What Motivates Navy Leaders? The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

What Motivates Navy Leaders? The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

14.7 min read

Jeanne M. Mc Donnell

The Navy – it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure! Get technical training, see the world, earn educational benefits, and be part of the fight against global terrorism! These are just a few of the reasons people are motivated to join the Navy. The Navy experience varies from sailor to sailor causing some to leave the Navy after a few years and others to make it a career. After their duty station, the biggest influence on a sailor’s Navy experience is typically their leader and that person’s leadership style.

Leadership styles in the Navy can be compared to a Clint Eastwood movie; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Generally when a Sailor or Navy veteran is asked who their best leader was, it won’t take them much time to identify the good. Similarly, when ask who their worst Navy leader was, they can identify the bad almost immediately. Then there are those sailors who have experienced the ugly Navy leader. These are sailor’s who have survived bosses whose leadership styles are so toxic, the leader is often relieved from their position.

What leads to these people in authority to act the way they do, whether good, bad, or ugly? It has been suggested that a leaders inner motives, combined with their competencies, drives leadership style.[1] The leader chooses their leadership style to help them best achieve their motives. This article explores what motivates one subsection of the military, naval leaders, and how that motivation influences the specific leadership style or styles they use.

Honor, Courage, and Commitment

All sailors are required to know and expected to live the Navy’s Core Values of “Honor, Courage, and Commitment.” Honor requires truthfulness, honesty, integrity, respect for others, knowing right from wrong, and acting in an ethical manner. Courage is the personal and moral fortitude to do what is right whether facing anything from enemy fire to a temptation. Commitment means staying the course regarding the oath to ‘defend and protect,’ personal behavior, technical skills, and respect for others.[2]  The core values give all sailors the fortitude to fulfill their duty to their followers and their country.

These core values were not arbitrarily arrived at. Being honest was rated the top characteristic of admired leaders in repeated studies.  Even though the studies were conducted with non-military personnel, courage was also ranked high. These values drive commitment and without commitment, a leader’s credibility diminishes.[3]

Navy Leadership Training

The Navy has long recognized that leadership styles and skill levels have an impact on mission accomplishment, retention, and morale. For years, the Navy has had the Naval Leadership Continuum which provides career-long leadership training from E-4 to the flag officer level.  The top three leaders of any Navy command are expected to attend leadership training at the commanding officer, executive officer, or command master chief level as appropriate. Navy leadership training is not only for senior leaders but is also targeted at far more junior personnel. Navy leadership training has such a good reputation Forbes magazine reported that many of the top corporations in the nation have studied it “…to see what they can learn and adapt from the Navy, to weave into their own cultures of leadership learning and development.”[4]

Sounds good, right? Despite the majority of Navy leaders who uphold the highest traditions of our nation, other Navy leaders continue to make headlines for leadership failures.  Regrettably, these incidents greatly damage the leader’s career and normally reflect poorly on his or her family, service, and country. What motivates these leaders to stray from the sound leadership principles which they have been taught? And can their leadership style predict hidden motivations?

In reality, it is difficult to know what truly motivates an individual, but with most leaders there are indications of what motivates them. Going back to Clint Eastwood’s outline, let’s look at some well-known naval leaders, their leadership styles, and what may have motivated them.

The Good

While stationed on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon in the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to serve with two great naval leaders, General Peter Pace, USMC, and Admiral Vernon Clark, USN. At the time, they were both three-star flag officers and served in key positions on the staff. Both were strategic thinkers with stellar reputations as intelligent, honest, hard working, and selfless leaders who cared strongly not only for the mission but for their people.  There was never a question that both men loved their country and were ready to do whatever needed to be done to get the mission accomplished. Their motivation was to serve not only their leaders and followers but their country and fellow countrymen.

Both of these gentlemen had similar leadership styles – a combination of servant leadership and transformational leadership. Servant leadership has been described as a style where the leader places others at the center instead of themselves and who view their task as serving others.[5] A transformational leadership style is evident when the leader dismisses using their position or rank to get something done and “…instead attempts to motivate and mobilize followers by persuading them to take ownership of their roles in a more grand mission that is shared by all members of the organization.”[6] There are some who would suggest these leadership styles are “touchy-feely” or not goal-oriented enough, but this is not the case. It should be noted that both these men were fiercely dedicated to the mission of national defense and their leadership style prompted others to emulate that dedication to the mission despite danger, family separation, low pay, and difficult living conditions.  These two exemplary leaders each had 30+ years of service to their country. Through these years, there were countless examples of actions that personified the type of leader they were.  An example from each helps to show their true colors.

Admiral Clark continued to excel after his tour on the Joint Staff and rose to become the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), the Navy’s top position, in July 2000. A quick review of his CNO guidance to his leaders demonstrates his commitment to the mission and to his people.

