prestige or allure in comparison to other communities. Those who fail out of other programs like flight school or nuclear school end up redesignating as SWOs, creating the perception of “those who can’t… become SWOs.” As much as the Navy has tried to revitalize the community’s reputation, it is not as desirable as other communities with higher standards. Creating a rigorous training pipeline to include shipboard watch station qualifications would not only help rehabilitate the community’s reputation, but it would also raise the baseline level of knowledge of the SWO community, delivering ready and capable officers who are ready to contribute to the team the moment they step on their ships.

The divide between the perception and the assessment of readiness amongst the different ranks of the SWO community is particularly interesting as they all serve in the same Navy, on the same ships, and, when the time comes, will inevitably go into battle together. The mentality of wanting to do good work, doing it right the first time, every time, and having high expectations speaks highly to the thoroughness and dedication of SWOs in general. These are qualities, if shaped and aimed in the right direction, can do more help than harm in the community. Focusing on operational development, quality training, and incorporating the “why” in everything that they do can bring SWOs that much closer to the fight and ultimately closer to triumphantly demonstrating naval superiority against any threat across the globe.

LT Judith Hee Rooney is a Human Resources officer currently serving as the Enlisted Programs Officer for Naval Talent Acquisitions Group New England. Previously, LT Rooney served as a SWO onboard USS KEARSARGE (LHD-3) as the Damage Control Division Officer and the Internal Communications Officer and onboard USS WINSTON S. CHURCHILL (DDG-81) as the Assistant Chief Engineer. She got her Master of Science in Manpower Systems Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School where she won the Surface Navy Association’s Award for Excellence in Surface Warfare Research for her thesis: The State of the Warfighter Mentality in the SWO Community.

Featured Image: The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn (DDG-113) arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii (USA), on 10 July 2017, in preparation for its commissioning ceremony. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Binary Submarine Culture? How the Loss of the USS Thresher Hastened the End of Diesel Submarine Culture

By Ryan C. Walker

During my short tenure as a submariner in the U.S. Navy, from 2014-2019, I observed the friendly rivalry between sailors who serve on SSN (fast-attack boats), SSGN (frequently shortened to GN boats), and SSBN (Trident boats). Fast-attack sailors like to brag about port calls and joke that sailors on the other vessels are part-time sailors due to the Gold/Blue crew system. For their part, Trident and GN sailors generally have a higher quality of life. They rarely hot-rack, have a more predictable schedule and have more space for crew morale. As much as fast-attack sailors envy these benefits, they know, even if they don’t want to admit, our Trident and GN brethren earn their pay. They do spend extended periods on patrol, have fewer opportunities for port calls, and their time at sea is monotonous. Despite the variations between these subcultures within the submarine fleet, the nuclear culture that stresses safety through rigorous engineering, procedural compliance, and training is still the common bedrock of identity on all platforms.

Previously, two separate cultures existed within the submarine fleet, diesel and nuclear. This article will discuss how the USS Thresher tragedy on April 10, 1963 hastened the end of the binary approach and eventually led to the single bedrock foundation that submarine culture now rests on. The United States Navy’s Submarine Safety (SUBSAFE) Program is written in the blood of the 129 souls who died on the USS Thresher and remain on eternal patrol. Diesel submarine culture, epitomized by the slogan “Diesel Boats Forever,” would be replaced by the cold, calculating, and rigorous nuclear culture design by Hyman G. Rickover. Current proposals to reintroduce diesel submarines in the Navy’s fleet focus on fiscal and operational factors, but the potential risks to its submarine culture should also be considered. This article will examine how the two communities previously interacted as diesel submariners were forced to take on the extra burden of supporting a new technology while that same technology was replacing them. It will further offer that this is not inevitable, but should reintroduction proposals ever gain currency, the conversation on submarine culture should be a major topic by political and military leaders.

Documenting the Tragedy

The Thresher has an enduring effect on the mentality of the present-day submarine force, forming the basis for many training sessions and case studies. Publications, many from the past decade, reflect the memory of the Thresher is well. Many of these have a general focus, examining how and why the Thresher was lost,1 and how the Thresher disaster can serve as case studies for public affairs, oceanography and naval professionals.2 However, the publications examining how the Thresher disaster inspired changes in submarine culture, shipbuilding design, and SUBSAFE are of particular interest.3 James Geurts’ article in USNI Proceedings discusses how the loss profoundly impacted naval officer’s training, arguing procedures to fully employ the capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines only accelerated in the aftermath, stating the “Navy was still locked into training officers for duty on diesel-electric boats, even though the boats quickly were becoming obsolete.”4 Synthesizing these articles and connecting their arguments shows that the end of the binary submarine culture was a positive change overall.

Rickover, Nuclear Power and SUBSAFE

It is generally accepted that Hyman G. Rickover was the architect of nuclear submarine culture and the driving force for the quicker transition to nuclear culture by promulgating the practices, procedures, mentality and culture of as the standard for all submariners. As Geurts would summarize:

“Despite these demonstrations of superiority, the Navy’s operational thinking carried over from diesel-electric boats to the nuclear submarines. The distinction… was not yet recognized or emphasized during submarine school training. This fundamental failure in thinking contributed to the Thresher disaster, after which the Navy finally met the new reality of nuclear-powered submarines with fresh operational thinking.”5

How the evolution occurred still requires research. A common misperception of the ship’s status at its loss was that it was conducting its first deep dive. Following its commissioning the Thresher had undergone extensive testing, befitting its status as the first of her class. Built in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, ME, the ship completed all its acceptance trials, shakedown availability, and even participated in some fleet exercises.

It came as a complete surprise to all involved when it was lost with all hands, the ship’s former medical officer Arthur L. Rehme shared his experience onboard and that he felt confident in the crew, even sharing the first time they reached a record depth the ship cheered.6 The loss was truly unexpected, it is a testament to contemporary submarines that they were willing to persevere despite the loss. Crew member Ira Goldman, who narrowly avoided death by attending a training school, continued to serve in the submarine fleet, retiring as a Master Chief.7 Rehme did not continue as a submariner, but decided if the men on the Thresher could give their lives in service of their country, he too could continue to serve.8 Their loss served as an inspiration for change, but also an iron determination for those who faced the same risks.

Almost immediately, a Court of Inquiry was organized to discern why the Thresher sank, which canvassed a wide variety of persons. Obvious candidates such as the recently relieved commanding officer (CO), Dean L. Axene and watch standers on the Skylark were involved, but so too were people with only a passing military, technical or familial background. The Court concluded that the Thresher was lost due to flooding casualty from piping in the Engine Room that shorted out vital electrical equipment, a decision that would have consequence for construction, maintenance, and repair of new submarines. This recommendation was influenced by Rickover, who insisted on being interviewed by the Court of Inquiry. Instead of defending the nuclear program, he displayed his shrewd ability to identify problems in a now famous quote:

“I believe the loss of the THRESHER should not be viewed solely as the result of failure of a specific braze, weld, system or component, but rather should be considered a consequence of the philosophy of design, construction and inspection, that has been permitted in our naval shipbuilding programs. I think it is important that we re-evaluate our present practices where, in the desire to make advancements, we may have forsaken the fundamentals of good engineering.”9

It was no accident that he had insisted to be a witness. According to his biographer, Francis Duncan, he thought the testimony “could be an opportunity to show how the technical standards that he had insisted upon should be applied to other work.”10 Rickover came with the intent to promulgate what would become SUBSAFE, offering an immediate solution in the form of nuclear culture.

The shift may have happened over time as nuclear-trained officers with no experience on diesel submarines became the norm. The influence of the Rickover-designed training program is still evident from the admirals he trained down to junior officers learning the principles for the first time. The expectations established for nuclear trained enlisted personnel would also be expected in the forward compartment, or “cone.” While there is still a strong divide between “nukes” and “coners,” both groups have the mindset of engineering indoctrinated through training and qualifications. The disaster itself acted as a catalyst for change, alongside the Scorpion, to implement Rickoverian philosophy in the submarine fleet.

