Navy's Ambitious New Effort Aims to Give Sailors Understanding of 'What Right Looks Like'

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Shoup
Sailors heave a mooring line on the fo’c’sle aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Shoup (DDG 86) while conducting a scheduled port visit in Chinhae, Republic of Korea, Oct. 12, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Donavan K. Patubo)

In an administrative message released with little fanfare on Monday, the Navy quietly embarked on an ambitious effort that leaders hope will reshape culture and the relationships commanders have with their sailors.

Dubbed "Culture of Excellence 2.0," or COE 2.0, the initiative and its goals come across as complex and grand. It attempts to make about 34 instructions more relevant and accessible to the fleet. It also looks to introduce new tools and methods for leaders to root out toxicity in the ranks while instilling new sailors with better leadership techniques.

But, behind all that, the admiral driving the new policy had a more succinct goal -- "make giving a s**t a standard."

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Rear Adm. Brett Mietus was one of several Navy officials who exclusively spoke with ahead of the policy's unveiling. He said a main aim of the initiative, which took him and his team nearly two years to develop, was the desire to explain to the whole fleet -- not just junior sailors -- what being a good leader or sailor means in ways that go beyond just high-minded, if somewhat nebulous, ideals such as "honor, courage and commitment."

The outcome, according to Mietus, is that "you can really, from beginning to end, understand ... in a detailed way, what right looks like."

The "playbook" that was released as part of the initiative features a page that offers multiple examples of what honor, courage and commitment actually look like in practice.

Mietus noted that the standards they've laid out for the Navy are "designed to be hard because what we don't want to do is make everybody go, 'Oh, yeah, I'm there,' and move on."

Though, more interestingly, the book also offers examples of what "faking" those ideals looks like as well.

Faking honor, for example, would be "avoiding tough situations and/or conversations through inaction" while faking courage is "leading through fear and compliance versus respect," the book explains.

The book also lists 30 warning signs of bad people, leaders and teams.

The policy and the efforts of Mietus and his team come at a challenging time for the Navy. The service has been rocked by a series of scandals over suicide clusters, which have made it hard to ignore some of the challenges facing sailors today.

Plus, like the other services, the Navy is struggling to recruit enough sailors. Last year, the sea service fell more than 7,000 recruits short of its goals.

After revealed at least nine suicides between November 2019 and April 2022 aboard the USS George Washington -- a carrier undergoing a yearslong refit in the shipyards outside of Norfolk, Virginia -- the subsequent investigations and sailor interviews showed that sailors were largely left to suffer alone while facing tough living conditions in industrial sites with long commutes and oblivious leaders.

That fall, another cluster of four suicides in the span of a month was revealed at a nearby regional maintenace center where staff had a large population of sailors undergoing some sort of medical issue or event.

An investigation into that cluster revealed that, among other issues, leaders there were "not well-suited" to provide effective management, administration and oversight of the sailors, and the Navy's own audit service "recently determined that the Navy, writ large, has failed to fully implement the suicide prevention program."

Finally, a report on one suicide out of several on the USS Theodore Roosevelt not only found similarities to the George Washington, but that the Navy's approach of supplementing mental health-care professionals with regular sailors was not working.

Many sailors in that case blamed one chief petty officer for the suicide while another, senior chief petty officer was "specifically cited by multiple witnesses as being unsupportive of sailors accessing mental health resources."

The Navy's latest fleetwide survey also found that stress and burnout are on the rise across the fleet, and sailors struggle with finding good work-life balances.

Force Master Chief Jason Knupp, another member of the team behind the initiative, passionately noted that his hope for COE 2.0 was to address some of those issues so that "I can look a parent in the eyes, I can look a spouse in the eyes, I can look the community in the eyes and say, 'Your sons and daughters are on loan to me, to the United States Navy; I'm going to return them with honor.'"

"'I care about them because you've given them to me, and you've given me your most precious asset,'" he added.

Mietus acknowledged that the Navy has had trouble creating a healthy culture servicewide. He noted that many commanders simply struggle, because managing increasingly diverse and generationally different crews is just a challenge.

"We would never willfully violate a safety procedure ... but we eat into the margin when it comes to our people," Mietus said.

