Leadership Issues in the Navy Culture


Military life is complex, stressful, and is always associated with risk. Although the general perception of people in service is that they face constant external threats, the reality is that there are numerous psychological reasons for personnel mortality and mental health issues. In most extreme cases, such risks result in suicidal behavior. The deliberate infliction of harm to oneself is a public health problem in itself, yet the challenges faced by those actively enlisted multiply the psychological pressure on them. NATO directly acknowledges that “military personnel are an identified subgroup at risk for suicide” (Research Task Group 218, 2018). Subsequently, any person who is serving in the armed forces is expected to deal with mental anxieties in some way.

Although every branch of the military has common risks, serving in the navy is unique. The requirements placed on candidates are stricter than the usual military selection. Navy personnel live in a closed system with a highly developed masculine culture. In order to successfully overcome peer pressure and manage duties, mental resilience is necessary. However, there are concerns that current younger generation is particularly vulnerable to anxieties, depression, suicidal ideation, and psychiatric disorders (Plochocki, 2019). The reason why this apprehension is relevant to the navy is that these young people constitute the main source of new recruits for the navy. As a result, with each consecutive year, mental health issues are likely to increase in the navy, as more people with weaker mental resilience are enlisted.

It can even be argued that the navy is already facing these challenges. Most recently, a story about a number of suicides on the USS Washington went viral, causing many people to question current mental health resilience in the armed forces (Bever, 2022). Yet, this event is relatively in comparison with the overall tendency of the increase in mortality caused by self-harm. The report prepared by the Defense Suicide Prevention Office (2021) showcases a steady suicide growth rate for the past five years. Even though the same data indicates that the navy has significantly fewer deaths than the Army, this is the branch that currently receives most media attention.

Any incidence involving the well-being of military personnel concerns their leadership. Although it is not plausible that the leader can control each aspect of their subordinate’s activity on duty, substantial responsibility is still placed on them. As a result, all negative events transpiring with the personnel are blamed on their leadership. The recent suicide spray on USS Washington can be attributed to the poor management and inadequate execution of leaders’ functions. This paper will focus on the influence of transformational, servant, and intrusive leadership styles on the mental health state of the US navy personnel.

Leadership History and Structure of the US Navy

In order to understand the current state of affairs in the US navy, it is important to consider its roots. At the start of the twentieth century, the US geography determined its reliance on water superiority. Protection of sea trade routes and American coastline demanded a strong naval force. World War I was a pivotal point for the US foreign policy, as its entry into the war signified America’s larger participation in international relations. Although the war was primarily land based, large numbers of troops had to be transported to Europe by sea.

World War II saw the naval forces of the United States in large-scale action. During this was, the US navy hierarchy took shape, in which it remains to this day. Before World War II, the highest rank in the navy an officer could achieve was Admiral of the Navy. Currently, this title is reserved for wartime only, which makes Admiral the highest rank. Aside from this, historically, navy leadership has stayed the same for over seventy-five years. Since World War II, the US navy has been the major factor of the US global sea domination.

Currently, the US navy is the largest naval force in the world. The Department of the Navy is the organizational body responsible for overseeing all operations of the US maritime forces. The Department of the Navy is headed by the Secretary of the Navy, who is always a civilian. The chief of naval operations is a military advisor to the Secretary of the Navy and is also the military head of the navy. The chief of naval operations is simultaneously one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are military advisors to key state people, including the president. However, neither Secretary of the Navy, nor the chief of naval operations have the authority to execute operational command over forces.

Military operations, training, and maintenance are conducted by nine component commands. Each component of operating forces is led by highest-ranking officers in the US Navy – Admirals, Vice admirals, and Rear admirals. Component commands have control over numbered fleets, which are further divided into task forces. Each task force is composed of task groups, while task elements are at the lowest level. Depending on the purpose of the operation, different combinations of units are used (U.S. Department of Defense, n.d.). Each vessel has a commanding officer who is usually a captain but may also be a lieutenant on smaller ships. Ranks from admirals to ensigns represent commissioned officers – they outrank warrant officers and enlisted personnel.