SUBSAFE is among the crowning administrative and engineering achievements of the USN. It became such a successful quality assurance program that other organizations looked to it for inspiration on their own programs. In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, NASA was recommended to look “to two Navy submarine programs that have “strived for accident-free performance and have, by and large, achieved it – the Submarine Flooding Prevention and Recovery (SUBSAFE) and Naval Nuclear Propulsion (Naval Reactors) programs.”11 SUBSAFE is a body of practices that became a mindset and an essential building block of culture for the present submarine culture. It was no longer, as Geurts had stated succinctly, a diesel dominated fleet, but a nuclear fleet first and foremost, as reflected by Navy recruitment and informational topics by the period.12

The Origin of Diesel Boat Forever Culture: Diesels Boats Perform an Essential Transitional Duty

The delays in nuclear submarine construction and their lengthier overhaul periods, relative to diesel boats, would prove to have long-term consequences that are still present today. The immediate effect was to increase the costs and time periods construction and overhaul would consume. As a result, operational commitments often fell to diesel submarines as they took on the missions of the nuclear submarines stuck in overhaul. Even in the present day, overruns in cost and time are frequent and accounted for but are merited in the name of safety. Diesel boats would serve an important purpose during the early implementation of SUBSAFE in new construction, holding the line, but frequently forgotten in the public Cold War narrative of nuclear boats that seemed to get the attention as the future.

The Submarine Force Library and Museum archives carry the development of this culture epitomized by the Diesel Boat Forever (DBF) pin. The DBF pin was created by the crew of the USS Barbel, with an enlisted sailor Leon Figurido drawing it for a contest and adopted by the command, conflicting accounts offer 1967-1971 as the period they were made.13 The pin was explicitly designed as the answer to the Polaris Patrol Pin and inspired by the Submarine Combat Patrol Pin. Two bare chested mermaids clasping hands while laying over a submarine silhouette with the immortal acronym, “DBF” surrounded by holes for stars. According to Meagher, the former commanding officer (CO) who approved the project, John Renard, confirmed instead of receiving a star for each patrol, DBF pins would receive a star “each time a diesel boat you served on had to get underway for a broke-down nuke.”14 There was still a surprising amount of buy-in from diesel sailors in higher chains of command. The pin was unofficially condoned to the point that the CO of the Tigrone held a ceremony awarding RADM Oliver H. Perry jr., who had previously served on diesel boats.15 Smith in his interview with Adams also remarked other memorabilia, such as Red DBF Jackets were a part of the culture and sold out as soon as they were back from their deployment, reflecting an appeal for a new identity formed in the shadow of the new nuclear submarine culture.16

Unsurprisingly, this was greeted coolly by nuclear submariners. The animosity was shared, where Smith recalled fights that broke out “between the ‘nukes and the reds’ when they wore their jackets ashore.”17 This further indicates the budding nuclear culture was prideful enough to take offence at the “other” fleet. To fully illustrate the diesel culture of the submarine fleet, look no further than the 1996 film, Down Periscope. The film follows an unconventional Submarine Officer LCDR Dodge taking command of the decrepit diesel submarine, the USS Stingray. Manned by what can only be politely described as the dregs of the Navy, the Stingray crew embraces this mentality, performing unorthodox tactics and techniques throughout the film. The director elected to utilize a retired enginemen named Stanton, as the chief engineer. It is from him we hear the clear signaling of intent of the film when he yells at the climax of the film, “This is what I live for! DBF!”18

While never in doubt due to the subject of this film, the true intent of the film was illuminated in this moment. This pithy aphorism epitomizes the romanticized diesel sailor; a mythos that has not disappeared in the nuclear navy. The final, romanticized aspect of the film is fleshed out when Dodge rejects his promotion to command a new, nuclear powered Seawolf class submarine, opting instead to stay with the barely seaworthy, antiquated, hopelessly outmatched Stingray.19 In many respects, its origins lie in the hero worship of WWII submariners who did not need procedures and the high attention to safety paid in the modern Navy yet still brought the fight to the enemy and performed admirably. It is spoken in the same vein spoken by resentful sailors from the age of sail who viewed their younger generations in the age of steam as soft, jibing them comments such as “once the navy had wooden ships and men of iron; now it has iron ships and wooden men.”20 There is no doubt in anyone’s mind who has read the accounts from diesel sailors that it was an undoubtedly difficult life.21 Nuclear submarine crews are lucky by comparison, but submarine duty is rightfully still considered to be difficult in the present day.

For all intents and purposes, there were two distinct cultures within the submarine fleet, but principally from 1963-73, as diesel submarines were replaced. Throughout the 1970s Meagher recalled “scores of career electricians and engineman were forced to “surface” as there was no room for them on Rickover’s boats.”22 Smith agrees they knew that they were a “dying breed,” but also adds “we’re damn proud to be diesel boat sailors.”23 Eventually, the unofficial pin was banned, and midshipmen were kept from diesel boats from 1973 onward, with some rumors stating it was due to concerns midshipman were being indoctrinated into diesel culture.24 This was part of the transition to a nuclear dominant force as the tragedies of the Thresher and Scorpion helped accelerate it. Diesel submarines are an important part of submarine heritage that is talked about today. The last combat ready diesel submarines, Barbel, Blueback and Bonefish, were decommissioned between 1988-90, meaning the operational capacity of the submarine force has been exclusively nuclear for over thirty years and had been dominated by nuclear trained officers for decades before.25

Proposals to Adopt Diesel Boats in the Present Day

Thus, the expectations for all sailors, both in engineering and non-engineering realms, are dictated by the principles instilled in them by Rickover’s nuclear program. The USS Thresher disaster was the defining moment for both the submarine fleet and the U.S. Navy itself. It was decided in the immediate aftermath to pursue an ambitious program that would touch all aspects of submarine culture, in construction, maintenance, overhaul, training, and operations. It would make the trends set forth by Hyman G. Rickover the norm, not the exception. The Thresher disaster was the moment the US Navy reinvented itself to embrace the mentality to become the force it is today.

Despite the success of the nuclear force, discussions on adopting the diesel submarine have resurfaced. Proposals such as the award-winning essay written for USNI Proceedings by Ensigns Michael Walker and Austin Krusz are frequently published. “The U.S. Navy would do well to consider augmenting its current submarine force with quiet, inexpensive, and highly capable diesel-electric submarine.”26 The argument is based on the increasing capability of the diesel submarines, the high cost of maintaining nuclear submarines, and the merit of increased operational flexibility. These proposals have merit and are popular outside of naval professionals, the citations of Walker and Krusz reflect the wide scope of popular interest.27

A discussion not mentioned is a potential return to the binary culture separating diesel submarine crews and nuclear submarine crews. DBF culture formed as a resentful reaction to the nuclear submarine crews for simultaneously giving them a greater portion of work and threatening their role in the Cold War. SUBSAFE can be bedrock of identity for a potential diesel submarine culture in the USN, but the cultivation of such a culture must be carefully managed and planned. Diesel submariners require a different mindset, and it is likely they will create some of their own norms; the question must be asked: does the Navy want this outcome? Or does it value the ability of career submariners to move between platforms with similar cultures and mindsets without having to worry about what their previous hull had been?

Nor will there be any insight seen in foreign markets in terms of safety. There have been several high-profile diesel submarine disasters in recent years. The KRI Nanggala 402 in 2021, the ARA San Juan in 2017, and the PLAN Ming 361 in 2003 are among the most recent and well known. It would be a mistake to assume nuclear submarines in other nations are immune to this either. Conversely, no US submarines built using the rigorous requirements in SUBSAFE have been lost to any disaster. The safety record is impressive and is due to more than the processes and procedures, but the culture of the crews manning the boars. Submarine Officers, with the exception of the supply officer, are engineers first and the mindset instilled in them would be instilled in their crews and stands as the legacy of the Thresher disaster and SUBSAFE programs.