According to data provided in the playbook, the Navy's enlisted population is now more Gen Z than millennial -- 49.8% to 45.5%, respectively. Meanwhile, its officer corps is 63% millennials, and the next largest segment is Gen X at 19.8%.

"My generation looked up, saw positional authority -- check, are you ethical -- check, and then it was, 'Do you care about me?'" Mietus, who joined the Navy in 1992, remarked.

"The younger generations, it's more, 'Do you care about me,' and so part of this pivot is helping people acknowledge that younger generations aren't as enamored with positional authority as they used to be," he went on to explain.

As part of this new initiative, the Navy is planning on rolling out several new methods for commanders and Navy leaders to know what is going on in their commands.

One will be a "virtual CO suggestion box", an easy and electronic way for sailors to submit complaints, critiques and suggestions to their command's leadership anonymously.

Knupp said the idea behind the move is "to create different avenues" for sailors to make their voices heard.

"It makes the crew accessible to the other commanding officer to get after those things that might be hidden," he added.

In fact, much of the policy documents are sprinkled with QR codes to help ease sailors' access to either the underlying policy documents or the resources being referenced.

Another tool that rolled out alongside COE 2.0 is the commander's risk mitigation dashboard -- a website that aims to use statistical models to "analyze data from 31 databases consisting of over 16 million columns of possible predictors and over 6,000 events to generate command-specific risk scores for suicide, illicit drug and alcohol use, sexual assault (both victim and perpetrator), and sexual harassment," according to the initiative's website.

Knupp explained that this data should tell commanders that they need "to work on my messaging, maybe assign an investigator to go look at this or request external resources to come in here and help my command."

"There might be some stuff that's hidden, and so we're using products and survey tools to make this more apparent to the other commanders so he or she can get after it," he added.

One of the investigations into the George Washington suicides found that the warning signs were in the ship's survey data but went unheeded.

In a 2019 command climate survey, the George Washington's results were below aircraft carrier and Navywide averages in all assessment categories. A 2020 survey showed the same results.

Plus, from 2019 to 2020, those same surveys showed that sailors' "awareness of suicidal ideations" on the ship ballooned from 31% to 56%.

Now, Mietus and his teams say they are also introducing new ways to hold commands more accountable for the standards that are being laid out or clarified in the new policy push.

The admiral said the Navy has now managed "100% accountability" on debriefing the results of the command climate surveys with commanders and their bosses.

"What happens a lot of times in commands is if you're my boss, I may have some things that are not very good, but unless we have that deep conversation, then maybe they're not going to be uncovered," Mietus said.

The goal for 2024 is to have those climate surveys linked to the Culture of Excellence materials, "so that if a command is not meeting the standards here, it should be pretty obvious and that will give the [Navy leaders] the tools to step in," he said.

Mietus also said that a command's yearly assessment will be based on the criteria they've rolled out "so nobody can ignore COE 2.0, or if they do so, it's at their own peril, because they've got to talk to their boss about how they're implementing it."

But ultimately, the goal is much broader. Mietus and his team are looking to shift the Navy's culture to a place where the place mats, books and other tools are not necessary and many of the concepts they've developed are second nature.

"I think what would be different is that our Navy would be more deeply invested in our people," he said. "Gen Z is pretty clear on what they want. They want to join a group, they want to feel like they're protected by their leaders, they're in a group that gives them a sense of purpose and some meaning."

As part of that effort, the team hopes to include many of the COE 2.0 materials in the curricula of various training events and schools that will touch every sailor in the fleet.

Knupp said that "we'd like to have a recruiter talking about this, and they're already doing it at [boot camp], we're already doing it at [the enlisted leader development courses]" before noting that the Navy's top surface warfare officer, Vice Adm. Brendan McLane, "is layering this in and deliberately developing his officers to this standard."

However, despite the lofty aims, there was a sense of pragmatism among the team.

"We shouldn't wake up tomorrow morning and say, the Navy's changed -- It's not," Knupp said. "I expect the needle's really going to move in about a year to two."

In the meantime, Mietus and his team are already looking to make improvements.

"One of the great things about this document is that it's living and breathing," Capt. Walter Mainor, a former destroyer squadron commander, said on Monday. "The key is, we're getting that constant feedback and keep trying to tweak it to make the process better. I think that's very, very important."

Related: Navy Survey Shows Continued Problems with Stress, Burnout Among Sailors, But Progress on Culture

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