Rear Adm. Howe: Professionalism, leader development key to future

My first year as president of the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) has been an incredible experience and a real journey of professional discovery.

My first discovery was simply the scope and depth of the NWC efforts. While not a graduate, I'd known of the college throughout my career, and knew of its strong reputation for academic rigor. What I wasn’t aware of were the college’s specific missions, and the variety of programs in place to meet these missions.

As tasked by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), the college has four missions: 1) it educates and develops leaders, 2) it helps define the future of the Navy, 3) it supports combat readiness, and 4) it strengthens maritime partnerships with other nation’s navies.

Most of you are likely familiar with the key programs at the college that execute these missions – our two world-class, in-residence Joint Professional Military Education academic programs, both of which grant an accredited master’s degree; the war gaming in our Center for Naval Warfare Studies; and our international student programs that bring non-U.S. officers to the college. 

These programs are healthy and evolving. We're in the final stages of completing our regional accreditation to continue granting masters degrees, and we're restructuring the Global War Game series to better support the CNO and the fleet. In addition, we now have the largest number of international students ever on the campus.

But there is so much more going on across the college. In addition to the resident program, the college directs the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School, the Advanced Studies in Naval Strategy Program, and Advanced Research Programs covering topics such as near-peer competitors, ballistic missile defense, deterrence, weapons of mass destruction, asymmetric warfare, and cyber warfare, to name a few. Alongside the Naval Postgraduate School, we also provide tailored support to flag officers as they transition between assignments. 

We provide direct support to the fleet through the Operational Level of War Programs, such as the Maritime Staff Officer Course, the Maritime Operational Planner Course, the Executive-level Operational Level of War Course, and the Joint/Combined Force Maritime Component Commander Courses.

Additionally, the college has a strong culture of assessment. Combined with our integration into the Navy's Warfighting Development Center enterprise, and our role in helping steer the Navy’s Strategic Enterprise, the college's core curriculum and other efforts are relevant to the needs of the Navy at the tactical, operational and strategic level, and we've got mechanisms in place to ensure that they remain so.

Besides what I’ve learned about the war college, I have had two additional significant discoveries over this first year's journey. These are things I didn't know nine months ago, but wish that I'd known a long, long time ago.

The first is that there is an operational imperative – a warfighting imperative – that we view our Navy as a profession, and ourselves as members of a true naval profession. The second is that in order to successfully execute our Navy missions as effectively as possible, there is nothing more important over the long term than leader development.

A couple of comments before I delve deeper into these statements.

First, the last thing in the world I want is for this discussion to come across as me preaching from the Ivy Tower in Newport, or sounding like ‘Charlie Brown's teacher.’ I believe the things I’m speaking about are far from mere academic considerations. Quite the contrary, I am convinced there are practical and operational implications to the subjects of professionalism and leader development, and that it is vital to engage in much more explicit discussion of these subjects than has been typical in Navy culture in the past.

Second, this discussion isn't about trying to fix a significant problem we have today. It is much more about ensuring we are prepared for the challenges of tomorrow. In the past, our institution and our leaders have been largely successful, in some cases exceedingly successful. Today, however, the world is changing at an increasing rate, and the ‘VUCA’ acronym accurately captures the environment for which we need to prepare our leaders. The operational environment is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and promises to become ever more so in the future. What's proven successful in the past isn't going to fully prepare us for the future. 

This discussion is about moving from good to great, and being ready for the increased challenges we'll face in the future.


Let's return to my first discovery. There is an operational imperative – a warfighting imperative – that we view ourselves as members of a profession in a non-trivial sense of the word. It has come as something of a shock to me that I have had this realization so late in my career. But that is precisely what makes me think we owe the Navy and the nation a change in our culture so that the sense of personal identification with the Navy profession is pervasive through the fleet at all levels of rank.

I imagine most are aware of the discussions across Department of Defense (DOD) in recent years about the state of our profession. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dempsey, has long been an advocate of the professionalism in the military, and expressed concerns over the need to reinvigorate the profession of arms. Over the years I've read multiple articles in Joint Force Quarterly and other military related periodicals, on the subject of professionalism.

Frankly, much of those discussions didn't resonate with me. I had been exposed to the concept of the military as a profession in my early years at U.S. Naval Academy, but for almost my entire career, to be professional meant looking good in uniform and being technically and tactically competent. When I read the Navy ethos, the word ‘professional’ was simply an adjective meaning the sailor was squared-away and a good operator.

