By: CDR Richard Lebron
“Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn’t have the power to say yes.
– Eleanor Roosevelt
When I took command of USS BENFOLD in the middle of our deployment I simply asked my wardroom to THINK BIG; to be bold, be curious, and THINK outside the box. I challenged them to do more than simply do their jobs. I asked them to get excited and if not put a ding in the universe a la Steve Jobs, then at least strive to send ripples of excellence throughout the Fleet, the San Diego community, and the Nation. A tall order for sure. But, like the good officers they are, they accepted my challenge and said “YES” to me.
I recognized early in my command experience that my challenge to the wardroom to THINK BIG implied a commitment from me to allow us to get as good at launching ideas as we are at launching missiles. My challenge here was to create an environment where ideas were brought forth, explored and articulated, and where motion would not be mistaken for action. I wanted to provide that. I needed to foster an environment where “YES” was a far more fruitful answer than “NO.”
As BENFOLD’s Captain, my role is to ensure this warship is functionally aligned, cross-functionally connected, effectively and efficiently resourced, and focused on meeting all operational requirements, while setting an example across the fleet for innovation, performance, and quality of service.
It’s also my job to do all I can to inspire junior officers to lead and manage and, yes, THINK BIG. That’s not always easy. It’s not easy because our institutional inertia has a tendency to try and shape their thinking for them. It’s not easy because in a hierarchical organization, there is a tendency for those at the top to expend much effort in defining the experience of those at the bottom and perhaps even stifle the free exploration of the intellectual landscape. And it’s not easy because in a hierarchy like the Navy, saying “NO” is often so much easier than saying “YES.”
It didn’t take long for one of my Lieutenants, Dave Nobles, to accept my challenge to THINK BIG. This young officer is quite a whipper-snapper. Like me, he’s an MBA plagued with incurable optimism. More importantly, he’s contagious. Together with some other equally hip Junior Officers he pitched an idea to me that led to the launching of The Athena Project.
I couldn’t be more pleased with the results to date. The ideas stemming from the minds of our young thinkers have sparked heated debates, have inspired changing the way we maintain our readiness and self-assess our capabilities, have been picked up by institutions of higher learning and are being prototyped into working products, have sparked new ideas, have brought young officers from across the San Diego waterfront to train each other and teach each other the skills necessary to succeed in the Navy over the long term, and have given participants a sense of purpose that transcends the daily grind.
Never in over two decades of service have I been part of a more permissive environment where junior officers can explore their ideas beyond mere rumination. What makes this experience different for me is the success we’ve seen in converting motion into action as well as the sustained and expanding interest of not just Junior Officers but of Enlisted Sailors as well. What I’ve seen on BENFOLD is a cadre of innovative thinkers who have gained the confidence and courage to not take ‘NO’ for an answer and who feel empowered to leverage their own interests, talents, and experiences to fulfill the noble purpose of making their ship, their Navy, their community, and their Nation better. Team BENFOLD is a team of “YES” men and women who WANT to do better.
Frankly, I wish I could say it was my own genius that resulted in The Athena Project. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take credit for actively expanding the minds of young thinkers and doers? But the reality is that if there was a stroke of genius from me in the genesis of this grassroots movement of disruptive thinking, it was simply saying “YES” to new ideas when I could have just as easily said “NO.”
I likewise, invite the entire San Diego waterfront to say “YES” to The Athena Project and encourage broad participation. Use this forum and the spectacular venues to pitch ideas, take in ideas, refine ideas, or connect with like-minded thinkers to put good ideas into action. Say “YES!”
I’ll see you there!