By: CDR Rich LeBron
Military organizations are hierarchical. On a U.S. Navy ship, for example, there’s a Captain, an Executive Officer, Officers, Chief Petty Officers, and junior enlisted crew. Other services and shore establishments possess a similar structure. It’s not too difficult to know who’s in charge of what. There’s an organizational chart and it’s a matter of law, tradition, and regulation, and for the most part, it works.
Our traditional top-down organization is battle tested and has delivered success in high-stress, pressurized environments. But elsewhere and under less stressful conditions, it’s a structure where juniors can progressively turn into toadies, colleagues occasionally engage in competitive struggles to ‘impress the boss,’ and dissent is either actively or tacitly deterred. To say it another way, it’s a stifling environment. In this vertically stratified setting the boss can find isolation behind the closed door of authority and good ideas can be transmuted, crushed, or simply dismissed on their way to the top as spirits and morale are driven into the ground. It’s the way it’s been, the way it is, and likely, the way it will always be. Or will it?
Not if we have anything to do with it!
Who are ‘WE’ you ask? ‘WE’ are the ones not necessarily found in any organizational chart. ‘WE’ are the free-thinkers, the trailblazers, the innovators, the influencers, and the mavericks who recognize the real damper to creative problem solving is what management guru Gary Hamel calls the “soggy, cold blanket of centralized authority.”
‘WE’ is anyone who wants to shake off the flawed perception that the military – the Navy in this case – is what it is and we just have to live with it rather than change it, improve it, and make our mark upon it. But how do we go about making that mark? What is, as social scientist Gregory Bateson put it, the difference that makes the difference?
Open doors. The difference is the open doors that open minds and say “hey, look to me and consider me trustworthy and approachable.”
In a top-down organization, power, as often does information, flows from the top down. In the Navy, it flows from the Admiral, the Commodore, the Captain, the Chief, the boss. It’s a sensible structure in many instances, but it’s also one that fast moving civilian companies have long recognized alienates employees from policy decisions, strips them of any power to rise up against bad ideas or egocentric seniors, and erodes employee confidence in leaders and managers. In other words, it’s a perfect environment for those who like their doors metaphorically or literally closed and prefer to rule by decree. But closed doors do stem from and lead to closed minds and that’s not good for the Navy.
Before going any further, one thing must be made clear: our Navy needs a well-defined hierarchy. It’s effective. It makes the transition from decision to action swift and, and although not the perfect choice for every situation, there’s definitely a place for vertical stratification, particularly in an operational context. But we do so much more than operate. We ideate, we innovate, we develop, we produce, we think, we teach, we listen, we learn, and we lead. These are the things that lead to sound decisions and they clamor for the access to leaders that comes from open doors and open minds.
The Navy is an enterprise continually exploring new horizons to keep a globally competitive edge. It’s one reason we attract some amazing talent. But sticking to a strictly vertical hierarchy and repeatedly slamming the door on eager minds will do little to encourage young talent to stay. To attract, inspire, and KEEP much needed talent, we need to flatten our organizations and build teams of upbeat, innovative, and passionate people who are confident in their leaders and are bent on making a difference and making their mark.
Open doors enable our incredibly talented workforce to speak up and adapt and transform our organizations at the speed of thought. But open doors also lead to an informed and engaged team who will challenge the status quo, who will resent spin, who will go outside normal channels in pursuit of results, who will test authority and stretch boundaries, who will take risks, who will follow their passions, and, dare it be said, who will dissent. That can be frightening to some. But it can also be incredibly rewarding and liberating when bounded by a framework of mutual trust between leaders and their teammates. Open doors therefore demand courageous thick-skinned leaders with suppressed egos and high confidence in their teams, leaders who are willing to accept new ideas at perhaps the cost of their own.
In this context, open doors are disruptive to the traditional power base of ‘bosses’ in a vertically stratified organization like the Navy. Without a closed door to hide behind, positional power loses steam and the ability to rely on titles and rank to achieve success is challenged. That’s a threat to the status quo. Open doors will lead to open minds but will also require mature leadership skills to guide those minds to deliver positive results. The only time a door should remain closed is to afford the leader some precious time to think and do only the things the leader can do. Otherwise it should remain wide open. Leaders who open their doors and flatten their organizations will have to rely on their ability to influence teammates through credibility, engagement, and trust rather than through the power of their office. That’s a far more challenging proposition than simply ruling by decree.
But really, what’s the point? What does it matter if our Navy is vertically stratified or horizontally structured? What does it matter if our doors are open or closed, or if our talent stays or leaves? Why care?
The answer is fairly simple, really.
It matters because the Navy needs to stay ahead of potential adversaries and, like any industry or company, it risks losing its competitive advantage through stagnation. It matters because we, as a Nation, need to stay ahead of those in hot pursuit and because being knowledgeable is no longer enough; we need to be creative. It matters because a team cannot be commanded to be creative; it must be inspired to be so and inspiration doesn’t come from atop an ivory tower or from behind a closed door. And it matters because talented, inspired, and creative people must be attracted and retained.
Our continued viability, relevance, and success as a Navy depend more than ever on the talent and engagement of our junior people in shaping our future. Incredibly capable junior Sailors and Officers faithfully serve. That talent will remain engaged so long as leaders are not indifferent to what they have to offer. They will walk if the converse is true. Leaders who open their doors and minds to the ideas and solutions that bubble from the bottom up will find success. Those who insist on closing their doors or opening them just enough only to push their own ideas from the top down are doomed either to fail personally or bleed our Navy of talent and thereby lead it to failure. Those are unacceptable outcomes.
Closed doors will work well to insulate stone-hearted, spirit deflating and fearful leaders from change just as open doors will meet with resistance from those too entrenched in the past, too arrogant to try, or too afraid to trust. That’s a sorry excuse for leadership and a great excuse for Sailors to jump ship.
However, leaders committed to success, devoted to the future, and dedicated to maintaining and increasing competitive advantage will find that open doors will lead to the frontiers of open minds and open minds will result in a culture of unremitting success and talent retention.
The choice then is simple: fear change, close the door – and LOSE – or be one of ‘WE’, open the door to open minds – and WIN. ‘WE’ believe in open doors and ‘WE’ challenge all in positions of leadership in the Navy to open the door and replace the soggy, cold blanket of centralized authority with the mantle of inspired and inspiring leadership to empower their teams to creatively solve problems, stay Navy, and win.
CDR LeBron serves as the Commanding Officer of USS BENFOLD (DDG 65), is a founding teammate, mentor, and ardent champion of The Athena Project, and has been dedicated to blowing the doors off the hinges of vertically stratified thinking since he enlisted as a Sailor in 1989.
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