The Navy's recent decision to strip job titles from every sailor is a misstep of epic proportions – one that should serve as a stark lesson for leaders across all the services.
This fall, the Navy revealed it was suddenly removing all 91 of its enlisted ratings. This so-called "modernization" effort has been billed as a way to broaden training and career opportunities for sailors. It also satisfies the Navy's desire to strip "man" from its titles, i.e. fire controlman, corpsman and seaman.
This move, thrust on the service by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus with the endorsement of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and his former top enlisted adviser, was poorly conceived, researched and communicated to the fleet.
It's been a total morale crusher, with thousands of sailors lobbying for an immediate reversal.
Unlike the other services, sailors have been identified by their job title and not just their rank. As one sailor noted, ratings have been part of Navy tradition since 1775. For sailors, it's part of their identity – a badge of honor and a source of pride.
"Our sailors don't understand it," an E-9 told Navy Times about the change. "We don't understand why this could not have been a two- to-three year, very gradual process that examined all of the effects from advancement to recruiting."
A few leadership lessons should be gleaned from the Navy's folly:
•When considering a sweeping personnel change, include focus groups of all ranks, not just senior enlisted. Had Navy leaders actually taken the time to discuss the changes with junior enlisted, they could have recognized the kind of firestorm they were about to cause.
•Realize that changing tradition is always going to be met with resistance. If the change is truly needed, leaders must have a clear roll-out plan, with straight-forward guidance for junior leaders. Officials need clear answers to questions like, how this change will affect promotions and the insignia on uniforms.
•Be ready to justify the rule changes. The Navy has largely failed to articulate how removing titles is going to suddenly help careers — these details are still being figured out by a new working group. Lacking them has undermined the Navy's case for why this drastic change was needed now.
It's a shame that Mabus took away these time-honored titles so abruptly, marring what is expected to be his last months of service. He's created a mess and handed it off to the next service secretary to deal with.
The remedy to this fiasco is to reinstate these titles immediately and wait for the results of the career flexibility review, when officials will finally be able to answer the questions on sailors' minds.
Future military leaders should use this as a case study. Avoid such fiascos at all costs. Challenge your superiors when they propose harebrained ideas. Make sure that sweeping change is done with careful forethought and proper execution.