Winning the Global War on Terrorism is our number one priority… Last year I told you I    wanted every leader to be evaluated on two things, their commitment to the growth and     development of their people and above all to mission accomplishment…I want each of you to understand that mission accomplishment means both warfighting effectiveness and resourcefulness. It has been said that great leaders do the right thing, and great managers do things right—we need to do both…People remain at the heart of all we do; they are capital assets in our Navy. We have invested heavily to do what is right for our people. As we look to the future, we will build on the impressive progress we have made in   recruiting, assigning, and retaining our military and civilian professionals. “Growth and development” is our byline and I expect every leader to be deeply involved in developing their shipmates. Active leadership is making it happen today and will do so in 2003.[7]

Admiral Clark didn’t just talk the leadership talk – he walked the walk.  In January 2002, he traveled half way around the world to reenlist sailors onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. His words following the ceremony demonstrated his commitment to his sailors, “I came out here to look you in the eye, and tell you something that I couldn’t tell you if I just sent you a message.  I came out here to look at you and tell you that the American people are so proud of what you’re doing.”[8] 

General Pace also was clear in what he thought was important – the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen that he led in the nation’s highest military position. In 2007, while serving as the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), he was told that he would not be renominated for the CJCS position. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested to Pace that he voluntarily retire to reduce awkwardness with the Bush Administration. He refused. After a speech at the Joint Forces Staff College, he was asked why he did not voluntarily step down.[9]

“I said I could not do it for one very fundamental reason, and that is that ‘Pfc. Pace’ in Baghdad should not think ever that his chairman, whoever that person is, could have stayed in the battle and voluntarily walked off the battlefield,” he said. Out of his sense of   leadership, he could not even consider the idea, Pace said. Therefore, he did not submit       his retirement papers until after it became publicly known that he was not going to be renominated. “The other piece for me personally was that some 40 years ago I left some guys on the battlefield in Vietnam who lost their lives following Second Lieutenant Pace,” he said. “I promised myself then that I will serve this country until I was no longer needed. I need to be told that I’m done. I’ve been told I’m done.”[10]

Both Clark and Pace were motivated by love for country, their countrymen, and those they led. Their leadership styles clearly reflected and promoted achievement of their motives.

The Bad

Not all successful military officers are necessarily good leaders. Most career officers have seen leaders “that eat their young” and wondered how it happens when a poor leader gets promoted or put into a position of power. Retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Mark Johnson noted, “Anyone can try to impress and fool the boss and peers and actually be successful doing it…But the true test, the true mark of your respect and character comes from below, not above.”[11] What motivates this negative type of leadership style could range from anything from insecurity to over-confidence. An interesting case is that of Admiral Earnest J. King, who some consider one of the greatest Naval heroes of the 20th century.

Admiral King served as both the Commander in Chief and the Chief of Naval Operations in World War II. He was an extraordinarily intelligent risk-taker who quickly climbed the ranks after graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. In a biography of King, Thomas Buell noted his primary motivation, “King had but one aim in his life during his first forty years of naval service; to become the Chief of Naval Operations…He made no secret of it. He would tell anyone who would listen…”[12]

As his primary motivation was self-interest, it is not surprising to find that many subordinates found his leadership style abrasive and uncompromising. As the Navy Commander in Chief, King worked his staff to the point where there were illnesses including heart attacks and even a suicide. One officer who worked for King reported he did not tolerate errors and that “Censure was swift, devastating, and before a cloud of witnesses.”[13] Another officer noted that filled rooms would clear out when he entered, “No one seemed to want to be where King was.”[14]

Admiral King was an extraordinarily successful naval officer who contributed to the Navy mission, but his brusque leadership style was clearly not appreciated by his Sailors. It is interesting to ponder if King’s abrasive leadership style would have been tolerated in today’s environment where command climate is a consideration. As King’s motivation to become Chief of Naval Operations was so strong, today he may have very well adapted his leadership style into something more acceptable.

The Ugly

It is disturbing that 39 senior Navy leaders were relieved for professional or personal incidents or indiscretions in 2011.  Equally concerning is so far in 2012, 26 senior Navy leaders have been fired.[15] Sexual harassment, hazing, drunk driving, adultery, incompetence, inappropriate relationships, cruelty, and maltreatment are some of the behaviors that these leaders were fired for. It is unlikely that these leaders intentionally wanted to end their careers in disgrace. What was their motivation for this poor leadership behavior? Each of these leaders was required to go through leadership training before they took their positions – training that reinforced that any of these behaviors would most likely lead to dismissal for cause. Training that also highlighted the difficult spot that this type of dismissal put their family, their command, their Navy, and their country in.

Possible motives were personal gain, sexual gratification, and a quest for power. Other contributors included stupidity and poor judgment. These motivations contrast sharply against motivations such as service to country, service to fellow service members, and mission accomplishment. When a leader is committed and motivated to their mission and their people, they intentionally avoid situations that encourage or facilitate poor decision making.

