American national security policy is in a time of transition. The wind-down of the war in Iraq and the continued (if lately delayed) decrease of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan have coincided with a major shift of national focus and resources to the Asia-Pacific, an increasingly aggressive Russia, and now-ubiquitous cyber threats. Five years after the start of the Arab Spring, moreover, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and North Africa remains uncertain, a paradigm exacerbated by the rise of ISIS and the controversial first steps toward nuclear détente with Iran. All of this has occurred with little or no change in the seriousness or persistence of the asymmetric terrorist network threat that has pervaded the American consciousness since 2001.

These realities make this an especially interesting period for those military officers whose most profound career transition – from the role of a junior officer in a tactical position to that of a more senior officer who must lead an organization and shape strategy – aligns with these external geopolitical and global security shifts. The manner in which these officers confront their new roles will be critically important: experienced enough to know the consequences and tribulations of leading operations at the “tip of the spear,” they are the only individuals in the country who will have the ability and opportunity to shape and lead the respective branches of the American armed forces as they enter a new era.

Of course, leading an organization through external transition while simultaneously undergoing personal and professional transition implies some unique difficulties that emerging leaders must confront. Foremost among these is the fact that the threats and military operations that the U.S. must now prepare for are in many ways different from those that junior officers have faced over the last fifteen years.  A proliferating and diversifying set of global threats will mean that these officers will likely be forced to grapple with novel situations, and even be motivated to shape distinct organizational cultures, as they move ahead in their careers. While their experiences are what make them the right people to lead the military into the future, it will be their ability to think and act in a much broader context which will ensure their success.

But how can one accomplish this? How can an officer ensure an approach to organizational leadership that is both rooted in important personal experience and open to being shaped by emergent circumstances? While the exact answer to that question cannot be the same for every individual, there are three important elements that each officer should incorporate into her or his approach to making this leadership transition: (1) while your particular operational experiences are unlikely to be exactly replicated, they have taught you important lessons; drawing from your years of practical leadership, ensure you know which values, policies, and ideals are unchangeable; (2) the knowledge of what is unchangeable is the greatest aid you have in being able to make change – once you know what cannotbe altered, by definition you know what can be adapted to address new circumstances; (3) having come to an awareness of what can and cannot be changed, steep yourself in the widest possible variety of information and expertise, and use it to fearlessly pursue the organizational change in which you believe.

“All courage is a form of constancy” – Cormac McCarthy[1]

Adherence to given principles is an inherent part of military service; core values and organizational features, such as the chain of command, give armed services their identity, ensure they have the trust of the American people and its political leaders, bind individual service members to each other and to their predecessors, and, perhaps most importantly, allow for mission accomplishment in the most trying of environments. Strict observance of these unshifting aspects of service can often be difficult, involving hard decisions and physical danger, but it is absolutely necessary.

Those service members now rising out of the “junior officer” ranks have undoubtedly proven their staunch adherence to organizational and ethical fundamentals – their continued promotion would certainly be proof of that fact. Paradoxically, it is that very adherence to the unchangeable that actually frees the individual to become adaptable and effect meaningful change. This is because an individual endowed with a strong identity can maintain a consistent, positive character and purpose through any challenge. Knowing whom oneself is and what one’s organization stands for gives an individual wide latitude in achieving established goals.

Indeed, the American armed forces have repeatedly acknowledged and sought to build upon this phenomenon in their most important strategic guidance. The most recent revision of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, for instance, notes the need to “[develop] leaders who personify their moral obligation to the naval profession by upholding core values and ethos,”[2] while also advocating an “approach that adapts to the evolving security environment,”[3] and stating the intention to “create more adaptive and agile warriors.”[4] The 2015 Marine Corps’ Commandant’s Planning Guidance begins with a list of “Enduring Principles,” stating immediately thereafter that “these principles define our identity as Marines and a Marine Corps…Our shared responsibility is to remain true to these enduring principles as we innovate and adapt for the future.”[5] The Coast Guard’s Commandant’s Strategic Intent 2015-2019 recognizes that “the Coast Guard’s leaders…must be grounded in the core values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty,”[6] while noting that “a leader should have the flexibility and resiliency to succeed in dynamic situations.”[7] In short, while junior officers have already proven commitment to unchangeable standards in difficult circumstances, they will be expected to seek ways to adapt their organizations to face new challenges as they graduate to more senior ranks.

