Leadership in the 21st Century

There has been a lot of hoopla in the press concerning the recent disciplinary action against Navy Captain Greg McWherter related to his second command tour as Commanding Officer of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team.  Here is a link to a recent Washington Post article on this issue.  Blue AngelsI feel compelled to add my two cents to the debate, mainly because I am distressed that so few people in the blog-o-sphere,  on Face Book and other internet forums really understand what the Blue Angels case is all about.  For background, if you haven’t heard of the Blue Angels, then I assume you have been off-planet since 1946 (Welcome back, by the way!).  Here’s all you need to know about the Blue Angels.

I suppose you could sum it up by saying the Blue Angels embody the best there is about Naval Aviation, and by association the US Navy.  As such, my assumption is that they are the penultimate squadron in Naval Aviation.  That’s a key assumption to all that follows, so if you don’t buy that argument, feel free to switch over and catch up on the latest Duck Dynasty news. So here’s a quick summary of  the Capt. McWherter/Blue Angels story in the news.  Capt. McWherter was Commanding Officer (CO) of the Blues twice.  There were no issues with his first tour as Commanding Officer in 2008-2010.  After Capt. McWherter left the Blues, the new CO had trouble adapting to the demanding flight program of the Blues and subsequently voluntarily resigned as CO.  One factor in his resignation was that the Blues pilots thought that the new CO focused too much on administrative details and not so much on flying skills.  Faced with loss of leadership in the Blue Angels, the Navy elected to bring Capt. McWherter back for a repeat performance as CO in May 2011 and he completed the rest of the performance season with the Blues. The feeling among the remaining pilots was one of relief, as Capt McWherter’s flying skills were among the best. Capt McWherter focused much of his attention to rebuilding trust among the demonstration pilots, a key consideration in the highly demanding environment in which the Blues operate.  Capt. McWherter was relieved in November of 2012 and went on to another assignment.  Sometime after the change of command, allegations surfaced that under his second command, the command atmosphere in the Blue Angels squadron was toxic.  Among these allegations were  the presence of sexual harassment, hazing, improper acceptance of gifts and other command-condoned inappropriate behavior throughout the squadron.  The Navy initiated an investigation and reassigned Capt. McWherter to administrative duties until the report could be completed.  The report (here is the link) found many of the allegations to be true and subsequently the Navy issued a Letter of Reprimand to Capt. McWherter, essentially ending his career in the Navy.

What’s been the reaction?  Not so much in the general public, but there has certainly been lots of chatter on the various blogs and other internet media that I regularly monitor.  There is one side that says “We are all doomed in an era where political correctness trumps all.”  In my opinion this is just plain wrong.  Since when is prohibiting pornographic pictures in cockpits (sigh…….I hated to use that word in this context) anything but just plain common sense?  It’s not an issue of political correctness, but one of respect for our people.  There are a variety of other problems, so I encourage you to read the report.  I dare you to find one “politically correct” statement.

I think the real issue is one of context.  Many of the bloggers are Vietnam-era veterans who lived at-sea in a different time.  Our notions of what is socially and professionally acceptable have changed over time.  Today’s 21st Century leaders have to recognize that fact.  Ready Rooms and the Sailors who support them are no longer all male, nor heterosexual. Our society no longer tolerates gender discrimination or discrimination based on sexual orientation and neither does our Navy.  It wasn’t that long ago that NCIS spent a lot of time and resources searching for homosexuals and rooting them out of the Navy. Now it’s different.

Was Capt McWherter all bad?  Certainly not. He had a long and distinguished career, but Navy did not do a lot to help out the good Captain in his new leadership challenges the second time around.  There is a great leadership piece by Dean Ludwig and Clinton Longenecker entitled The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders.  This paper is copyrighted so you will have to spend 5 bucks to read it, but if you are a leader, it will be the best $5 you ever spent.  Here’s a quick synopsis.   A great number of leadership failures can be explained by the Bathsheba Syndrome, many of those within the Navy.  The Captain was ripe for this sort of problem. Basically the Bathsheba Syndrome is this:

  • Ethical failures in leaders is a product of success, not pressure to perform
  • Success may cause leaders to shift focus from those things that made them successful to less important issues
  • Success leads to access to privileged information that may be abused
  • Success leads to unrestrained control of an organization
  • Success leads to inflated ego, leading one to believe they can fix anything

Do any of these traits sound familiar in recent leadership meltdowns?

One example of where the Navy may have prevented this leadership failure is that in the Blue Angels squadron, there is no Executive Officer(XO), a near-peer to the CO and usually next in line for command.  I relied heavily on my XO daily to keep me grounded.  He could take me aside and tell me that I might be doing something kooky.  He was a key element in my successful command.  Given that being in the Blues is  apparently a continuous popularity contest, the Captain was in little danger of having anyone question his actions.

I will let  you read the report and decide for yourself about rather or not Capt McWherter upheld the highest traditions of the US Navy and the United States. But I submit that in this case, given the nature of the Blue Angels, someone decided that all the leadership lessons we have learned since Lord Nelson was a Midshipman didn’t apply.  I know of nothing which gives the Blues a pass to any principle of leadership.  This squadron, above all, should embody all we strive for in Command and should be exemplary in every aspect.  If it turns out that I’m not right, that the nature of the Blues indeed makes them special and exempt from tried and true leadership lessons, then I submit they are not worth having in the United States Navy.




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