Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Well Rounded Mediocrity

As a father, I am interested in doing my part to help my son find his path.  As a Navy leader, I take great pride in mentoring others toward realizing their potential.  Clearly, there are many similarities between the two roles and the driving force behind both is a shared commitment to enjoy the journey while building both an individual and shared legacy.  Though I take greater pride in being a father, this post will focus primarily on the role of mentor, and I am fortunate enough to play that role for more than a few young Sailors.  

As a mentor, I get asked for advice on how to go about creating a successful career; one that is upwardly mobile, filled with opportunity to have a meaningful impact on Shipmates, and builds a meaningful legacy.  That amplifying information about what makes a successful career is important, for those who don't include the last two components in their definition of success are not people I am likely to consider a protege.  In fact, that is why I value significance far more than success (click here for more on the difference).  Recently, I asked a protege what advice she was receiving from other mentors.  She quickly replied with what seems to have become the standard, "sustained superior performance" and "be well-rounded."  I must admit that I have heard both and have grown numb to such advice over the years.  "Sustained superior performance" is a way we choose to encourage others to do whatever we ask of them and do IT well (or at least make sure it is reflected positively on your performance evaluations).  I bought into that years ago and will agree that it is part of the equation, but it fails to express the value we should be placing on the accumulation of specific experiences that result in the development of the knowledge, skills and abilities we hold in highest regard.  Personally, I believe WHAT we do is often just as important as doing IT well.  The second piece of advice has shaped me over the years, but you won't catch me advocating that anyone should focus on becoming "well-rounded."  

Don't get me wrong, I know what type of person we intend to build by encouraging them to be "well-rounded."  Generally speaking, well-rounded individuals are good at many things, have varied experiences, and have minimal character flaws.  Advocating for well-rounded individuals is a way of creating cookie-cutter personas in an effort to build predictable and repeatable skill-sets shared by each person on the team.  Put in those terms, it is a way of building clones who think and act in similar fashions.  It is a way of deliberately countering any of the objectives that our diversity (of thought) initiatives are attempting to address.  In fact, it is a way of dumbing down the team by making shared mediocrity the standard.

If I was building a baseball team, I wouldn't care if my pitcher could play the outfield;  if I was building a football team, I wouldn't care if our left tackle could catch the ball at all; and if I was choosing an Orthodontist, I wouldn't care if he knew anything about fixing a broken leg.  If other professions that valued specialized expertise made being well-rounded the mandate, think about how mediocre we would be.  How much of the specialized expertise we now take for granted would have never been realized?  By promoting a "jack of all trades" mentality, we are telling the team that mastery is not something we value.  We are telling them to address their weaknesses vice play to their strengths.  We are telling them to take jobs in which they may have little interest, instead of encouraging them to follow their passion and create unique value.  Truth is, I have grown up "well-rounded" and I want to break the cycle to an extent.

To build upon a recent Seth Godin Blogpost, I don't want to be surrounded by "well-rounded" mediocrity, I want to be a part of a team that is "well-rounded" in the aggregate, yet made up of "sharp" specialists.  Right now, I have the privilege of being a reporting senior for some of the Navy's finest.  With that privilege comes the responsibility to help shape the future Wardroom and Chief's Mess.  I will make the most of that opportunity by facilitating front of the line privileges for those who have something unique to offer, who are more oblong than round (current climate will never make being sharp acceptable, at least not in the wardroom), and who are passionate about fully developing and contributing through their specialized skills. 

I will do my part to promote diversity across the team, to encourage specialization, and to build a well-rounded team made up of sharp individuals.  My hope is that others choose to use their influence to break the cycle of mediocrity that our emphasis on sustained superior well-rounded Sailors is promoting.  We can be less relevant and well-rounded or we can be pioneers and sharp.  We cannot have it both ways...

As a father, I will encourage my son to be a master of "The Golden Rule", to follow his passion, and to make a self-defined meaningful legacy his mandate.  I hope that he aspires to more than being "well rounded."


  1. This reminds me of Admiral Crowe's book In the Line of Fire. That book and the advice of my sophomore year Officer Instructor in NROTC laid the foundation for the path I would seek in life. My OI told me, "Look, NROTC is going to make you take calculus, physics, computer science, and all that, so choose a major in something that you enjoy and are interested in learning more." That was why I picked psychology for my major.

    In his book, ADM Crowe described how at every fork in the road of his career, he took the road less traveled. All his peers and mentors told him he was making a big mistake and he was ending his career by _________ (fill in the blank - getting a post-graduate degree, going to a joint job, or anything else that didn't stick to the submarine force norm).

    I've turned down a few opportunities in my career to do something career-enhancing in favor of doing something different and interesting (especially for shore duty), and I've ended up with some pretty awesome jobs and experiences along the way.

    Has it been upwardly mobile? Well, so far so good. Have I had a meaningful impact on my shipmates? I hope so, but I'll leave that for others to decide. Will I leave a meaningful legacy? I'll get back to you on that one.

  2. Sir,

    I like your ideas in this post, in part because I've always believed that there's absolutely nothing wrong with playing to one's strengths while contributing to the mission or playing to one's people's strengths to best accomplish the mission. My leadership seems to agree - it has modified its production SOP to leverage my strong written communication skills to help my current shore command get its message to the Fleet. However, I run into two problems with thinking about how to execute this on a mass scale:

    1) BUPERS and the career progression wickets don't really line up with anyone playing to their strengths.