“My favorite definition of leadership is the ability to reconcile opportunity and competency” – ADM Thad Allen, USCG[8]

Once an officer is armed with a strong sense of what is changeable and what is not, he will realize that the realm of the changeable is vast, while the scope of his own knowledge is inevitably narrow. Because of this, education and exposure to new ideas and perspectives are critical in building the capacity to lead change and take action in areas and contexts. Speaking of his leadership of the federal responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen emphasized this idea: “good leadership requires flexibility, agility, and curiosity”; “the more you’re a lifelong learner, and the more intellectually curious you are, the bigger the base of potential you’ll have to build on when the opportunity presents itself.”[9] For Allen, broad-based and self-directed learning were explicitly tied to personal development and being prepared to lead in unforeseen circumstances.

Certainly, this point should resonate with the officers who will soon lead military organizations in a complex and changing world. Just as Allen credits his intellectual pursuits with preparing him to direct others and make decisions when thrust into the unprecedented situations of post-hurricane New Orleans and a massive oil spill response, so should rising junior officers recognize the value of educating themselves to gain an understanding of the myriad forces, factors, and theories that they may be called upon to employ or confront.

Just as constant adherence to values is a courageous act that enables meaningful adaptation, so too is the endeavor of expanding one’s knowledge base and bringing forth new ideas

To learn and grow is, then, a leadership imperative, and one that is accompanied by its own set of difficulties. To challenge one’s own assumptions through exposure to differing viewpoints, to forgo easy answers for the intellectually-trying climate of research and debate, to endure the frustrations of learning entirely new subject matter when one is years removed from an academic setting; these are no easy tasks, and to undertake them requires hard work.

Ultimately, of course, applying newfound knowledge and ideas will be trying ordeal as it will often require standing alone, challenging orthodoxy, and exposing oneself to professional risk. Just as constant adherence to values is a courageous act that enables meaningful adaptation, so too is the endeavor of expanding one’s knowledge base and bringing forth new ideas. Indeed, rising leaders must internalize the fact that, in the words of Hannah Arendt, “thinking calls not only for intelligence and profundity but above all for courage.”[10]

And so help me, I whispered to myself:  “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” – VADM James Stockdale, USN[11]

In the end, James Stockdale would spend over seven years “down there,” as a prisoner of war (POW) in North Vietnam. His actions and leadership over that time are, rightfully, the stuff of legend – forming one of the most inspirational and instructive chapters in American military history. Stockdale embodied what a leader needs to be in order to face new and unprecedented challenges: he knew what he stood for and which standards he could never change, he knew that everything else could and should be adapted to the circumstances; he had previously pursued such broad intellectual development that his knowledge of a seemingly obscure subject (philosophy) could be applied for the leadership of military personnel in the darkest of times.

Stockdale described how reports of American POW misconduct during the Korean War had resulted in the writing of the Code of Conduct, which, in turn, had been taught to the service members of his own day: “American prisoners of war were never to escape the chain of command; the war goes on behind bars”. Among the responsibilities that he could never evade were the Code of Conduct’s requirements to keep faith with fellow prisoners, avoid giving information to captors, and continue the struggle against the enemy, even whilst imprisoned.[12] Acknowledging what he could not alter, Stockdale modified countless aspects of his behavior and approach to his situation; even before his imprisonment, he had contemplated that:

“to accept the need for graceful and unself-conscious improvisation under pressure, to break away from set procedures forces you to be reflective…I had become…able to throw out the book without the slightest hesitation when it no longer matched the external circumstances…This new abandon, this new built-in flexibility I had gained, was to pay off later in prison.”[13]

Specifically, when it came time to craft a collective campaign of resistance by himself and those under his command within the North Vietnamese prisons, Stockdale noted:

“I put a lot of thought into what those first orders should be. They would be orders that could be obeyed, not…reiterating some U.S. government policy like ‘name, rank, serial number, and date of birth,’ which had no chance of standing up in the torture room. My mind-set was ‘we here under the gun are the experts, we are the masters of our fate, ignore guilt-inducing echoes of hollow edicts, throw out the book and write your own.’”[14]

Strengthened in the knowledge that there were standards and values that he could never betray, in other words, he was free to innovate much else when formulating a strategy of systematic opposition and defiance.