In my current job, I've been re-exposed to the basic ideas of what it means to be a member of the profession of arms. I've been able to spend a good amount of time with retired Rear Adm. Jamie Kelly and the NWC team on these issues. I have been in regular communication with Rear Adm. Margaret Klein and her team in the Pentagon, where she works directly for the Secretary of Defense examining questions of professionalism throughout the department. I have spoken regularly with my counterparts in the other services, discussing the meaning and implications of professionalism for our services and the means by which we attempt to inculcate professional identity into their members. 

Now, after this extensive engagement with and immersion in these issues, the chairman's dialogue about the profession rings loud and true in ways it hadn’t before this immersion in these issues.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand. Our Navy has a dual character. On one hand, it is a military department organized as a bureaucracy. The bureaucratic dimension of our organization is unavoidable for any organization of our size and complexity. But on the other, it is an organization dedicated to supporting a military profession. It is this dual nature as both a bureaucracy and a profession that shapes our key challenge as Navy leaders.

Bureaucracies originated out of society’s need for efficient, routine work. The focus on efficiency drives an organization characterized by centralized planning and control, little delegation of discretionary authority, and compliance-based behavior.

Professions originated out of society’s need for the expert application of specialized knowledge. In order for professions to most effectively provide that expert knowledge, they need autonomy. That autonomy is based on trust; trust between society and the profession, and trust among the members of the profession. This trust is based on shared values/ethos, and demonstrated actions in accordance with these values/ethos.

The dual character of our Navy is important to understand. The attributes and strengths of both the bureaucracy and the profession are needed to execute the wide variety of functions across the Navy every day, and tension between the two is necessary and natural. As the leaders of the Navy, however, our challenge is to ensure the overarching characteristic of the Navy is – and remains – that of a military profession. Why? Because a bureaucratic organization will never succeed in combat; only a professional organization can and will.

The operational environment – on the land, the sea or the air – is violent and complex, dominated by uncertainty and ambiguity. Success in this environment requires much more than tactical competence; it requires judicious and decentralized employment of that competence at all levels; tactically, operationally and strategically. And the key enabler of decentralized employment is trust; trust up, down, left and right within an organization, and trust between the military and the nation it serves.

My colleagues that study organizations have taught me that trust is largely absent from bureaucracies. In fact, such organizations are specifically designed to function in low-trust environments. By contrast, trust is the central characteristic of a professional organization. Trust in a profession is built upon each member's core identity being associated with the profession, and each member's actions being guided by an ethic shared across the profession.

It is here, in this difference in the nature of trust in bureaucracies and professions that I’ve come to understand the warfighting relevance of professionalism. I now clearly see the absolute operational imperative to thinking, seeing and being a profession, only this identity engenders the trust necessary to fight and win in today’s operational environment.

This updated understanding of professionalism has also improved my thinking about ethics. For most of my time in the military I have been a bit confused when discussing ethics. Were we discussing the religious notions of right and wrong from my parochial high school education? Were we discussing a branch of philosophy? Or were we discussing what’s allowed or not allowed within DOD’s standards of conduct or the Joint Ethics Regulation?

I now see ethics through the lens of professionalism. As members of the maritime profession of arms, our ethic is what guides and steers our actions. That ethic certainly includes laws, regulations and policies, but those are a mere baseline of legal compliance. Far more important for guiding our discretionary professional judgments are the non-legal professional expectations established by our Navy culture, its values and its highest aspirations. Our ethic guides us to always act in a manner that supports the values of the nation we serve, and enhances the trust within the organization, and with our civilian leadership and nation. In a complex world, our ethic helps us understand not only what we can or what we must do, but more importantly, what we should do.

This idea of being a professional is renewed in me. This framework for thinking about the profession of arms and our professional ethic has clarified and refined my thinking. It has created a mindset that has positively influenced my behavior and decisions. The Navy ethos has new meaning for me. As I reflect on the years gone by, I'm convinced I would have been a better naval officer and leader if I had this framework for thinking about professionalism earlier in my career. Without a doubt, I know now that I’m better prepared for the challenges I may still face.

It's this impact on my thinking and decision-making, combined with the operational imperative of a genuine professional identity that has made me a true believer in the chairman’s call to renew our commitment to the profession of arms.

The tension between our Navy’s bureaucratic and professional attributes will grow greater as we move into times of fiscal pressure and away from sustained combat. We have a choice in how we see ourselves, in how we think about ourselves, and as we think about what we’re doing from day to day.

