Leadership Development: Learning from the U.S. Navy

The Navy is renewing its approach to leader development with an emphasis on both technical competence and strong character.

2017 was a bad year for the U.S. Navy. Two collisions between guided-missile destroyers and commercial ships in Asia-Pacific killed 17 sailors.

Subsequent inquiries revealed that increased operational pressure in the Pacific led commanders to rationalize declining standards in seamanship and operational safety.

If those disasters weren’t enough trauma for the Navy and many families, along came “Fat Leonard,” whose real name is Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian defense contractor. He pleaded guilty to bribing scores of Navy officials (some very high ranking) to feed him classified or inside information to be used in defrauding the Navy.

Unsurprisingly, the Navy is renewing its approach to leader development with an emphasis on both technical competence and strong character.

There are two main strands to the overall strategy:

The first strand is the opening of a College of Leadership and Ethics at the Naval War College, which will teach leadership courses throughout the year—a break from the past. Rear Admiral Jeff Harley, president of the Naval War College, has said, “One (issue) that has perhaps not been given the attention that is required, (and) we’re starting to understand that it’s required on a more continuous basis, is this idea of character competency.”

I find the above statement surprising. How and when did character start playing a secondary role in leader development in the Navy? Competence and character are both essential in a comprehensive approach to leadership. Competence without character is a potentially toxic recipe for achievement stained by moral failure. Character without competence is the stuff that well-intentioned dreamers are made of, but not effective leaders.

It is heartening to see the Navy attempt to restore a balance in its leadership equation.

The second strand of the Navy strategy is the creation of version 2.0 of the Navy Leader Development Framework. This Fleet-centered framework provides communities in the Navy with a consistent roadmap for developing leaders. Naval communities can make specific adaptations to the framework, but only if they are consistent with the overall intent and methodology.

Let me highlight some of the features of the framework that can be useful beyond the Navy:

  • Leadership is not isolated from team development. The framework is clear that world-class leaders embody an essential quality: “Top leaders inspire their teams to perform at or near their theoretical limits. By making their teams stronger, they relentlessly chase ‘best-ever’ performance. They study every text, try every method, seize every moment, and expend every effort to outfox their competition. They ceaselessly communicate, train, test, and challenge their teams. They are toughest on themselves; they routinely seek out feedback, and are ready to be shown their errors in the interest of learning and getting better. When they win, they are grateful, humble, and spent from their effort. By doing all these things, great leaders bring their teams to a deeply shared commitment to each other in the pursuit of victory.”
  • Leadership development is a journey. There are two lanes on the development paths for officers and enlisted sailors: Lane 1—Competence (“An incompetent leader is a recipe for disaster”) and Lane 2—Character (“Ability to always behave consistently with our core values of honor, courage, and commitment.”) I like the core value of honor, and I wish more corporate leadership programs would integrate it into their leader development paths and assessment systems—not just the word “honor,” but specific behaviors that can be demonstrated and measured; behaviors that come to define the organizational culture.

Each Lane has associated activities based on years of service—from Boot Camp to 27 to 30 years. For junior leaders, the beginning of the journey is focused on individual competence and personal character. At more senior levels, leaders are judged by their ability to “consistently and sustainably produce winning teams.” There is that emphasis on teams again.

Also laid out on the journey are methodologies for achieving the theoretical limits of performance—formal schools, on-the-job-training, and self-guided learning. Leadership development can never be just a training room activity.

  • Leaders find balance among tensions. There will always be tensions in leadership development, e.g., operational creativity versus procedural compliance, or a values-based approach versus adherence to policy. The Navy’s comprehensive approach to leadership recognizes the contributions of compliance, creativity, and values. As the framework states: “To reduce leadership to one or the other is to limit effectiveness and cede advantage to the enemy.” I sometimes feel corporations have become so obsessed with creativity that they have lost sight of the other leadership essentials.
  • Leaders leverage diversity to minimize blind spots. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson recently emphasized the role of diversity in helping to eliminate blind spots caused by unconscious biases. Every leader, he said, must ask, “Is this truly a diverse team and am I bringing all that diversity into my decision-making process, my solution-generation process…you will beat the competition because you will have fewer vulnerabilities in your plan.”
  • Leaders as advocates. The revised Naval framework takes the role of mentor to another level—from the personal commitment of a mentor to the public commitment of an advocate. Mentor/advocates must scan the environment for opportunities well matched to their protégés, including projects, jobs, and workshops. The mentor/advocate would not be passive; he or she would contact the decision-maker for that opportunity—phone call, e-mail, and/or conversation—and actively recommend their protégé. Each mentor’s group also should represent the diversity of talents and perspectives of the American people.

The world is a turbulent, dangerous, and complex place, and the Navy has a significant role to play in our well-being. Thankfully, competence and character are again being intertwined. Let me give the last word to Stephen Covey: “Trust is equal parts character and competence…You can look at any leadership failure, and it’s always a failure of one or the other.”

Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (http://www.tmaworld.com/training-solutions/), which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.”


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