Overall, the structure of navy leadership discloses a long chain of command. However, the chain itself is dual – there is an operational side and an administrative side to it (U.S. Department of Defense, n.d.). The operational hierarchy is directly related to military objectives, such as conducting exercises and carrying out military strikes. The administrative chain is responsible for education, training, and overall readiness. As the Secretary of the Navy is a civilian, the overall policies are decided by politicians rather than professional officers. As a result, any sailor, whether it is commissioned officer or a seaman recruit, has to manage challenges arising from both sides of command. The success of one’s efforts depends on the choice and execution of a leadership style.

Leadership Styles

Any social context presupposes distribution of roles among people. Derindag (2020) defines leadership as “the art of mobilizing a particular group of people in order to achieve a particular goal” (p. 84). In the military, leaders are positions that require certain managing skills for accomplishing set objectives. This implies that these people are free to choose how they will approach a certain task. Although every individual is unique, there are common leadership styles employed by noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers alike.

Transformational leadership refers to the control style, which presupposes rapid changes in the surrounding environment. In essence, a person with this attitude views any task as a new challenge, which requires proper social adaptation. However, an important component of transformational leadership is adherence to morality. A person can force subordinates to adapt via coercion or fear. Yet, in order for the style to be classified as transformational, it has to be driven by positive values. More specifically, “the transformational leader makes life meaningful for their employees by providing empathy and an atmosphere of loyalty which keeps the excitement and enthusiasm emotions alive” (Derindag, p. 85). Although this observation was made in regards to a business environment, the same principle applies to the military context as well.

One of the most common misconceptions about the military is that it is a rigid and static organization, where changes are rare. However, people in active duty have to operate in a changing environment. Whether it is the arrival of new technology or an unexpected development during a combat operation, commanding officers are faced with choices. Transformational leaders choose to institute qualitative improvements in their subordinate group in order to adapt to rapidly changing environment (Derindag, 2020). They do so by motivating their followers or subordinate personnel into acting in a specific way. Therefore, transformational leadership is defined by the use of a particular value system.

Servant leadership is a different approach to ensuring group cohesion. It presupposes that society knows what it needs and requires a person who would direct and organize it. Servant leader executes this function by doing what they are expected to do. This is the reason why they are labeled as servants – they prioritize the needs of subordinates or followers and ensure that they are met (Bayram & Geylan, 2020). Whereas in transformational style, the leader is the source of values and change, in the servant style, it is the group that decides what is best for it. This power dynamic also implies that servant leaders are more dependent on their followers.

In relation to the military, servant leadership can take the form of a hands-on approach. For example, commanders with this style spend more time with their subordinates, the goal of which is to minimize the distinction between them and lower-ranking personnel (Bahmani et al., 2021). These small actions are an effective way of building trust and connecting with crew members. The better the relations between the subordinates and their leaders are, the more the later are informed of the formers’ issues. Furthermore, servant leaders are extremely attentive, which allows them to spot any mental health issues and prevent their deterioration.

Descriptions of these leadership styles imply almost impeccable commanders who care for their subordinates and do not allow any negativity to occur. However, this is not the development that currently takes place. The fact that suicide cases on the USS Washington are now widely known signifies the failure of some of the leaders in the navy to properly manage their personnel. Subsequently, it is important to explore the causes that lead to flaws in supposedly effective leadership styles.

An appropriate way to describe the transpiring management issues would be the onset of intrusive leadership. It refers to the control style, in which a leader imposes their viewpoint on subordinates. On the surface, it may seem similar to transformational leadership. The important distinction is the prevalence of moral values. Whereas transformational leaders encourage adaptation, intrusive leaders force changes regardless of the approval of the followers. Such an approach is notoriously negative, since it dismisses the viewpoints of subordinates. Furthermore, intrusive leadership is extremely inefficient as the leader presumes that they know better what is best for the group without actually consulting it.

