Athena Far East 3.0 Roundup

By CDR Michele Day


On April 21st, a motivated group of FDNF sailors met at the world renowned Submarine Sanctuary to collaborate and make positive change in the Navy. Due to time constraints, we were limited to 3 inspired pitches, so keep your calendars open in August for ATHENA 4.0, as it stands to be a blowout event!

Our emcee gave a quick history of ATHENA and reviewed the pitch rules before pulling the first presenter’s name from the Innovation Lantern. This Lantern has presided over ATHENA events back to San Diego’s Waterfront ATHENA 2.0!

The afternoon was electrified with innovative ideas and the desire to make the Navy better! So, without further ado, here is the roundup of the concepts presented.

LT Jason Highley – Li-Fi, the key to shipboard secure, wireless, computing

**Athena FE 3.0 Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage**

The Navy is in a fight for talent – young sailors joint the Navy expecting the latest and greatest in technology as they are all Digital Natives. They exist in the digital world, and unfortunately the Navy is behind the times when it comes to mobile computing onboard ships – for both work and quality of life. LT Highly immediately capturing our attention by setting up a small metal box next to a Wi-Fi speaker. The room filled with the sounds of music as he demonstrated how a cell phone can connect via Wi-Fi. He then put the speaker in the metal box to demonstrate the OPSEC concerns associated with shipboard Wi-Fi. Our curiosity piqued, he explained the answer to this problem is “Li-Fi”. By transmitting over light, everyone in the box can hear can hear, but not outside the box. Li-Fi is a bidirectional, high-speed and fully networked wireless communication technology similar to Wi-Fi that debuted at the 2011 Consumer Electronic Show. Li-Fi would enable sailors to access complete libraries of technical manuals and drawings from anywhere on the ship, both SIPR and NIPR Li-Fi systems could be securely set-up in the shipboard environment. This innovative application of a technology that is readily accessible is why Jason won the Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage.

LT Greg Hahn – LED Rack Lights with USB charging ports

Navy LT Greg Hahn, an ATHENA Far East veteran, started the event off by invigorating the crowd with his concept to save the Navy money while improving Sailor Quality of Life. His concept is simple, yet has numerous advantages. Greg deftly explained how Light Emitting Diodes work, the amount of energy it takes to operate an LED, and the relative cost of installing and maintaining LED lighting. Retrofitting a standard Navy rack light with an LED strip, 3 way switch controller, and USB charger would have an initial cost upfront, but the time saved in bulb replacement and the associated shipboard storage and HAZMAT disposal costs would quickly be recovered. Greg took his pitch to the next level as he described how our current fluorescent lights flick on and off at a 60 Hz cycle, which actually fatigues the human eye. LED lights on the other hand do not “flicker” and therefore are easier on the human eye. Another advantage of LEDs as a light source is the pump wavelength is such that it does not contain UVA, UVB or UVC wavelengths that are harmful. Lastly, the LED rack lamp upgrade would contribute to the Navy’s work towards Circadian Rhythm watchstanding as it would provide the ability to employ red lights during sleeping hours.

Petty Officer Jacob Brimhall – Peer to Peer Education

Petty Officer Brimhall stirred the crowed by asking the question – How many times have you heard your command say money for getting Sailors to school is waning every year? As all of the heads in the room emphatically nodded up and down, he went on to ask if anyone was familiar with the Principle of Dynamic Discovery and how it can apply to Education. Silence ensued. He described that Dynamic Discovery, or Dynamic Learning is focused on relevant topics and it is active and agile to keep up with the speed of information. The ability to save money on expensive schools, with historically low pass rates, while training more sailors than the school has throughput is a Win-Win! The crowd, unable to contain their curiosity cried out “HOW?” Peer to Peer Education takes the team mentality to information sharing, by training a handful of smart, motivated sailors and having them train the fleet through face-to-face interactions and online forums.


While the Far East team spins up Athena FE 4.0, they’re going ahead and hosting the first ever Athena onboard a deployed Air Craft Carrier on June 14th!

Plans for ATHENA Far East 4.0 coming soon… so stay tuned!



Athena: A Plankowner’s Perspective

By: CDR Michele Day


“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.”