As we all head back to our day-to-day assignments, I’d ask that we make a conscious effort to let the framework of the Navy as a profession drive our vision, thinking and decisions. We’ll be a better Navy if we do.

Leader Development

So if we understand that seeing ourselves as a profession is an operational imperative, then it's important to ask, "How can we propagate that vision and inculcate that mindset across the force?" And that brings us to the critical role of leader development, the second huge lesson I've learned over the last nine months.

I’d like to begin with the following quote from Adm. Arleigh Burke; he clearly understood the importance of developing the Navy’s leaders:

“There is one element in the profession of arms that transcends all others in importance; this is the human element. No matter what the weapons of the future may be, no matter how they are to be employed in war or international diplomacy, man will still be the most important factor in naval operations. This is why it is so important that under the greater pressure of our continuing need to develop the finest aircraft, the most modern submarines, the most far ranging carriers and the whole complex of nuclear weapons, we must keep uppermost in mind that leadership remains our most important task.”

For most of my career, I too understood that leader development was important, and an inherent part of my job. But it was just that, an inherent part of my job. I saw it as an ancillary task to my ‘real job.’ I saw as my primary responsibility serving as a good role model for my subordinates and peers as I executed my job. Of course, I would provide counseling when required and make efforts to find leadership training and opportunities for my juniors. But since I wasn’t a leadership ‘expert,’ I remember often feeling I wasn’t qualified in leading a discussion on leadership. So I stayed in my comfort zone, tried to be a good role model, and hoped that this was sufficient. 

This seemed to be the approach of most of the leaders I observed, and from what I could tell, it seemed to work. Over the years, my focus was primarily on getting the work of my real job done and took for granted that leader development was occurring through operational experience and osmosis.

My assignment as president of the NWC has afforded me the opportunity to have a wide variety of discussions on leader development. As a result of those discussions, I’ve come to understand that this approach to leader development, while likely a common one, was incomplete and insufficient. Sadly, I have acknowledged that I had on many counts failed in my responsibility to execute the critical role of a leader in leader development anywhere as well as I could and should have.

My passive approach of serving as a role model was good but insufficient. As I argued earlier, the world is changing at an increasing rate, and the operational environment continues to grow more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We can’t rely only on experience and observation to develop our future leaders. Nor can we rely solely on the schoolhouse, Mobile Training Teams or General Military Training programs. I have come to believe that the single most effective means of improving leadership across the Navy is ‘leaders engaging leaders.’

Leaders at all levels must be actively involved in development of those in their charge. Preparing them for the challenges of the future is not an ancillary aspect of their real job; in some respects, it is their most important job. There is no need for one to be a leadership expert in order to move out with leader development efforts; one doesn’t need to have all the answers. In many respects, the most important thing we can do to make us all cognizant of our professional identity is simply ensuring that conversation about leadership, ethics and the naval profession is a routine aspect of our interactions with each other.  

Explicitly raising such issues in the midst of routine operational activity will have a significant impact on our personnel as they realize it is a shared expectation that the profession is part of what it is to be a member of our Navy. And no one is in a better position to do so than leaders at all levels. Leaders engaging leaders … this is the key. 

Making professional identity, ethics and the Navy ethos an integral part of Navy life will do far more to encourage and embed professional identity than any number of PowerPoint presentations by leadership experts.

If I could go back in time to my days as a platoon commander, or executive officer, and I knew then what I know now, I would ensure that time was routinely scheduled for discussions and reflections on the profession of arms, leadership and ethics.

Since I can’t go back in time, I’m trying to do the next best thing, and that’s driving these discussions in my engagements at the college, at the Naval Leadership and Ethic Center, and at the Senior Enlisted Academy.

As you return to your command, I ask that you too drive these discussions every chance you get, and help get leaders engaging leaders in development efforts across the force.

So these are my two key discoveries since reporting to the NWC; the operational imperative of seeing ourselves as a profession, and the critical role of leaders in leader development. As I look to the future, I believe we need to acknowledge that there is an operational necessity for the Navy to recognize the tension between bureaucracy and profession in our Navy, and to deliberately choose to view ourselves as members of a profession. 

We also need to recognize the critical role of leaders engaging leaders in our development efforts and to recognize that explicit attention to issues of leader development and ethics are vital and important aspects of leaders’ responsibilities at every level and rank.

As stewards of the maritime profession of arms, we must return to our assignments across the Navy with a renewed commitment to engender the trust necessary to fight and win in today's operational environment through the professional development of our people.

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Rear Adm. P. Gardner Howe III
May 19, 2015

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