Ryan C. Walker served in the USN from 2014-2019, as an enlisted Fire Control Technician aboard the USS Springfield (SSN-761). Honorably discharged in December of 2019; he graduated Summa Cum Laude from Southern New Hampshire University with a BA in Military History. He is currently a MA Candidate at the University of Portsmouth, where he studies Naval History and hopes to pursue further studies after graduation. His current research focus is on early submarine culture (1900-1940), early development of Groton as a Naval-Capital Town, and British private men-of-war in the North Atlantic. He currently resides in lovely Groton, CT.

Endnotes

1. See: Norman Polmar, The death of the USS Thresher: The story behind history’s deadliest submarine disaster. (Guilford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); James B. Bryant “Declassify the Thresher Data,” Proceedings, Vol. 144, (July 2018). https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/july/declassify-thresher-data; Jim Bryant, “What Did the Thresher Disaster Court of Inquiry Find?” Proceedings, Vol. 147, (August 2021), https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2021/august/what-did-thresher-disaster-court-inquiry-find; Dan Rather, “The Legacy of the Thresher,” CBS Reports, Television Film Media digitized on YouTube, originally aired March 4, 1964. Accessed April 22, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aZ4udTMlZI

2. See: Robert J. Hurley “Bathymetric Data from the Search for USS” Thresher”.” The International Hydrographic Review (1964); Frank A. Andrews “Search Operations in the Thresher Area 1964 Section I.” Naval Engineers Journal 77, no. 4 (1965): 549-561; Joseph William Stierman jr., “Public relations aspects of a major disaster: a case study of the loss of USS Thresher.” MA Dissertation, Boston University, 1964.

3. See: James R. Geurts, “Reflections on the Loss of the Thresher,” Proceedings, Vol. 146, (October 2020), https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/october/reflections-loss-thresher; Michael Jabaley, “The Pillars of Submarine Safety,” Proceedings, Vol. 140, (June 2014), https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014/june/pillars-submarine-safety; Joseph F. Yurso, “Unraveling the Thresher’s Story,” Proceedings, Vol. 143, (October 2017), https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017/october/unraveling-threshers-story

4. James R. Geurts, “Reflections on the Loss of the Thresher,” Proceedings, Vol. 146, (October 2020), https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/october/reflections-loss-thresher

5. Geurts, “Reflections,” Proceedings

6. Arthur L. Rehme Collection, (AFC/2001/001/37677), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, accessed April 24, 2022. https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.37677

7. Jennifer McDermott, “50 years later, Thresher veteran still grieves loss of shipmates at sea,” The Day, Waterford, April 5, 2013, 12:52PM, https://www.theday.com/article/20130405/NWS09/304059935

8. Arthur L. Rehme Collection, (AFC/2001/001/37677), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, accessed April, 24 2022. https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.37677

9. Francis Duncan. Rickover: The struggle for excellence. (Lexington: Plunkett Lake Press, 2001). 85

10. Francis Duncan, Rickover, 81

11. Malina Brown. “Navy group to observe NASA’s return-to-flight activity: COLUMBIA ACCIDENT REPORT CITES SUB PROGRAMS AS MODEL FOR NASA.” Inside the Navy 16, no. 35 (2003): 12-13. Accessed December 8, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24830339.12-13

12. Periscope Films, “1965 U.S. NAVY NUCLEAR SUBMARINE RECRUITING FILM ‘ADVENTURE IN INNER SPACE’ 82444.” Accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdgIqhf6FOY; Periscope Films, “U.S. NAVY NUCLEAR SUBMARINES MISSIONS, CHARACTERISTICS AND BACKGROUND 74802,” Accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9ftfhiUMzY

13. Cindy Adams. “Barracks COB favors fossil fuels: ‘Diesel boats are forever,” The Day, November 14, 1980, Newspaper Clipping, Submarine Force Library and Museum, Submarine Archives, Uniforms & Insignia Collection; Stu Taylor, “The following story is about the origin of the DIESEL BOATS FOREVER emblem.” Submarine Force Library and Museum, Submarine Archives, Uniforms & Insignia Collection; Patrick Meagher. “THE DBF PIN.” Accessed May 22, 2022, http://www.submarinesailor.com/history/dbfpin/dbfpin.asp

14. Patrick Meagher. “THE DBF PIN.” Accessed May 22, 2022, http://www.submarinesailor.com/history/dbfpin/dbfpin.asp

15. Meagher, “DBF PIN,” Website

16. Cindy Adams. “Barracks COB favors fossil fuels: ‘Diesel boats are forever,” The Day, November 14, 1980, Newspaper Clipping, Submarine Force Library and Museum, Submarine Archives, Uniforms & Insignia Collection

17. Adams, “Barracks COB,” Newspaper Clipping.

18. Down Periscope, Directed by David S. Ward, (20th Century Fox, 1996), 1:19:00.

19. Down Periscope, 1:24:00 to 1:26:00

20. Baynham, H. W. F. “A SEAMAN IN HMS LEANDER, 1863–66.” The Mariner’s Mirror 51, no. 4 (1965), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00253359.1965.10657847?journalCode=rmir20, 343

21. Mark K. Roberts, SUB: an oral history of US Navy submarines. (New York: Berkley Caliber, 2007); Paul Stillwell. Submarine Stories: Recollections from the Diesel Boats. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013); Claude C. Conner, Nothing Friendly in the Vicinity: My Patrols on the submarine USS Guardfish during WWII. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999).

22. Meagher, “DBF PIN,” Website

23. Adams, “Barracks COB,” Newspaper Clipping.

24. Meagher, “DBF PIN,” Website

25. Honorable mention to the Darter and the Dolphin, both used for auxiliary purposes as well, decommissioned in 1990 and 2007 respectively.

26. Ensigns Walker & Krusz. “There’s a Case for Diesels.” Proceedings, Vol 144, (June 2018). Accessed August 25, 2021. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/june/theres-case-diesels

27. See: James Holmes, Doug Bandow, and Robert E. Kelly, “One Way the U.S. Navy Could Take on China: Diesel Submarines,” The National Interest, 17 March 2017; Jonathan O’Callaghan, “Death of the Nuclear Submarine? Huge Diesel-Electric Vessel Could Replace Other Subs Thanks to Its Stealth and Efficiency,” Daily Mail Online, 4 November 2014; Sebastien Roblin, James Holmes, Doug Bandow, and Robert E. Kelly, “Did Sweden Make America’s Nuclear Submarines Obsolete?” The National Interest, 30 December 2016; Vego Milan, “The Right Submarine for Lurking in the Littorals,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 137, no. 6, June 2010, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2010-06/right-submarine-lurking-littorals.

Featured Image: Port bow aerial view of USS Thresher, taken while the submarine was underway on 30 April 1961. (Photographed by J.L. Snell. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

Ethics & The Military Profession – A Conversation with Nate Finney and Ty Mayfield

By Christopher Nelson

This past fall, I had the chance to talk with editors Nate Finney and Ty Mayfield about their book, Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics.Image result for Redefining modern military

From the publisher’s description: Redefining the Modern Military expands upon and refines the ideas on the role of ethics and the profession in the 21st Century. The authors delve into whether Samuel Huntington and Morris Janowitz still ring true in the 21st century; whether training and continuing education play a role in defining a profession; and if there is a universal code of ethics required for the military as a profession.”

We talk about their book, social media and the profession, and later we dive into a conversation about Colonel “Ned Stark” (who recently was revealed to be Col. Jason Lamb) and why they think it’s bad for the military profession to write under a pseudonym.

Nelson: Thanks for joining me guys. How did the book idea come about and why this book now?

Mayfield: The book started as a conversation on social media with Dr. Pauline Shanks-Kaurin who was prepping for an ethics class when she was teaching at Pacific Lutheran University. She was just asking questions on Twitter about the profession, what it means, and who might be in the military profession.

That went around on Twitter. I was engaged in that initial conversation. Nate and I talked and the idea for something more came up so we talked with the rest of the editorial team and decided to run a series at The Strategy Bridge, trying to answer those questions. What is the profession? What is our profession and ethics, and the role of both of those things in our institutions?

We published almost 20 articles on the topic and they were all really well-received. Then, we circled back from that and began to have a conversation about if there was enough for a book and whether or not we could take this to the next step. We contacted about a dozen of the authors, ended up with 10 of them, and then picked up two more to write on very focused topics just to round out the book. They went back and expended those initial journal articles to chapter-length pieces.