Way Ahead

Although less than one percent of commanding officers are relieved each year, it would be wise to remember these are only the ones who were caught and reported. How many sailors are out there trying to hold on and waiting for a transfer date for their boss or themselves?  Besides the personal embarrassment to the leader and the Navy, there are significant costs to the taxpayer for these leadership failures. One of the primary symptoms of dysfunctional leadership behavior is lower productivity due to low morale. Gallup estimates it can cost an organization approximately 1/3 of its payroll cost. Additionally, retention can be negatively affected resulting in increased costs for the Navy. Then there is the obvious cost of having to find and train qualified reliefs for those who are dismissed.[16]

One solution may be to go through these cases and analyze what were the motives of the leader that prompted the incident or incidents that ended their careers? When we understand one’s motives, we can better understand their behavior. And could an analysis of leadership styles help to predict poor behavior?  If so, who would be best to conduct an analysis of leadership styles?

A study on destructive leadership behavior in the Swedish military was recently completed which could have bearing on this problem. The study provided a survey to subordinates of military leaders and asked them to answer “How well do the following statements fit with regard to your immediate supervisor/commander?” Twenty statements were rated including: uses threats to get their way, has violent tendencies, put’s own needs ahead of the group, gives unclear instructions, etc. The survey could be completed in a short time and the results proved statistically reliable.[17] This instrument also fits nicely into a 360-degree evaluation. Although some officers and senior enlisted would be threatened by a system such as this, those leaders who have the right motives and right leadership styles should welcome one. As Lt. Col. Mark Johnson noted it is easy to trick your leaders and peers into thinking you are a great leader.  It is not so easy to trick your subordinates – our service members are smart and know a good leader when they see one.[18]


Personal motivations do impact leadership styles for the simple reason that in order to get what they want people naturally adopt those characteristics that will help them achieve their goal. When motivations fall outside of the Navy’s core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment, leadership styles also fall outside of the acceptable boundaries the Navy has tried to instill not only through its leadership training but culture as well.

About the author:

Captain Jeanne McDonnell (ret.) served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years. Command assignments included Naval Support Activity Norfolk, Naval Administrative Command, and Transient Personnel Unit Norfolk. She also served in the Pentagon on the Joint Staff and Navy Staff. Jeanne has a Masters Degree in Education from Old Dominion University and another in Military Studies from U.S. Marine Corps University. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University.

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[1] Brusman, Maynard. “Emotionally Intelligent Leadership Styles – Leaders Inner Motivations.” EzineArticles. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Aug 2012.

[2] Harmon, C. “The US Navy Core Values – Honor, Courage and Commitment.” EzineArticles. n.d. n. page. Web. 24 Aug. 2012.

[3] Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2010). The truth about leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Saslow, S. “Inside The U.S. Navy’s Leadership School.” Forbes Magazine. 27 04 1210: n. page. Web. 25 Aug. 2012.

[5] Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. The Truth about Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 138. Print.

[6] Phillips, Donald. Lincoln on Leadership. New York, NY: Business Plus, 1992. 172. Print.

[7] Clark, Vernon. “CNO Guidance for 2003.” Global Security. Global Security, 24 January 2003. Web. 25 Aug 2012.

[8] Clark, Vernon. United States. U.S. Navy . All Hands Call aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). 2002. Web. <https://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/clark/speeches/clark-tr020115.txt>.

[9] Garamone, Jim. “Pace Pledges His Best Through End of Term.” American Forces Press Service [Norfolk, VA] 15 June 2007, n. pag. Web. 25 Aug. 2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Johnson, Mark. Lessons in Leadership: Straight Talk from a Green Beret. Dallas, TX: Brown Books Publishing Company, 2005. 111. Print.

[12] Buell, Thomas. Master of Sea Power. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1980. xx. Print.

[13] Ibid., pg 91.

[14] Ibid., pg 232.

[15] “Commanding officer, XO and senior enlisted firings.” Navy Times [Springfield, VA] 3 July 2012, Web. 22 Aug. 2012. <https://www.navytimes.com/news/2012/07/navy-2012-co-xo-cmc-firings-list/>.

[16]  Tavanti, Marco. “Managing Toxic Leaders: Dysfunctional Patterns.” BEPRESS.Com. DePaul University, Jun 2011. Web. 26 Aug 2012.

[17] Gerry Larsson, Maria Fors Brandebo, Sofia Nilsson, (2012),”Destrudo-L: Development of a short scale designed to measure destructive leadership behaviours in a military context,” Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol.33 Iss: 4 pp. 383 – 400

[18] Johnson, Mark. Lessons in Leadership: Straight Talk from a Green Beret. Dallas, TX: Brown Books Publishing Company, 2005. 111. Print.

  • Quote of the Day

    “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.”

    — Andrew Carnegie