    I think operationally, not tactically. I'd love to spend the rest of my career as a staff officer, where the Navy writ large could use my planning and writing talents. I think there should be an avenue for me to do so. However, I can't progress in aviation without flying (tactical) tours. If I were instead an exceptional tactician, I'd be dragged away from the environment where the Navy could benefit from those skills in order to get operational-level experience on a staff (noted, however, that it is far easier to stay at the tactical level in aviation). My rock-solid troubleshooter that can teach every system in the plane but can't find his way through a pile of evals or chits shouldn't be placed in a position where paperwork becomes his primary mission. Until BUPERS and selection boards are willing to consider the value added in alternative career paths, I can't JUST play to my strengths - I HAVE to try to become the well-rounded sustained superior performer in all areas.

    2) COs rarely have the ability to hand-pick players who would bring the missing skill set to the team.

    Despite the CMS-ID program on the enlisted side, finding the people with the required/desired NECs AND the missing unquantified skill set is extraordinarily difficult. This is equally true with officers, whose experience isn't always quantified in AQDs. Developing people who are exceptional at certain skills, but aren't well-rounded, may mean your own team functions at a high level (well, as long as you keep replacing outfielders with outfielders), but means the next command for that individual cannot count on a certain level of performance, no matter what role the person is forced to play.

    I'd be interested in how you, as a CO, would address these issues.

    LT EWB

  3. I think that the fear is in over-specializing. You certainly want your to catch fly-balls, swing the bat and steal second on occasion. It'd be nice if that pitcher could lay down a sacrifice bunt in addition to throwing a fastball.
    We've designated the Enlisted ranks as our specialists, with ratings and NECs to signify that. I think our officers need to have the full spectrum of IW.
    In the SWO world, you can certainly take the Engineering route all the way to command, but you're out of luck if you didn't snag an OOD letter, a SWO pin, and a TAO letter on the way up.

  4. As flawed as my sports analogies are to some, I would offer that my pitcher must be great on the mound, first and foremost. If he is not, than the other things just don't matter.

    I have seen the push for generalists trickle down the ranks. Those who aspire to the Senior Enlisted Ranks are being encouraged (intentionally or not) to think of leadership as "taking care of Sailors" and "pushing blue folders". I would offer that we need to return to the culture that proudly held CPOs as our most prized technical experts within their rating's core skills. Realize that I may be focusing on the exception and not the rule (and exaggerating things a bit), but the number of exceptions seem to be increasing as we push for college education across the ranks, well-rounded collateral duty holders, and a more generalized set of shared KSAs.

    Your SWO example is a good one. I am not advocating that we move away from a common set of shared experiences, knowledge, skills, and abilities. I am merely advocating that we consider being deliberate about the specialized expertise that we build within individuals on top of that strong foundation.

  5. Two quotes that seem particularly relevant for this discussion. The first, from General Mattis:

    "Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you."

    And the second, which has motivated me for years, is from Bruce Sterling:

    "Don't become a well-rounded person. Well-rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person. Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a pufferfish."

    That quote is part of a much larger quote about embracing what makes you great, and defying the expectations of people around you.

    Great words to live by, all of them. Have Happy New year, Sean.

  6. I think one of the beauties of the mix of specialists and generalists is that a Commanding Officer generally has enough of each of these at his/her disposal to put the best team on the field. I have used Chief Petty Officers as Department Heads where appropriate when I didn't have an officer to fill the bill. In an EA6B you probably want to have two specialists and there's no room for a generalist. In an EP-3, you have some more flexibility. In our IW/cryptologic community, you are going to want and will probably always have both generalists and specialists. An informed Flag deck and active IWOCM/Detailing shop will be able to make the best use of both.

  7. Fantastic read, CDR Heritage. I have never viewed things from this perspective, and highly agree on why specialization is very important instead of just relying on a well rounded mediocrity mindset. We as humans are all born with certain gifts, or specialties, that when fully realized pushes humanity forwards in time. It's natural that we specialize; it has been embedded in our DNA since the beginning of our existence. To deny that amazing part of who we are, as natural masters of our trade, would be to deny a crucial aspect of our identity as human beings. We were born to be great, not mediocre. With the help of people like yourself, CDR Heritage, many men and women have had a chance of realizing their full potential. For that we thank you.

    -Zachary Laney

  8. Justin Rogers ENS, USN (1170)December 31, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    The Navy values Leadership first and foremost and this post epitomizes what I call BOLD leadership! Hooyah! I just try and remember to do my best and be a good shipmate and hope that they rest will fall into place. There should be a follow on post to the leadership dilemma here, like, how do you deal with incompetence AND how do we motivate people to break past the status quo (i.e. people choosing incompetence)?!

  9. Sir, my son is a prospective Navy OCS candidate and I have recently engaged in this debate on the Navy OCS forum. Your words of wisdom are prescient, geared towards the changing warrior skills needed for an evolving mission for changing and complex future and much appreciated by this reader.

  10. In reality, we need both in this world... People who specialize, and people who can jump into any industry... There isn't a definite answer as to which is better because these two go hand in hand

  11. On a deserted island, well-rounded could be a good thing (Navy vessel perhaps). However, in the corporate world, and truly within our community, it is the specialist that is truly needed to continuously and consistently conquer our adversaries. Let's change that paradigm together!