Then we pitched the book and got picked up by U.S. Naval Institute Press. Here we are three years later looking at the publication of the book. This has been really interesting to see something go from a conversation on social media, to a web-based professional journal, to a hardcopy book. I think that’s the story that is really interesting about this book.

Nelson: That’s great.

Finney: I think it shows a very deliberate attempt by The Strategy Bridge to go through different mediums. We pulled a lot of our articles from social media, conversations we have on Twitter and Facebook, and people that are talking about something that’s interesting. Whether it’s us as individuals or editors at The Strategy Bridge, we’ll hit them up and say, “Hey, that would make a great article. Send it along.” That stuff happens all of the time.

The example of turning it into a series instead of a single article, and then deciding to turn it into a book, is a model that the Strategy Bridge may do from time to time as topics that are of interest to the profession continue to bubble up in conversation.

Nelson: Alright, well let’s get right into it then. An Air Force officer and an Army officer edited a book. What is your take on each of your respective services and what concerns do you have about the profession? What’s good, what’s bad? Particularly, for Ty, I know the Air Force Officer, Colonel “Ned Stark,” writing some pieces for War on the Rocks, grabbed attention with his concerns about the USAF.

Mayfield: I think the Air Force is a unique service as compared to the others. I think a big part of the profession is cultural identity, who you are as an institution. The Air Force, being the newest of those departments, I think we struggle with culture and identity a lot. There are times that you want to be very much different than the other services and focus on our specific domains, but then there is a pullback to a core professional identity that unites all of the services. I think there’s a real cultural identity conflict for the Air Force. How to be different enough to maintain your own identity, yet keep a finger on that touchstone as military professionals.

I’d like to talk about Ned Stark, later on. I think it’s a separate question altogether.

I’ll let Nate speak to the Army. The Army has done a lot of work in developing their own ethic and their professional identity, but what they have done in that process is develop an Army ethic and an Army profession. That, in some ways, I think walls them off from the other services, and it misses the larger professional identity that I think all the services should try and sort out.

The Air Force has followed that lead and it has established its own Profession of Arms Center of Excellence, which is now taking roadshow trips out to different bases and talking about the profession. It’s not theoretical, it’s more applied leadership; which is good and important, but it’s different than what the Army has done with its Center for the Army Profession and Leadership program up to this point. I think that’s a good segue back to Nate.

Nelson: Before we jump to Nate, really quick, what would you recommend to your service chief or other seniors in the Air Force? What needs to change or what would you suggest, as far the identity of your particular service? What would you do to improve the identity of the Air Force?

Mayfield: I think part of the recommendation here would actually be to model the approach off of what the Army has done, which is not, obviously, going to be something that’s particularly well-received; but I think the Army did it well. I think Dr. Don Snider’s book, The Future of the Army Profession, was the groundwork for the Army ethic and for this Army professional identity. It was the theoretical piece. It’s a big book, it’s really dense, it’s hard to approach; but the scholarship is there that laid the groundwork for the Army’s successful development and, for lack of a better word, the doctrinization of their ethic. I think that’s important and that’s probably what needs to be done in the Air Force, at some level.

Nelson: Nate, over to you. Army good and bad?

Finney: First, I’ll say I think the Army’s furthest along when it comes to developing their perspective on the profession and trying to figure out where they fit. The previous works that we use a foundation for Redefining the Modern Military are Janowitz and Huntington, in particular. They were, essentially, writing about soldiers coming out of the Korean War and World War II, but particularly the Korean War. Of course, they’re applicable to all the services, but really it was a focus on the soldiers in the Army coming out of those wars, and what it meant for land power, and its citizen soldiers.

As Ty was mentioning, Don Snider’s work of the 2000s was chartered by General Martin Dempsey (who also was kind enough to write the forward of our book) when he was the Training and Doctrine (TRADOC) commander, and then the Chief of Staff of the Army, and then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs–all in pretty quick succession. As Ty mentioned, his focus was on the Army and he used Don Snider’s work and others to really push the profession, but also the Army ethic. He tried to convert that into a joint profession campaign on the profession and ethic when he became the Chairman. I don’t know how much it took hold. I think General Dempsey’s white paper on the profession, when he was the Chairman, is a good model for trying to have that conversation from a joint force perspective.

When it comes to the Army as a service – and what we can do better – I don’t honestly have a good answer. I think we largely get it right; we’ll never get it perfect. General Caslen, who retired out of West Point as the superintendent, really focused on character as a part of the profession and what types of characteristics our soldiers need to have to be professionals to embody that ethic.

I think from induction in West Point, then PME throughout a career, the Army does it pretty well, if a bit dry. I think General Milley and others have focused on “re-greening” the Army on what it’s like to fight large formations in a conventional conflict. Yes, there’s a tactical/technical piece to that, but I also think there’s a professional piece. Whether it’s trying to balance what we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan with where we need to go in the future and what that means for soldiers as professionals. It’s not perfect, nothing’s perfect, but I think the Army does it pretty well.

Nelson: I didn’t read Huntington until, I don’t know, maybe around the fourteen-year mark in the Navy.  Do you think expectations are too high on the first ten years of your life in the service? You’re just trying to get the basics down and you don’t even know what the profession is or what it means, so do you think our expectations are too high for younger officers to have them really truly understand? They’re maybe not even committed to the profession. They haven’t even decided to say, “I’m in this for the profession.” What are your thoughts on this?

Mayfield: I think that’s a great question and that’s exactly why we wrote this book. When you pick up Huntington at your 14-year mark, that shouldn’t be the first time you’ve thought about the profession. I was at the Army War College last year, and I’m presented with Don Snider’s book, The Future of the Army Profession at the 19th year of my career, and I’m thinking “it’s too late to start this conversation; it’s too late to start thinking about this.” But at the same time, to your point, lieutenants, company grade officers, I don’t think they have enough exposure to the profession yet, and the development to really touch those documents; Don Snider’s work, or Huntington, or Janowitz, or any of that with any meaning or connection.

That’s what we tried to do with this book, with Redefining the Modern Military, is provide something to start with, a starting point that then preps you for that conversation to pick up Huntington, preps you to pick up Don Snider’s book. So that, when you get it in your 19th year, it’s not the first time you’ve thought about your role as a professional.

We used a multi-disciplinary approach in this book, so we have officers from all the branches of the service, we have academics, we have historians, we have people who are in civil service now, we have lawyers, we have former military officers who are now civilians.

I think there’s a focus on it being company-grade officers or senior company-grade officers or junior field-grade officers. I think that’s a really important niche because those are officers who are approaching this 14-year mark we’re talking about. They’re right at this transition and I think that’s where Don Snider would argue you become a professional.

You can be a member of the profession without being a professional. I think that’s the transition you’re trying to get to. This is the point that the question you’re asking, and Don Snider uses a term, “stewards of the profession” to define this. There’s a change in your approach to service and a change in your relationship with your institution.

I think for most of us, that probably happens at the command level. When you take command, be that in the Army, as the company-grade officer, as a captain company command; or in the Air Force, if your first command opportunity as an O-4 or an O-5, that’s a pivotal moment where you have to start looking back into your organization through a command lens that focuses your institution’s requirements and your institution’s desires and future.

The term, “company man,” it’s a bureaucratic term. It refers to a bureaucracy. These two things are in tension, and this is something that Dr. Snider talks a lot about. That tension between the bureaucracy and the profession. One is focused on effects, the other is focused on efficiencies. There’s a whole list of things that are in tension between these two institutions, and I think that’s why he uses the word, “steward”, and not “company man.” He uses the word, “steward” because stewards are people who do the care and feeding of the profession and that’s our role at this level as field grade officers. We have to become stewards of our professions to make sure that we teach our subordinates and those that come after us what’s important, because if we don’t teach them what’s important and why, it will evolve over time and people will lose focus.

It’s a long answer to your question, but I think that’s why we wrote this book; so that we have a stepping stone, so we’re not at the fourteen-year mark and just throwing Huntington at you and saying, “good luck.”

