Arrias: Navy Readiness: A Leadership Crisis

We all like to think that we’re living in new times, thinking new thoughts, seeing things no one ever saw before. That is, at best, a dangerous naiveté, and leads to ignoring history; and the lessons of history are ignored with great peril.

One of the more important lessons is that power corrupts. Give anyone power and there is a near certainty that he or she will abuse that power. And even small amounts of power are corrosive. The tale of the small-town sheriff who abuses his power is so often replayed it’s a cliché. Politicians, businessmen, soldiers, priests, teachers, tinkers, tailors – anyone and everyone; the abuse of power is literally as old as history itself. No one is immune; neither sex, no group, no age, no nation, no religion, no era is immune.

Call it what you will: our nature, the fall, or simply the imperfectability of man, the fact is power is corrosive to our morals and our behavior. If there’s anything to be concerned about today it’s that so many people appear to be aghast to learn that power corrupts, that people abuse power, whether it’s movie producers abusing young women (the phrase “casting couch” is so familiar it needs no explanation), or politicians abusing the public trust, etc.

And if you want to understand it: taking advantage of young women, selling vital assets to nations that wish us ill, making money off political position, you really need to look to “new” thinkers.

Like Aristotle.

Aristotle was concerned with limits of power, telling us that not even a wise man could be completely trusted with power, that most power had to remain with the citizenry. No one, not even the wisest and most virtuous, can be completely trusted with power and therefore the power given to any one man must be limited. Of course, few people are really wise, fewer are virtuous, and even fewer are both wise and virtuous. Ergo, people should be trusted with less rather than more power, and government should be trusted with as little power as necessary for it to accomplish assigned tasks.

Which leads to a new story line that’s ricocheted around over the past week or so, following another incident in the Western Pacific, the loss of an aircraft and the death of 3 sailors: the US Navy has been stretched thin.

I feel like Inspector Renault: ‘I’m shocked, shocked, to learn the fleet is stretched thin.’

For perhaps a decade admirals have testified to Congress that the fleet is on the verge of “breaking.” Such testimony has been regular and frequent. Yet fleet readiness has continued to decline. How can that be?

Because for a decade every time some event has led a call for Navy assets to perform some task, the Admirals nodded, demonstrated their “can-do” spirit, and followed orders. The Admirals understood how such tasks further erode readiness or manning or training. But none was willing to stand up and say: “We can do what you want, but to do so we are no longer going to do X, Y and Z.”

Why? Because the “flip side of the coin” of the corrosive effects of power is a parallel erosion of moral courage, as those who have power seek to hold onto that power. The vast majority of people with power want most of all to hold onto that power. If the option is to either stand up and say “no, we can’t” and risk taking a loss of power, or ordering a ship to go to sea whether ready or not, whether properly manned and trained or not, the average admiral will not risk his stars.

This isn’t to say these admirals are evil folks; they aren’t. But they’ve been corrupted by power. But how do we identify and promote officers who are willing to stand up to their bosses and state that a plan won’t work, who will say that they can’t safely respond to an order because readiness is eroding, who demand that money spent on “good ideas” from Washington needs to be redirected to fundamentals?

There’s no simple answer. In every age and organization promotions reflect the people managing the promotions. But the erosion of readiness is a leadership failure. If we are to ‘fix’ readiness, we must first begin with fixing leadership. And that means we need leaders with real moral courage. That is where we must start.

Copyright 2017 Arrias

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