It should be noted that such a managerial approach is not a rare occurrence in the military. Many service members who have staff assigned to them adopt the viewpoint that subordinates are not competent enough to discuss management issues. As a result, the stereotype of commanding officers’ always being right is extensively promoted. This mindset creates the atmosphere of distrust between leaders and subordinates, paves the way for conflicts and compromises emotional stability of personnel. In this regard, military relationships are rigid and respond extremely slowly to change. This is why psychological resilience is one of the most important selection criteria for active duty service members.

Contemporary Issues of Leadership in the Navy Culture

The described paradigm is relevant for all branches of armed forces. However, the navy has its own nuances, which accentuate leadership failures. In 2021, a report was published to the US Senate, which was titled “A Report on the Fighting Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet”. The paper details the finding of interviews with seventy-seven active duty and retired sailors on the subject of the navy culture (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021). The authors of the report sought to understand the reasons behind the rising concern of the state of the US navy, as well as the roots of several incidents that transpired in 2017 and 2016.

The report has ascertained six major issues negatively impacting the morale in the navy. The first one was identified as “insufficient leadership focus on warfighting” (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021, p. 4). It refers to the overall dissatisfaction with the military preparedness of the US naval forces. A common theme among interviewed sailors was the excessive reliance of commanding staff on bureaucracy and chores, which came at the expense of combat training. The proposed reasoning behind such a change was that the US navy lacks a real foreign threat that would give an incentive for naval commanders to prioritize military readiness. At the same time, numerous sailors and officers wonder if this assumption is still true as recently China showed interest in expanding its own fleet. Considering the reported absence of systematic combat training, many service members criticized navy leadership for shifting priorities and inadequate evaluation of the state of their own forces.

The second finding of the report concerned some of the disciplinary practices employed in the navy. Specifically, sailors pointed to the prevalence of “zero defect mentality” among the commanding staff (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021, p. 9). This term refers to the management mindset, in which mistakes of subordinates are punished with excessive severity. It should be noted that the military itself is not known as a forgiving organization. However, even by naval standards, some of the sanctions are too extreme. For instance, seemingly innocuous infractions, such as an unintended offense due to the poor choice of words can be punished with career termination (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021, p. 10). Although such conduct is by no means acceptable, ending one’s career because of it is not an adequate measure. This disciplinary policy leads to many promising service members abandoning the navy before they can put meaningful efforts at making any actual changes.

The third common complaint among the interviewed sailors was the influence of the media. Any event containing negativity immediately goes viral and attracts substantial attention. This is not unique to the navy news stories, any industry can be targeted by the news sources. The reason why service members are concerned lies in the commanding staff’s pandering to the media (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021, p. 11). The fear of negative publicity paralyzes commanding officers and prevents them from connecting with their subordinates and ascertaining problems because they can become widely known. In an effort to save public face, navy leadership avoids uncovering potentially damaging issues. Meanwhile, the overall morale is negatively affected, as service members do not trust their commanders. However, there is an underlying fundamental problem this vulnerability exposes. Navy leadership is easily influenced by external opinions and media attention, which can drive commanders to make decisions without considering their effects on the subordinate personnel.

The fourth ascertained finding was the inadequate financing of service warfare officers’ training. Compared to aviation and submarine programs, investments in the navy are severely circumscribed. The duties of surface warfare officers require extensive training and preparation, before they can start working. However, service members report that training programs have been cut and supplanted with supplementary materials. Specifically, interviewees noted that “new officers in this era reported to their ships, where they received 23 CDs from which they were expected to learn their jobs as they did them” (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021, p. 14). As a result, the qualifications and competency of junior officers have plummeted. Interviewees point to the efficiency demands as the primary reason behind this downgrade. Lack of investments in proper training signify the bureaucratic attitude of navy leadership for many sailors. The fact that commanding officers are not concerned about their subordinates’ qualifications implies their indifference or incompetence.