Also, to get to your question about when do you become a professional, it happens differently for all of us. I don’t think we always recognize it in the moment, but then, reflectively, we can see when our outlook changed. My second time in command here, I’m seeing that even more and I’m thinking more about that, about the future of my subordinates and their impact on the service. People want to leave their mark on the unit, but if you want to leave your mark on a service, on an institution, then it’s really through mentorship and development; you have to understand that your subordinates have much more longevity than you do.

Finney: Ty alluded to the fact that a profession is not an institution, it’s the people in the institution. As you get that transition into being a steward of the profession versus focused on the technical/tactical aspects as a junior-grade officer, you should probably not hand out Huntington and say, “hey guys, you need to learn this.” Instead, mid-grade and senior leaders should probably more embody the profession for their subordinates and embody those characteristics you want to see in professionals.

I look back, and sure I didn’t read Huntington as a lieutenant, but I could look back on my battalion commander, my battalion S3, the majors in my battalion, in the interactions they had with me and the way that they treated other people, were daily inculcating that profession in myself and my fellow junior officers.

While, intellectually, you’re not beating them over the head with the foundations of the profession, I think, at least in my experience, we certainly are focused on developing those professionals from the first moment they come in.

In my opinion, unfortunately, the way it’s built into PME, both leadership and the profession piece of it, it is almost like a lobotomy. It’s just, “here read these slides,” or “read the section, we’re not really going to talk about it,” so half the folks read it, half don’t. I think it’s less that we don’t do it, and instead that we do it poorly.

Nelson: I want to jump on social media because we started this conversation with the fact that your book was hatched on Twitter. And you’re both on social media quite frequently. How’s the profession doing on social media in the civ-mil sphere? Do either of you think we have an issue with service members being partisan when it’s clear that they identify themselves as military members in their profile?

Finney: I think the social media tools certainly put us in a place where it could become dangerous if we don’t self-regulate, but the beauty of being apart of a profession are professionals, like you, reaching out to people you know saying, “Hey, Jack that’s not something you should be saying in public. You want to have that conversation one-on-one over coffee or beers, that’s fine, but don’t put it on social media.” I certainly have seen the same thing. Honestly, I saw it more when I was on Facebook than I did on Twitter, and that might be the transitory nature of Twitter.

I think what it comes down to, is that it has to be about self-regulation. It’s peers, or if required superiors, coming in and saying, “Okay, you’re not supposed to be talking like that. Here’s why.” Have a good conversation about the profession. The other piece is, and I’m seeing more and more of this on Twitter these days, are senior leaders using social media in a positive way in order to help bolster the profession and provide an example. 

Nelson: Are you worried if Twitter is trending in a bad way?

Finney: I don’t…at all. I personally think, in particular, I see a lot of great stuff coming from the Army. General Patrick Donahue, Ty knows and interacts with quite frequently, General Mick Ryan from Australia, senior leaders who are using it for more than just a PAO push where they’re just pushing their agenda. They are interacting with other human beings. They are shaping what people are reading or thinking about through what they’re posting, as well as interacting with people across the board from cadets all the way up. In order to have those professional discussions, even if it isn’t “here’s Huntington,” they’re getting to “let’s have a conversation as professionals.” That’s essentially what’s happening and what we need on social media.

Nelson: I guess what I’m alluding to is the retired admirals and generals. For example, retired admirals writing opinion pieces on political topics–like the McRaven op-ed that was published last year. There are two completely different thoughts on this. Some admirals and generals remain quiet, and urge others to do the same–some, obviously, do not. What are your thoughts?

Mayfield: Let me dip back into the social media question, and then I’ll circle and address the McRaven piece. I tend to agree with Nate on the social media piece. I think senior leaders in the military are late to the game on social media, and I think a lot of it is because they don’t understand it.

There’s always been an effort to manage the narrative of our senior leaders. That’s why they impose restrictions on their public affairs officers–who they also don’t understand or trust–and spokesmen, everything. They get talking points, everything is very scripted, and when you put a hand-held, you put a phone in a four star’s hand, and he’s got an hour to burn at the airport that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I think it can be done well, but I think the access, immediacy, and unconstrained environment made our senior leaders uncomfortable to do it.

Social media is social, you can’t just push the thing you want, it won’t get picked up. That’s not how it works, it has to be interaction. Twitter, in particular, I think is a really good tool for those quick interactions that can fall into the realm of mentoring, and you can build relationships that last long term. I think that’s the thing General Mick Ryan out of Australia does really well, General Patrick Donahue does this really well too.

Those short interactions over time, and this falls into what Ray Kimball, one of the chapters in our book, talks about and that’s mentoring. That mentoring does not have to be done within your chain of command. Your rater may not be the right mentor for you. I think social media gives junior officers an opportunity to engage with an officer of their choice, who they want to be a mentor. It has to be a mutually agreed upon relationship.

I count General Ryan and I count General Donahue both as mentors at this point in time. I’ve had enough interactions with them. We haven’t always agreed and that’s okay. That’s the other thing we have to get to in social media, you have to figure out how to do that. How to disagree publicly with each other, with subordinates, with superiors. There’s that fine line in the profession.

To the point about the politics, I’ll just leave it at this, I think the profession must be self-policing. It’s got to be self-correcting, otherwise what you’re going to get is congressionally-mandated reporting requirements or congressionally-mandated direction on what you can and cannot do. Those limitations are an infringement on your autonomy as a professional. If you’re not self-policing, someone else will police you. That’s where we have a role to address our peers when we see this stuff. Some of them are not reconcilable, and I’m a little bit worried about that, frankly, as a professional.

We come into the service with our own ethics, and our own morals, and our own values, and we have to put all those aside. We have to assume the ethics and the morals and the values of our service, and one of those is we are an apolitical institution. There’s tension there. People have deeply-held political beliefs and we can all agree on that, but the service doesn’t. That’s the core the profession.

The McRaven piece, I didn’t read it. I just stay away from the op-ed stuff. I don’t find it of much utility and I say that getting ready to write an article, maybe an op-ed, so I recognize the tension in my own statement. To be fair, I’ve been getting ready to write this op-ed for six months because I just don’t want to do it. I’m trying to find a better way to approach the problem than meeting him on his own terms.

Nelson: What’s the op-ed on?

Mayfield: I want to talk about Ned Stark. I want to talk about why I think Ned Stark is wrong, frankly. He might have good ideas, but I think the idea is not correct. It’s not a good pitch.

I didn’t read the McRaven piece, so I’ll have to defer to Nate to answer on that, but I’m looking forward to talking about Ned Stark because I just wrote it on my white board before we sat down.

Nelson: Excellent, okay.

Finney: Let me re-attack the Admiral McRaven stuff, and then we’ll go straight to Ned Stark. I’ll let you have that one completely, Ty. Other than having read it and then you and I having some conversations over Twitter, I have no bone in that fight, so I’ll leave that to you. The McRaven retired general officer piece…

Nelson: This is not a new phenomenon, right?

Finney: No, absolutely not in any way, shape, or form. The “revolt of the admirals” and all that stuff, even earlier than that. Senior leaders who put out op-eds, for the most part, including, in my opinion, McRaven, very much weighed what they were going to say and whether they were going to say anything or whether it was going to be of a benefit to their profession and to the people that they were standing up for, versus the detriment of a retired officer playing into politics.

Whether you agree with it or not, he didn’t do it in order to harm the profession. He did it to enhance the profession and try and uphold a norm. I think that is generally the case; some obviously being more political than others. There is nothing against those in our profession, particularly those who have retired, standing up for things that they believe in the public press.

The issue is the knock-on effects to the profession and, in particular, the civ-mil relationships going forward from somebody standing up and doing something like that. I think the professionals weighing into these types of conversations weigh that very heavily, and have decided that it makes more sense for them to speak out than not; and that whatever detrimental effects will come from it, will be minor compared to whatever benefits they think that they receive.

Finney: Let’s talk about Ned Stark.

