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!


Sailors and Stockboys – Innovation From the Deckplates or the Housewares Aisle

By: LT Dave Nobles


Deckplate innovation is obviously a running theme of The Athena Project and something we talk about a lot on this blog. We also routinely note that there’s a lot that we can learn from businesses that have been extracting great ideas from their “deckplates” for some time now.

There’s a little general store in Arkansas that believed that mantra, and it worked out pretty well for them.

Sam Walton once famously said that Wal-Mart’s best ideas came from clerks and stockboys.  Wal-Mart grew to be a goliath corporation, perhaps on the strength of ideas that bubbled up from below. Employees with great ideas would bring them to Mr. Walton, or someone who could make a difference.

We see this time and time again. Take the Ann Arbor delicatessen Zingerman’s, for example. As they were starting to grow, they opened different flavors of restaurants. One such restaurant was called the Roadhouse. Management noticed that the store was taking some heavy losses, so they started to investigate.

The sleuthing led the team to ask a dishwasher what he thought. He said that he noticed something in the food waste that the managers may not have: People were throwing away a LOT of french fries. Nothing wrong with the taste, the portion size was just too big. So management reduced the serving size and offered free french fry refills, and it saved the company loads of cheddar.


You can read more about that awesome story and some core Ethos from Zingerman’s by clicking this picture!

In both cases, leaders happen upon great ideas by listening, but the channel to receive the ideas was ad-hoc at best. That begs the question: Had there been a better channel for employees to share ideas, would Wal-Mart have grown even bigger?

The game of Monday morning quarterback isn’t as compelling when discussing the largest retailer on the planet – a company leaps and bounds bigger and more valuable than its closest competitors. Whatever they did worked. Open and shut case.

What if, however, Wal-Mart started to falter? If that blue banner started to fade and retailers threatened to take significant chunks of its market share? What if the chain grew to too many locations and didn’t have enough resources to fill them all the way they always had?

Certainly a grim picture to paint for a retailer, but it’s a picture that some might say is beginning to materialize for the U.S. Navy.

The service is stretched thin, supporting missions around the world. Often, robust deployment cycles steal away from maintenance and training phases of operational units. A fiscally austere environment forces leadership to prioritize maintenance and supplies based on what are affordable, leaving no choice but to postpone or ignore legitimate needs. The growth in capabilities of potential adversarial nations in many ways outpaces our own.

In the face of a plethora of problems, it would be prudent to investigate new ways to find solutions. Athena is just one among several initiatives focused on improvement by providing a channel for good ideas to come from the Navy’s “stockboys and clerks.”

If we learned anything from last week’s Waterfront Athena Project, it’s that great ideas really do come from the deckplates. The peer-voted winners of the event were a team of Second Class Petty Officers that wanted to work smarter, not harder was proof positive. Imagine the possibilities if more our motivated junior Sailors started putting that brainpower toward some of the administrative and procedural issues that were identified in the Reducing Administrative Distractions initiative! I, for one, would love to see a fresh set of eyes tackle General Military Training delivery, the gargantuan preventative maintenance system or the often-confusing Training Cycle.

Well, the channel is there. It’s growing and spreading and it doesn’t bank on chance meetings, like Wal-Mart’s or Zingerman’s did.

The question is, will we take advantage of that channel? Will we continue to beat the drum on deckplate ideas and innovation, but then lose our drumsticks when the time comes to be heard? Will leadership listen to the problems identified or solutions crafted by we passionate stakeholders? Will the passionate stakeholders put their effort where their gripes are?

The answers will come with time, but the channels are there. We just have to use them.


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Sights Set On Symbiotic Solutions.


By: LT Dave Nobles

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve always found relating business world concepts to the Navy to be challenging and rewarding. In fact, it’s 100% the primary driver of The Athena Project.

Several companies today have initiatives that encourage growth of their employees as people, harnessing the power of their human capital and riding that wave all the way to the shores of Awesometown. Companies like 3M, Google, IDEO, FedEx (and the list goes on and on) supercharge their ridiculously talented professionals through the concept of time off for intellectual development. What they find is that their employees are generally happier and more productive. Some corporations encourage their employees to study anything – Even if it doesn’t relate to the jobs they were hired for.

Athena strives to make that type of initiative for the Navy work. Too many of our hyper-intelligent Sailors are academically discouraged by the nature of their work.  It would be folly not to at least provide a channel in which they could unleash that dormant talent and brainpower. Just one lesson among many that the Navy can and should adopt from successful giants of industry.

That said, there is much that the business world can learn from the military as well. When I was studying for my MBA at Penn State, I participated in a great residency assignment that brought my entire cohort together to run a business simulation. We formed groups of about 10 and became companies competing in the perfume and aftershave industry. Over the course of the next week, we had four years’ worth of quarterly decision periods in which we steered the company in terms of financial leverage, marketing, pricing, quality assurance and a litany of other metrics.

I had the great fortune of being selected as Chief Executive Officer of one of the six groups of students in the simulation.  What I found during my time as “Team Alchemy” CEO was that the lion’s share of students who were in the group – brilliant people who had been working for quite some time in the business world – had never, EVER been led. And, many of them didn’t know how to lead, either.

It was at about this point that I realized the extent of my brainwashing, courtesy of the military. Leading is easy to me because of the great experience that I’ve had in the Navy. I immediately went into that mode and rounded up my team to perform to the best of their abilities.

Together, we built an open environment in the team where anyone could express their ideas and thoughts and work toward the end goal: Winning. We had fun, we gained a metric ton of knowledge about how competition really works, and… We won!

That little case study in leadership taught me that the corporate world has as much to learn from the military as we from it. There are countless lessons on leadership and management that can be distilled from the experience of servicemembers just as there are a bevy of productivity, human resources, project management, and innovation lessons that the services can glean from years of business experience.

At the Defense Entrepreneurship Forum this past weekend in Chicago, and on its blog, Esteban Castellanos, an Air Force reservist, presented the idea of short externships for promising leaders. A phenomenal idea, and a great way to educate our promising young leaders on business world concepts. There are also programs like the Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellowship Program that aim to do the same for senior leaders.

How do we give back, though? Certainly forums like LT Ben Kohlmann’s DEF that foster networking and relationships are an excellent medium. Another would be to host ideation sessions between businesses and military leaders. Perhaps a leadership retreat where groups of leaders in businesses and various military communities could share ideas and solve problems would be a path for mutual growth. The possibilities are endless, but the bridges need to be built.

Interaction between the business world and military has the potential to yield some positive results on both sides. How might we best cultivate that symbiotic relationship?


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

Photo by FC2(SW) Shawn Truesdale

LT Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Weapons Officer.