— Edward de Bono

This month, theATHENAproject is continuing its growth around the globe. On January 15th at the Yokosuka Naval Base Galley, Athena Far East is kicking off their inaugural event. I am especially excited to see the ideas presented at ATHENA Far East – I’ll tell you why in just a bit.

Athena Far East is this Friday!

Athena Far East is this Friday!

We all know that innovation is fundamentally the process of inventing, introducing, and adopting a new product, practice, system, or behavior. The ability to innovate is impacted by a myriad of factors, some of which are controllable while others are non-controllable. Some people work in an environment that suppresses change or devalues employees who are young and inexperienced. Some people fear failure, think they are not creative enough, or are afraid of speaking publicly.

I’ve been a part of ATHENA since its inception and what an amazing journey it has been. When provided the opportunity to use their VOICE, Sailors are an unstoppable force. An interesting trend I saw in San Diego: The ideas pitched by Sailors were often tied to their parent command’s life cycle. For instance, Sailors who recently returned from deployment expressed ideas more tactical in nature, while those in the shipyard generally had ideas on improving maintenance, and those in the training cycle were focused on streamlining admin and qualifications.

A little throwback picture: The first ever pitch, when Athena was still unfortuntely named WikiWardroom.

A little throwback picture: The first ever pitch, when Athena was still unfortuntely named WikiWardroom.

As I read through the Roundups from ATHENA events I see the same spread of idea generation. This is why I am so excited about ATHENA Far East! Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) units are primarily operational. They find time for maintenance and training, but the lifecycle is more fluid than CONUS based forces. FDNF Sailors are always asking “what can we do to be better warfighters?” If you think about it, nearly all of the ideas pitched at ATHENA events can be tied to Warfighting First:

  • Streamlining admin allows for more training time.
  • Merging databases allows for better tracking of manning and material
  • Modernizing training provides warfighters better suited for today’s technological environment

But as I look into my ATHENA Far East crystal ball, I see FDNF Sailors pitching ideas that leverage current technologies to find new ways to execute the mission and conceptualizing new weapons systems.

As ATHENA has continued to grow, we’ve made a constant effort to innovate our own process, trying out new things and gaining feedback to try and make ATHENA better. In our recent events, we’ve experimented with “Shark Tank-style” panels of leaders to provide concept feedback, awarding personal development experiences to our participants and winners, inviting Sailors who have made headway with their projects as keynote speakers and beyond. In that spirit, we’re prototyping a new experience for our first Far East event! Specifically unique to ATHENA Far East is our partnership with the Defense Entrepreneurship Forum (DEF) as an official Agora and our endorsement by and involvement with the Military Writer’s Guild, and SECNAV’s Naval Innovation Advisory Council.

Brett Vaughn, one of the "Sharks" at Athena East 2.0, getting down to business with a presenter as CAPT Carter and CAPT Bodvake look on.

Brett Vaughn, one of the “Sharks” at Athena East 2.0, getting down to business with a presenter as CAPT Carter and CAPT Bodvake look on.

Expanding to Japan is incredibly exciting for not only ATHENA, but the Naval “Innovation Insurgency” as a whole. But beyond that, I think that it’s important to provide a stage for the bright minds currently serving in this Theater to have their voices heard. We hope that you’re as excited about it as we are.

Come see what ATHENA is all about, and join us in making positive change in the Navy! We hope to see you there!


CDR Michele Day is the former Commanding Officer of USS BENFOLD. She’s currently assigned to CTF-70 as the Surface Operations Officer. She’s a proud graduate of Texas A&M and on a never ending journey to grow as a servant leader, positive change instigator, and figuring out how to get her Sailors to ‘give a poop.’

There are loads of Athena Events coming up! If you’re in the San Diego, Groton or Patuxent River areas, connect with us if you want to be a part of our upcoming events! Connect with us on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail!

To learn more about Defense Entrepreneurs Agora:



Open Doors to Open Minds

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.   

Be sure to like Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in pitching at our upcoming Waterfront Athena Event on February 13th at San Diego’s Ballast Point Little Italy Tasting Room? Message us!

Yes. Yes! YES!

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.

CDR LeBron talks to an enthusiastic crowd at the SNA West Coast Symposium about The Athena Project

CDR Lebron talks to an enthusiastic crowd at the SNA West Coast Symposium about 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!

You can like Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.