Nelson: So for background, “Ned Stark” is a pseudonym for a senior USAF Colonel (who was revealed to be Col. Jason Lamb). War on the Rocks granted him a (rare) pseudonym out of concern that his writing might endanger his professional career. He has written numerous pieces for War on the Rocks outlining issues with the Air Force. He got the attention of the Chief of the Air Force, who asked “Ned” to come work for him. So, Ty, what’s wrong with Ned Stark and his approach?

Mayfield: I read Stark’s initial piece in the Air Force Times, begrudgingly, after I see everybody talking about it. I read it, and I think what frustrates me with Ned Stark is that he doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know as a profession.

It was the approach and the use of a pseudonym that really frustrates me because even if I agree with Ned Stark, I don’t know who he is and I don’t know how to help him change the service. His focus is on positional leadership, not relational leadership. There’s no way to have a relationship with Ned Stark. I can’t help him achieve what it is that he wants to get done, which, frankly, are things I want to get done, too.

There’s a level of hypocrisy in his use of a pseudonym that really touched a nerve with me. His own self-identification as one of these high performing officers who gets pushed along whether they’re ready or not because they have access to general officers and they have the right things in their records, and whether or not they’re ready for leadership or not, these guys are pulled through the system. He’s railing against this, stating “that’s not the way the Air Force should go,” but he’s one of them.

Frankly, I don’t understand what career risks a colonel in the United States Air Force faces. He’s a colonel, in the Air Force, it’s right at one percent of the total force, so what are we protecting Ned Stark from? What is Ned Stark protecting himself from? He’s asking the same process which built him, which he’s railing against, to continue to protect him, and I, frankly, I can’t get behind that. I was disappointed in him. Disappointed it got published, disappointed that it drew so much attention.

Nelson: What if it’s just, frankly, brilliant that his pseudonym generates this amazing amount of intrigue? In the cacophony of voices, of the many people writing about their concerns and issues with their military service, it’s this unknown colonel who breaks through to touch a nerve?

Mayfield: Here’s the question, and this was something that when I was having this conversation on Twitter, Rich Brennan actually brought up. This is his tweet, “The point isn’t the validity of the argument, but the strength of character. If the problem’s so severe, then, as a senior officer, you should be willing to stand up for what you believe in. Put something at risk to accomplish the change you want to see.”

I have a hard time buying the brilliant intrigue approach. Now, he’s got General Goldfein’s attention, so maybe your argument is that it worked. I read General Goldfein’s piece on War on the Rocks and it’s like, “Ned, I’d love to have you on my team,” and that makes me want to bang my head on a desk because Ned is already on the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s team, he’s in the Air Force. How is he not already on the team? We can’t look Ned up in the global email address book, and start working his orders because Ned Stark is a fabrication and he’s not helping anyone.

There’s the whole piece about him essentially benefiting from the hypocrisy by being offered a job by the Chief. It doesn’t support guys, like you, who write under your own name, other Air Force officers who are focused on bettering the profession slowly but surely, versus moaning on War on the Rocks under a pseudonym. That’s not helping anyone. It’s not responsible, it’s not authentic, and it’s not professional.

Finney: It’s the incentives. You’re going to incentivize your soldiers in an adverse manner. It’s going to take away from their character, not build up their character in the profession.

Nelson: He apparently passed on the opportunity to work for the Chief of the Air Force. But do you think he would have even gotten that offer he hadn’t written the op-ed, or if he didn’t use a pseudonym?

Finney: I think it’s more on the hypocrisy of “senior leaders need to stand up and change their service for the better, but I’m going to use a pseudonym because I don’t want to stand up and do the same thing.”

Then, the arrogance of choosing Ned Stark, like “I’m sacrificing myself for the good of the service.” No, you’re not. You’re using a pseudonym.

Nelson: This is a good discussion. I think it’s a fascinating conversation.

Mayfield: I think there’s a lot of tension here. I don’t think that Ned’s Stark’s peers know who Ned Stark is. Ned Stark is setting himself apart from his peers in a way that’s going to be really hard to reconcile under his true name.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this and I’ll acknowledge that I’m on one side of this issue. I went through the same thing when I started running my own blog. I asked this question, “Do I write under a pseudonym, or do I write in my true name?” and I went to my mentors and my professors, I talked to my peers, and I decided to do it in true name which put a lot of checks on me.

To Nate’s point about the use of pseudonyms. We don’t allow the use of pseudonyms on the Strategy Bridge anymore and that was an editorial decision. We also don’t write op-eds, we don’t publish op-eds, so we get those and we send them to other outlets. We don’t publish op-eds, that’s just our position, because what we want is a fact-based, cited, academically-approached argument that removes emotion and the personal positions.

Nelson: Where were you going to publish your rebuttal to the Ned Stark’s piece? I’m sure there’s some emotion behind it, you’re very passionate about your opinion on Ned Stark.

Mayfield:  What I want to do is address it through the lens of a conversation about our profession, and about the status of it, and about us being self-policing, and it being a goal of lifelong learning and mentorship and leadership; and it’s hard to do those things from behind a curtain. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I just think there’s a better approach to it.

We started this conversation by talking about the status of our profession. I don’t think Ned Stark is advancing our profession.

Nelson: Let’s transition to the personal a little bit. I know Nate’s a father. Ty, I don’t know if you have kids or not. But neither of you shut off when you go home – the profession comes home with you. What are things, Nate, as you’re a father, character things that you instill in your children that the profession’s shaped you; and vice versa? How does your profession affect your personal life? And how does your personal life affect the profession?

Finney: That’s a good question, it’s interesting. I don’t know if the profession has affected my personal approach to life, the way that I live my life, and the way that I raise my kids, but I assume it has.

I think a better way to look at it, maybe, is by my children’s choices. My 15-year-old daughter chose to join the sea cadets program here in Hawaii. She’s always been a great kid, very smart, very respectful. She’s always wanted to be in the military; to be like her dad and be in the military. When she joined sea cadets, I could see that transformation as she started putting on the uniform, as she started understanding what being in sea cadets and being in the Navy was like. Her respect for others increased, her responsibility to get up and get things done and to focus on school work for sea cadets, and even outside of sea cadets, just getting her school work done, everything. All of that increased as she was a part of sea cadets. Part of that is her getting older, but I think part of that is being a part an organization, a team, a group of people who has certain standards, has certain expectations, and having to live up to those.

I think most of those things were there in our household. My dad was in the Navy. Got out right before I was born, but he carried that through his life. My kids have seen me go into work on Saturdays or late at night, and taking the approach that, “Hey, that’s what I do. That’s my job, that’s what I need to go do.” Deployments, same thing. This understanding of what the profession is, what living up to standards and expectations and being a part of a team is – I think all of those things come home from work. I certainly take aspects of my home life into work. Respect for others. All these things I would like to see in my daughters, I try and model those. Whether I’m good at it or not. Ty, you have any thoughts on that?

Mayfield: Yes, I think it’s an interesting question. I don’t have kids, so I have a different outlook on that; but I think what this question raises, for me, is the separation of personally-held values and beliefs from those of the institution.

We are the sum of our experiences. I grew up in a military family. I’m sure that influenced my own decisions, absolutely it did; but that’s the challenge that we face as military professionals is putting aside how we, Nate’s example, how he raises his kids. People that are under your supervision or under your leadership are not your children, they’re members of the same institution that you are.

We all agree that we want our kids to grow up and live long and full lives, but as members of the profession that’s not the outcome that we’re responsible to pursue. Sometimes, personal sacrifice is required to achieve mission accomplishment–and that’s not just us as professionals, but the potential requirement to sacrifice others who we lead as well. This is the concept of unlimited liability–it’s unique to our profession. In the end, effectiveness, mission accomplishment is what we’re charged with and that could very well come at the cost of people’s lives. It’s one of those unique aspects of our institution, and that’s a professional challenge. To acknowledge those things that you hold dear and believe, personally and to be willing to set them aside to advance the cause of your profession.

Think about Nate’s daughter’s change in behavior when putting on a uniform. The uniform is that exterior example. We act differently in civilian clothes than we do in our uniform. It changes how you walk across the parking lot. It changes how you interact with people. You can’t deny that it changes people. I’ve spent a good part of my professional career as a field-grade officer, actually, in civilian clothes, in a suit and tie; and it changes how people approach you, interact with you. Believe me, it changes things. That was a real shock for me.