The fifth finding also concerned the implications of the desire to optimize navy costs. Any vessel has to be maintained in order to be in the proper combat shape. However, many interviewees noted a “poorly resourced and executed surface ship maintenance program” (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021, p. 16). This is a multifaceted problem, as numerous factors are ignored. In some cases, ships were ordered to continue deployment despite evident issues require maintenance. However, even when ships are in ports, there are complaints of inadequate or entirely absent assessment of conditions. Actually, the notorious USS Washington was also undergoing overhaul when the series of suicides transpired (Bever, 2022). Lack of adequate maintenance shortens the lifespan of vessels and may compromise their combat readiness at a critical point. Yet, notwithstanding the importance of regular maintenance, navy leadership does not prioritize it for the purpose of reducing budget spendings.

The final finding directly relates to the control style of navy leadership. Interviewed sailors criticized what they refer to as “culture of micromanagement” (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021, p. 18). It is expressed via excessive meddling with the work of subordinates. In practical terms, it implies that lower-ranking officers are not allowed to exercise autonomy on the vessel assigned to them. It creates the atmosphere of distrust between leadership and subordinates. Had the higher-ranking commanders been confident in the capabilities of the staff assigned to them, there would not have been the need to micromanage. Although technological advances, such as cameras and data sciences allowed such supervision to be present, it is the mutual distrust between superiors and subordinates that led to culture of micromanagement (Schmidle & Montgomery, 2021). This complaint is a textbook example of the intrusive leadership style. Commanders presume that they know better how sailors should perform their duties than sailors themselves.

Overall, the report has underscored numerous issues in the navy, which can all be summarized by an umbrella term – flawed leadership. In each of the findings, there is a strong dissatisfaction, irritation, and sometimes fear directed at commanding officers. The described problems signify a systemic crisis of the modern US navy. Yet, psychological implications of these issues are more important than any technical maintenance difficulties. The toxic relationships between superiors and subordinates predetermine the pressure on the personnel. Combined with the superiors’ reluctance to pay more attention to urgent problems, it is not surprising that mental health issues are widespread.

Possible Solutions

Ascertaining solutions to the emergence of psychiatric issues requires understanding mental health. Unlike physical conditions that are relatively independent of one’s emotional well-being, mental disorders are directly related to a person’s state of mind. Research indicates that the better an individual understands the meaning they attach to their life, the less likely they are to suffer from mental disorders (Trachik et al., 2020). At the same time, it is important to understand that certain risk factors for mental conditions are inevitable. For instance, emotions such as fear, sadness, and anxiety, are entirely normal behavioral responses to circumstances (Pilgrim, 2019). They become problematic when negativity becomes excessive and positive emotions do not compensate for them.

Prevention of suicide and mental health problems is an inherently internal issue of each unit. The way the relationships are formed in a particular unit determines the probability of a suicide or other mental health issues. Social interactions of naval vessels are constrained by strict hierarchy. Therefore, any meaningful change has to start with leadership styles. Trachik et al. (2020) argue that “leaders who reinforce a sense of purpose may lower the likelihood of Soldier SI through reductions in TB and PB” (p. 4). SI stands for suicidal ideation, TB means thwarted belongingness, and PB refers to perceived burdensomeness. Ultimately, the recommendation is for a leader to clearly set a purpose and enthuse their subordinates into achieving it.

The first option is removing distractions and minimizing media exposure. Enlisted personnel and even lower-ranking commissioned officers already have restrictions that prevent them from using social networks even when they are not on duty. However, unless the senior leadership stops overreacting to each navy-related news story, subordinates will not sincerely follow this guidance. A simple solution is to extend media restrictions to higher-ranking officers. Leaders of the enlisted personnel can show their commitment to minimize distractions by spending more time with the crew and talking to them. Not only will it allow the leader to spot any mental health issues, but the crew members will also adopt a positive predisposition towards their commander, which is essential in suicide prevention.

The second solution is to make disciplinary policy less strict. For instance, all infractions can be classified by the order of severity and the appropriate punishment. In case such an administrative effort is ignored, middle-ranking officers can underreport some of their subordinates’ misbehavior. As Schmidle and Montgomery (2021) point out, “none of the four key Admirals who led victorious fleets in World War II would have made it to the rank of Captain in today’s Navy” (p. 4). Adopting a more forgiving mindset will give junior officers more incentive to pursue their career, thus resolving the problem of dissatisfied service members leaving, while decreasing pressure on those who are already stressed.

