Saturday, October 17, 2009

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke's Leadership as CNO

Several useful points can be gleaned from studying Burke’s leadership as CNO and several areas can be highlighted that deserve further study.

First, like any person, Burke was stronger in some strategic leadership areas than others. He possessed exceptional conceptual skills, including a keen ability to grasp a situation quickly. Part of that ability was owed directly to the breadth and depth of his knowledge and experience, which provided accurate frames of reference to steer his judgment. This robust base was in no small part a natural result of the positions he was assigned and the unique circumstances he found himself in throughout his time in the Navy. Significant to note, however, is that the remainder of his broad knowledge base was self-developed through personal research, reading, and study. His joining the Brookings Institute to increase his understanding of world economic and political issues is a good example. His thirst for knowledge and understanding of issues that did, or might, affect the Navy was insatiable. Admiral Burke also proved particularly strong in interpersonal skills and influencing actions. Understanding that at the strategic level his ability to influence, vice simply order people, was a far more effective leadership tool allowed Burke to make the leap to influencing actions at the highest level of leadership.

In an organization the size of the Navy Burke could not possibly oversee every item or program to completion. For things to get done quickly and correctly Burke understood communication and motivation were essential--individuals below him had to believe in the mission and in turn take ownership of a particular concern or program and see it through to successful completion. The tactful way in which he dealt with senior admirals bypassed in his promotion to CNO, as well as his efforts to communicate his vision and shape Navy culture are examples of his strength in these areas. Burke also understood his role as strategic leader in the larger national context. He perceived his civilian superiors as successful leaders in the corporate world who sacrificed a lot in terms of compensation and corporate prestige to take positions in government. He also knew he was picked purposely to shake up the institution of the Navy and accelerate its transformation from an era of bullets and propeller driven airplanes to one of jets, guided missiles, and nuclear potential. Technology was advancing at a pace more rapidly than ever and the Navy could not afford to remain on its traditional, conservative course. Burke was “hired” to lead substantial institutional change--he did not disappoint civilian leadership.

Conversely, while Burke respected and appreciated his civilian superiors he did not let his respect inhibit speaking out on issues about which he felt strongly. Several times he challenged decisions and policies of his civilian chain of command and drew resulting fire on himself. For example, within days of taking over as CNO Burke felt compelled, after arguing his point to no avail with the Navy and Defense Secretaries, to take a manpower issue directly to the president. His fortitude was rewarded with the president’s support on the issue but punished in turn by both chastisement from his commander in chief and by icy relations with the Secretaries for a time. Fortunately for Burke, before long it became clear to his civilian leaders that Burke was correct on the issue and their relationships with Burke eventually became stronger for the affair.

From: Admiral Burke - A Study in Strategic Leadership
LCDR Daniel Shaarda

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