I should have said our manifestation of our values and our ethic and how we approach people as professionals, so I think that’s a really important point to make. It’s a difficult transition, it’s a difficult thing to do; and the further along you go, the more you have to be very clear about what your personal desires are, what the requirements are because there are larger implications.

Nelson: Lastly, I’ll turn over to you guys for any last thoughts or words you want to say to close out our discussion.

Finney: Just to get back to the book, Ty mentioned we had many different perspectives from the team that wrote Redefining. Authors included lawyers, uniformed practitioners, folks from other countries like Sweden, Australia, the UK. The beauty of the book project was, at least for me, working with that diverse group of people and trying to weave all of those threads throughout the book. It just showed how some of the more important aspects of the profession are not just across the services, but it’s also across the national security realm.

While everybody views the profession differently, maybe it’s manifested differently in the different services in different militaries, those threads are all there. They were captured well by Huntington, Janowitz, and others, and I think as we move into the 21st Century and we’re trying to see if there’s a different character of war, and if the way we conduct conflict in the future is going to be different, does that mean our profession needs to change as well?

Nelson: Ty, closing thoughts?

Mayfield: First of all, I appreciate your time and the opportunity to discuss the profession and to talk a little bit about the book. I think it’s an important time, and this goes back to your very first question about why this book is important and why now. History tells us that the profession goes through cycles. We have a prolonged conflict, we have a peace pause, this period of reflection, introspection, and then we redevelop and redefine ourselves, and then we go forward again. It’s cyclical.

Huntington and Janowitz wrote at the end of the Korean War catastrophe. That set the stage going into Vietnam, and then we have the all-volunteer force that comes out of that. The all-volunteer force has now been at war for two decades without respite, and I think that the time is now for this introspection, this reflection to occur.

Dr. Snider’s book came out early 2000s, the ideas are foundationally sound, but the officers which are now practicing these ideas in the profession and this idea of an ethic have changed. We’ve come to the table with a new generation of officers and a new generation of enlisted personnel, all volunteers, which I think is unprecedented and extremely important; and I think the time is now for us to begin to redefine as we move into the role as stewards and leaders of our profession, to set the groundwork for what we want the profession to be going forward. That’s the answer to your question about why this book and why now.

We hope to see this book out there at ROTC programs, at commissioning programs, at company-grade officer education, and in the civilian community as well because it’s essential to our role as well as our constituents, to all those Americans represented by the Constitution. I am really excited about the book, but really I’m excited about the conversation; and I’m looking forward to the points of agreement, but most importantly, I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation. I think that’s the essential role, that’s the thing we have to do. We have to start the conversation or somebody will start it for us.

Nelson: Thanks guys, great talking with you. All the best.

Nathan K. Finney is an officer in the U.S. Army with a focus on planning and strategy. He is also a founder of three non-profits – The Strategy Bridge, the Military Writers Guild, and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum – and has been a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Non-Resident Fellow of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. Nathan is a doctoral student in history at Duke University and holds masters degrees in Public Administration from Harvard University and the University of Kansas, as well as a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. You can find Nathan on Twitter @nkfinney.

Tyrell O. Mayfield is an officer in the U.S. Air Force and a co-founder and board member of the non-profit The Strategy Bridge. Ty has published photography and written work in a number of online forums, magazines, newspapers, and peer-reviewed journals. Ty is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the U.S. Army War College and holds masters degrees in International Relations, National Security Studies, and Strategic Art. Ty is currently writing a memoir about his time in Kabul. You can find Ty on twitter @tyrellmayfield.

Christopher Nelson is an intelligence officer stationed at the Office of Naval Intelligence in Suitland, MD. He is a graduate of the US Naval War College and the Navy’s Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. He is also a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Joint-service honor guard members representing all five military services stand in front of the audience before the outdoor portion of the POW/MIA ceremony Sept. 16 at the Air Force Armament Museum. The ceremony paid tribute to those military members who have yet to return home from defending America. The event was hosted by the 46th Test Wing and featured guest speakers, honor guard procedures and a flyover by the 53rd Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

I Held an Amazon “Flipped” Meeting At My Squadron and Here’s What Happened

By Jared Wilhelm

The Innovation Imperative

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson frequently talks about High Velocity Learning (HVL) and Innovation. You can tell his focus on this topic is working thanks to one clear litmus test: eye rolls and mocking from some of the Fleet’s junior officers. The CNO has spread the gospel so well on this topic that is has become a buzzword throughout wardrooms and squadrons around the world, and now “Innovation” has achieved just enough notoriety to be misunderstood.

The eye-rollers are often resistant to change, cling to the status quo, and most importantly have an ahistorical perception of innovation within the naval service. What they don’t quite comprehend is that innovation is nothing new. Commander BJ Armstrong enumerated the proof of our rich innovation history in consecutive years at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, first in 2013 with his lecture on Admiral William Sims that led to the book 21st Century Sims, and then followed by a look at Marine Corps’ forward-thinking embrace of the helicopter in the post-WWII era

We have innovated before, and we will innovate again. But the CNO makes the case that the quadrupling of worldwide maritime traffic in the last several decades, combined with the free and fast flow of technology and information, creates an innovation and learning imperative like we have never seen. Our maritime superiority, our relevance, and potentially even our Sailors’ survival all depend on it.

Just Do It

It can be a daunting task for an operational leader to lead innovation efforts in the context of the worldwide rise of near-peer adversaries and vague direction from the Pentagon to learn, rapidly iterate, and embrace risk.  Where can you even start?

Using the old mantra, “Think Globally but Act Locally,” I decided to tackle something that everyone in our squadron, officer and enlisted alike, always unite to grumble about: meetings. You know them–they pepper the plan of the week like the last pieces of candy in a box of chocolate that no one wants to eat; they draw scowls of dread when you see another two, three, or four in your future. They all start the same with a PowerPoint slide deck, introductions, rules of engagement for the presentation itself, proposed courses of action, “quad slides,” and graphs with labels so small you have no idea what is going on. 

tailhook-ppt
Figure 1: An actual PowerPoint slide from a Bureau of Naval Personnel briefing at Tailhook 2016 that a Captain attempted to explain to the crowd.

Several months ago I heard about a best practice from the civilian industry that caught my attention: the “flipped meeting” utilized at Amazon by billionaire innovator Jeff Bezos. Could the Amazon model work at a Naval Aviation squadron? Would the time continuum explode if officers filed in to the wardroom and didn’t see a standardized PowerPoint screen projected on the wall? I walked to OPS, asked for a meeting to be put on the schedule, and decided to find out.

I used the Navy’s HVL model based on Dr. Steve Spear’s “High Velocity Edge” framework to approach the flipped meeting:

1. Define the problem: Too many meetings in our squadron are dependent on low-learning-level presentations, and almost all exclusively use Power Point.

2. Postulate a solution – and what you think its effects will be: There are countless solutions in other organizations and the corporate world on how to increase learning and co-working levels in meetings. One specific solution is the Amazon flipped meeting, which I guessed would increase learning levels at my squadron.

3. Try out a solution: We did!

4. Do a gap analysis between what you saw happen and what you thought would happen.

5. Update your approach/solution and run it again.

One Specific Solution: The Origins and Upsides of a Bezos “Study Hall”

Fortune Magazine revealed the secrets of an Amazon executive team meeting in their 2012 profile of Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of the tech and retail giant.  Reporter Adam Lashinsky explains:

Before any discussion begins, members of the team—including Bezos—consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes….  They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading…. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

So instead of building PowerPoint slides and sweating font consistency, proper margins, bullet styles or punctuation uses, those privileged to brief Bezos focus on the ideas and content themselves. The genius of it is in the simplicity: the purpose of the meeting is to work together on the ideas or content, and the “flipped” meeting allows the ideas or content to be the focus, not the slide deck.

