One characteristic endemic to military life is constant turnover. The personnel churn never stops, especially out on the front lines where “arduous” duty takes place. My orders sent me to Bahrain for just under nine months; some folks are here for up to a year. Multiply that by about 40 and you can see that, within just my unit, people are always coming and going.

Yes somehow continuity is maintained.

BroadsidePartly this is because the Navy is the Navy is the Navy (or pick your own favorite military service) – certain things are the same everywhere and anyone can hit the ground running. But every team also has things unique to it, whether they be traditions or procedures or some cultural quirk, and these get passed on too. Some things die out, but others last. After several years, the originator has probably been long gone for one or two “generations”, but people still do it (Why? They know not the reason). Sometimes that’s bad, like in the case of a hazing culture, but more often it is good for cohesion and comradery.

There are lessons here.

Organizational culture, or culture in general, is like the English common law – it is “discovered” rather than imposed. Certainly most commanders (or other institutions) will push their own organizational visions, but many initiatives will fade away because they simply don’t suit the people, while others will grow and be perpetuated because they fit people’s needs. Change is constant, yet to endure, it must remain within certain steady parameters. To break through those walls requires visionary leadership that sees the need to do so, but can also align such radical acts with such fundamentals as the team’s mission or deeply embedded culture. Change for change’s sake is a losing proposition.

The continual passage of knowledge from the “old” to the “young” among the compressed generations of a single ship’s crew present another angle. Experienced crew members know a ship’s personality quirks (every ship has a personality) or the peculiarities of working in a certain area, like the Pacific or Middle East. New members don’t. Over the time they overlap, that knowledge is passed on, and the knowledge that Sailor 1 had in 2014 is retained long after by Sailor 2 in 2017. Ideally, anyway.

Did you ever hear something to the effect of “A person is smart, but people are stupid”? Time is the key. Over the years, individuals learn lessons about life and how stuff works. The older or more experienced they are, the higher the chances are that they’ve acquired some wisdom on the topic of life, or maritime affairs. They are often perfectly willing to share stories of their mistakes and how to avoid them.

Young people haven’t had that time. And we basically make (and break) careers out of refusing to learn from other people’s mistakes. The youth anthem for all eternity ought to be “This time will be different” – and if that’s not a song, it should be (OK, apparently it’s a bunch of songs).


Anyway, leaven the old and experienced with the young and inexperienced, and now you have “people” being stupid. Hence the need for continuing education – vocational, academic and otherwise – from the old to the young, from the senior to the junior, from the knowledgeable to the newb, to minimize the stupidity.

The trick is that when worthwhile change is made by one generation, it needs to pass on the reasons to its successors. If it’s a radical change with no clear rationale, follow-on generations will likely revert to whatever everyone else is doing, or did before. The turnover, or knowledge transmission process, must explain the why just as much as it describes the what and how.

At a unit level, this means pointing out how many inspections were passed, how many mission requirements were met, or how much extra liberty time was earned (there’s the clincher!) after investing in certain changes and sticking with them. Make it clear that things are the way they are for good reasons.

At a broader level, like say, the United States, it means remembering to view the country from the perspective of a recent immigrant. Why did they leave their country of origin? And why did they choose to come to the U.S.? What made that place stand out from all potential destinations? Understanding these reasons – the reason for our country to exist – is the key to keeping it a going concern for centuries to come. The positives identified by an immigrant need to be accentuated and further improved. And the things that repel him from his home country – let’s not do those. Please.

Don’t make me call SMOD.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s