It is important to note that Stockdale himself pointed directly to his prior intellectual pursuits as the main factor that gave him the ability to endure and lead so remarkably during his imprisonment. Most specifically, he had been a student of philosophy since his years at Stanford, and by the time he was deployed on a carrier off the coast of Vietnam, he had become a particularly ardent follower of Stoic thought and its most famous proponent, Epictetus.[15] Among other things, Stoicism imparted in Stockdale that he must adhere to moral standards without regard to external circumstances, that “the only good and evil that means anything is right in your own heart, within your will, within your power, where it’s up to you.”[16] That philosophy would be invaluable during his years of captivity. Following Stockdale’s leadership, the hundreds of Americans under his command (with very few exceptions) maintained the struggle against the enemy, enduring torture as they resisted attempts to make them reveal information, denounce their country, and break faith with their fellow prisoners.

Officers must consistently seek out intellectually-broadening education and experiences, familiarizing themselves with the widest array of ideas and issues in preparation for dealing with unforeseen events

Stockdale experienced a drastic transition of external circumstances when he ceased flying combat sorties and confronted life as a POW. His response to that change – adhering to core principles while radically adapting methods – remains instructive for military leaders today. The individual military branches have emphasized the need for this type of principled adaptability in important recent strategic documents, matching strong appeals to core values with calls to pursue new approaches to confront emerging issues. Junior officers who are now transitioning (or who will soon transition) from tactical leadership positions into strategy-shaping roles should be encouraged by exemplary predecessors like Stockdale and by the clear commitment of each of the sea services to encouraging dynamic and flexible organizational thinking.

More than this, these officers must consistently seek out intellectually-broadening education and experiences, familiarizing themselves with the widest array of ideas and issues in preparation for dealing with unforeseen events. Stockdale notably benefited from his serious study of philosophy, applying the lessons and dictums of Stoicism to lead and persevere in a setting that was entirely different from the cockpit in which he had gained his prior military experience. Thad Allen specifically pointed to intellectual curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning as being critical for the development of leaders who can successfully deal with a range of emerging challenges; indeed, he credited such attributes with his own success in leading responses to two of the most serious domestic disasters in American history.

Taken together, the examples of these great leaders of the past and the current sea services’ clarion calls for ingenuity provide rising junior officers with clear imperatives as they ascend toward enterprise leadership roles.  They must be grounded in timeless values and their own histories of leading military men and women at the tactical level. They must be flexible in adapting to new situations and innovative in developing appropriate strategies. They must be dedicated learners with broad intellectual interests and experiences. In the hands of such leaders, the American military of tomorrow will undoubtedly rise to meet whatever challenges may emerge in an uncertain world.


[Photo: Flickr CC: DVIDSHUB]


[1] Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, (New York, Knopf, 1992), p. 235.

[2] A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2015), p. 29,

[3] Ibid. i.

[4] Ibid. 31.

[5]  36th Commandant’s Planning Guidance (Washington, DC:  USMC), p. 1, .

[6] Commandant’s Strategic Intent 2015-2019 (Washington, DC: USCG), p. 17,

[7] Ibid. 18.

[8] Thad Allen. Interviewed by Scott Berinato. “You Have to Lead From Everywhere”. Harvard Business Review, November, 2010.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1955 ), p. 8.

[11] James Stockdale, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetuss Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. (Hoover Institution, 1993), p. 7,

[12] Ibid. 12.

[13] Ibid. 6.

[14] Ibid. 15.

[15] Ibid. 1-6.

[16] Ibid. 8.


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