Blogger Walter Chen also identifies a second order effect of these type of meetings, one that Bezos surely intended: 

The real magic happens before the meeting ever starts.  It happens when the author is writing the memo. What makes this management trick work is how the medium of the written word forces the author of the memo to really think through what he or she wants to present.  In having to write it all down, authors are forced to think out tough questions and formulate clear, persuasive replies, reasoning through the structure and logic in the process.

Bezos calls the memos “narratives,” and in his opinion they have many advantages over PowerPoint, as he told Charlie Rose in 2012

The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a PowerPoint presentation, some type of slide show. In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience. And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo.

Some other advantages include:

1. Silence is golden. How many times have you presented an issue, only to see several egos in the audience try to take over or derail the brief based on their own interests? Everyone reads the narrative in silence and the discussion comes after in the Bezos “Study Hall” model. 

2. No read-ahead required. Bezos believes “the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention.” Several times in my career, I have wondered if the person I was briefing had time to review the read-ahead, or if they were getting the message I was trying to convey during the PowerPoint. In a flipped meeting, the audience has no choice but to read the narrative (unless they want to daydream).

3. Eliminating premature questions saves everyone time. “If you have a traditional PowerPoint presentation, executives interrupt,” says Bezos.  “If you read the whole six page memo, on page two you have a question. By page four that question is answered.” 

4. Ideas and content trump presentation polish. Sometimes, the best ideas come from those who are nervous or just-plain-bad public speakers. Other times, polished presenters with million-dollar-smiles can sell bad or incomplete concepts because they can manipulate the audience into what they want to hear. With the Amazon narrative, the content speaks for itself.

5. The meeting leader is a coworker, not lecturer. The concept of a “flipped classroom” revolutionized education, and Bezos is trying to do the same for the business world. Normally a presenter lectures the audience. An Amazon lecturer is no longer verbally “pushing” communication to the audience; instead the content is “pushed” through the narrative, and then readers can “pull” knowledge from the presenter with informed questions. This creates high rates of learning compared to the traditional model.

It seems that a flipped meeting is effective based on Amazon’s stock price and global reach. But could such a meeting work outside the confines of Silicon Valley boardrooms? Would a bunch of flight-suit wearing naval aircrew be receptive to something so far from the norm?

That Awkward Silence

My unsuspecting teammates filtered in and took seats at the conference table. I hadn’t posted “Amazon-Style Flipped Meeting” on the flight schedule because I thought it might create some sort of bias or discourage full attendance. I simply listed the topic: “Squadron Innovation Culture Workshop.” This subject especially lent itself to a flipped meeting because it was difficult to summarize our squadron’s innovation culture in a deck of PowerPoint slides. 

The junior officers filled the dead space before the kick off with the usual banter and jokes. I noticed several check the clock and glance toward the powered-down and blank presentation screen as I passed out copies of the six-page narrative I’d spent the previous week perfecting. It was apparent that several were wondering why there was no laptop connected and no PowerPoint. 

The top of the hour arrived and people started leafing through the document. We were still missing two important players who I knew had planned on attending.  I decided to give them the usual five-minute grace period in a normal day filled with other tasks and meetings. One finally arrived, so I ventured out to the office of the last straggler, one of my fellow department heads. I told him we were about to start, but he was justifiably delayed in the midst of “putting out a fire” with an urgent travel issue requiring his attention. “I’ll be there in a few!”  I knew he probably thought he could catch up with the PowerPoint when he walked in. “We can wait a couple minutes more for you before we start off…” I offered.  “No, go ahead.  I’ll be down there soon.”

I returned to the assembled group and quickly explained the flipped meeting, the “study hall” reading and the 20 minutes of silence. Everyone nodded in agreement and began. The most awkward part for me was the wait. In this context, 20 minutes felt like an eternity. I already knew the narrative well as the organizer and author. I read through it again while I scanned the faces of my coworkers as they made notes or flipped pages. I found a couple of punctuation errors that I had missed. And then I waited.

The most interesting thing was the late arrival of the last participant 10 minutes into the study hall. He was a bit confused to walk into a room of us all sitting there silently with no PowerPoint in sight. He then tried to catch up on reading the narrative. In the future to help all attendees get the highest rates of learning, I think it would be best to notify everyone in advance it will be a flipped meeting and that study hall will start on time.

Next, I facilitated the discussion. At first people were hesitant to express their opinions, but after a few questions by some of the other forward-leaning members of our squadron, we were well on our way to a 40-minute co-working session. By the tail of the hour the discussion was going strong and we could have continued for another thirty minutes. We decided on a collective course of action to take on the meeting’s topic and agreed on another future meeting.

“PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid.” -Gen. James N. Mattis, USMC, 2010

The backlash against PowerPoint is well documented.  This repository of articles compiled by Small Wars Journal counts more than twenty leading media or blog examinations of the detrimental effects of its use. Many leaders like the now-retired General Mattis either loathe it or outright ban it; others see it as a necessary evil.

Reporter Elisabeth Bumiller’s piece about the U.S. military’s use of the program in the New York Times in 2010, titled “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint,” seems to foreshadow the rise of Bezos’ corporate use of the flipped meeting: 

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.

The most compelling defenses I’ve heard for military innovation do not involve completely new ideas or inventions. Instead they focus on finding creative best practices in sometimes-unexpected places that could be applied to military problems. Maybe “flipped meetings” won’t catch on to replace old methods completely, but they could become one tool for leaders to use when an occasional respite is needed from the groundhog-day-monotony of PowerPoint briefings.

I would encourage other leaders to challenge the status quo in your unit’s meetings. These resources by Fred Zimmerman and Walter Chen can guide you to figure out how to best write your own flipped meeting narrative.

There are myriad other ways to shake up a meeting, like using the “design thinking” approach or an organizational retreat made famous in Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The solution you use will depend heavily on the topic and purpose of the meeting. For example, it is difficult and counterproductive to attempt to give chart-centric “course rules” brief using thousands of written words when visual aids are most appropriate. Even if your first instinct is to use PowerPoint because of the visual nature of the topic, there are several alternative programs like Prezi or Haiku Deck that could bring extra engagement to your audience. The most important concept to remember is that PowerPoint is just a tool, not something good or bad. We need to focus as leaders on using whatever the appropriate tool is for the specific job, not simply revert to the familiar tool just because it is habitual or easy.

Gap Analysis

So how did my flipped meeting experiment match up to what I thought would happen when I postulated the solution? I think it was worthwhile and I’m looking forward to doing it again. I wasn’t laughed out of the squadron or told by my bosses to go back to exclusively PowerPoint meetings. I saw the light in several of my coworkers’ eyes (despite some initial uncertainty) as they scribbled on parts of the narrative and debated sections they had pulled from it. We had an in-depth discussion about our innovation culture that could have been brought about with a PowerPoint brief instead of the “study hall,” but the discussion would have been less nuanced and with less time to collaborate. Usually presentations are designed for 45 minutes with 15 minutes of questions and discussion at the end. We invested 20 minutes up front during the flipped meeting to silently immerse in the topic, leaving us more than double the discussion and co-working time.

The flipped meeting can’t be considered a complete success, though, until we are achieving high learning rates from our gatherings on a consistent basis, no matter what tool is used to get there. If I started a conversation or sparked an idea in the wardroom, it was worth it. 

Every meeting I’ve gone to since, I enter the room and look at the briefer, the table and the wall. One of these days there will be no PowerPoint and a stack of six-page narratives waiting for me to pick up. Here’s to “study hall!”

Jared Wilhelm is a U.S. Navy officer and Maritime Patrol Instructor Pilot with experience in four operational theaters flying the P-3C Orion. He is a passionate writer focused on innovation and meaningful reform, all to help maintain the U.S. military’s superiority over adversaries in the short and long term. He served in Argentina as an Olmsted Scholar from 2014-2016 and won the U.S. Naval Institute’s 2015 General Prize Essay Contest. He is a Department of Defense Spanish linguist who holds masters degrees from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School (Systems Engineering and Analysis) and the U.S. Naval War College (National Security and Strategic Studies), as well as a B.S. in Systems Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the official position of any other entity or organization.

Featured Image:  U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jackie Hart.