An ice hockey player and fraternity president, William Nault graduated from Connecticut’s Trinity College with a degree in philosophy and, after deciding against law school, had no real plan for what to do next.
His mother handed him a solicitation letter that had arrived from Navy recruiting. Not long after, Nault was headed to Officer Candidate School in Newport. He thought maybe he’d make a good intelligence officer.
The Navy had other ideas. They offered him a slot in helicopter training. Another option was the chaplain corps. But Nault chose surface warfare -- without much knowledge of the details.
“I said, ‘What the heck is that?’ They said, ‘You drive ships.’ I said, 'Well, that sounds like what you are supposed to do in the Navy,’” Nault said, during an interview in his office in Luce Hall.
A four-year commitment turned into a 31-year career, including command of two ships – the salvage ship USNS Salvor (T-ARS 52) and the destroyer USS O’Kane (DDG 77) -- and Destroyer Squadron (CDS) 7 attached to the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) strike group.
What kept him in uniform, Nault said, was that he enjoyed being placed in charge at an early age.
“The Navy allows you to do that very early, like your first job – you are allowed to be in charge of something, whether it’s a pump or a small group of people,” Nault said. “I think I blossomed by doing that – to be allowed to be in charge, to be accountable for something, however small.”
Nault retired as a captain in 2016 and joined the faculty at U.S. Naval War College, where he had earlier served as chief of staff and as a student.
The lure of academia was tied to his interest in the art of leadership.
“We focus so much on the negative side: Why people get fired. How to prevent them from getting fired. Well, let’s flip that around. What develops people into good leaders?” Nault said, who now teaches in the College of Leadership and Ethics as an associate professor.
“In the Navy, we just assume that people are going to be good leaders. Though we’re getting better at this, we haven’t had a cohesive role in developing them as leaders,” he said. “I wanted to look at, how can we help with that, Navywide.”
Nault is currently involved in creating the new Navy Senior Leadership Development Concentration, which will be offered as a graduate certificate program. The senior-level students chosen for the program will take all of their electives in a College of Leadership and Ethics framework aimed to help them lead at more complex levels.
He also works on shaping the college’s growing catalog of flag-officer leader development courses.
“The curriculum development is very tricky. We try to disrupt their thinking and convince them to approach work differently,” Nault said about the flag-officer courses, which endeavor to give senior leaders a new way to think about decision-making.
“We talk about the difference between something that’s complicated and complex. A complicated problem is hard, but there’s a solution. Complex problems are ones that have no solution, they are changing while you are in them and must be managed over time,” he said. "Humanitarian response and disaster relief is an example. The war on terror is an example.”
On his own academic path, Nault is studying organizational development as part of pursuing a doctorate in management and organizational leadership.
He and assistant professor Liz Cavallaro are working to publish a paper exploring the Navy as a “learning organization” and how the concept might be helpful to the broader military culture.
“What this gets to is, getting past the highly structured, hierarchical organizations that we are in,” Nault said. “Those aren’t going to be eliminated. But in a learning organization, there is a high degree of candid, two-way communication and feedback that runs counter to many of our past leadership experiences.”
Tying that back to teaching senior officers about leadership, the idea of “inclusion” is becoming more and more important, Nault said.
“You have to include more opinions in your process. One, the information is moving so fast, you can’t control it. Leaders used to think that you should make all the decisions, and everything should flow through you. That's not going to work anymore,” he said.
“These changes in the leadership landscape fascinate me and drive me to find way to bring these ideas to the classroom.”