The third solution is to reintroduce the emphasis on warfighting as the primary purpose of the navy. Lower-ranking personnel has to understand that in the case of a real emergency, their subordinates are their comrades-in-arms. This is the point at which using the transformational leadership style is essential. Promotion of military values is a responsibility of any commander regardless of the overlying context. A simple way to do it is to relate seemingly mundane activities such as chores to security necessities. On the higher level, it might be beneficial to emphasize that in the case of a military operation, potential costs will outweigh the benefits of optimization goals. Subsequently, shifting the focus might change the approach to training new service members, maintenance issues, and lack of resources. Combined together, these measures will make the overarching purpose of the navy more clear, which in turn will improve resilience of service members lowering the chances of mental health issues.

The fourth solution is to allow and encourage a certain degree of autonomy of lower-ranking service members. The current state of affairs presupposes constant pressure on all sailors. Enlisted personnel and officers alike are stressed by the amount of control from higher-ranking staff. Not only is the resulting culture of micromanagement inefficient, but it is also mentally taxing. It is peculiar that the US military doctrine actually has a concept that is directly tied to individual autonomy – disciplined initiative. In its most basic form, it refers to the behavioral conduct, in which a person adapts to the changing environment while following orders (Oppermann & Nault, 2021). It was originally created to provide guidelines to soldiers during an engagement, but it can also be applied to settings, which do not involve actual combat. Service members of all levels have to realize that prioritizing disciplined initiative over the culture of management is beneficial in the long term perspective. Empowering people to make their own choices is the most effective way of bolstering their mental state.


In conclusion, it should be evident that the US navy faces systemic leadership issues, which precipitate negativity and consecutive mental health problems. The overall command structure is complex and controversial, with military and civilian influences competing for supremacy. In an effort to save costs and minimize errors, commanding staff cuts financing and engages in excessive supervision of their subordinates. Subsequently, every service member down the command chain feels excessive pressure to perform and conform to currently promoted standards. Meanwhile, the quality of equipment and personnel training decreases, which propels a common concern that the navy is not as combat ready, as it should be. The large-scale implication is that the naval forces cannot ensure national security.

At the same time, the small-scale consequence is that psychological climate is primarily negative. Culture of micromanagement, zero defect mentality, and excessive vulnerability to media exposure proliferate the atmosphere of distrust. The inability of many service members to fit the irrationally high expectations of the command staff force man sailors to question the feasibility of their service. In the best-case scenario, junior officers decide not to pursue a naval career and leave the navy. In the worst case, their mental resilience is damaged, which leads to the development of mental health issues and emergence of suicidal ideations. Inevitably, such problems become known by the communities outside the military, adding further notoriety to the already-challenged navy.

At the center of these derailments lie large leadership failures. Unable to commit to transformational or servant styles, commanders rely on the intrusive style to ensure obedience. Even though technological advances allow leaders to thoroughly supervise their subordinates, the efficiency of such interventions is low. Naval service is too nuanced to use the same control approach with every unit and vessel. Yet, the most important implication is that commanders do not trust their subordinates. Combined with the overall desire to optimize costs, the overreliance on supervision creates a highly toxic navy culture. Instead of motivating the lower-ranking service members into better performance, the intrusive leadership style pushes them into distrusting their superiors and resorting to extreme measures, such as suicide.

Fixing these leadership issues require large and comprehensive solutions corresponding to the scale of the problems. First, it is essential to change the attitude toward media attention, making it less important for decision-making. Second, the implementation of a more forgiving disciplinary policy will overcome the toxic zero defect mentality. Third, warfighting should be reemphasized, thus ensuring that no policy or change contradict the primary purpose of the navy. Finally, promoting disciplined initiative will dismantle the culture of micromanagement and stimulate trusting relations between subordinates and superiors. Implementing these steps will boost the overall morale, incentivize officers to follow the servant and transformational leadership styles, and improve the overall mental health state in the navy.


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