Sunday, April 29, 2012

Expectation of privacy, and why you won't have it as a Naval Officer

Everyone has an expectation of privacy…unless you happen to be a Naval Officer.  

This stark truth has become more and more apparent to me as I continue on my naval career.  As a young Ensign, I kept my private life and Navy life very separate.  I had separate friends, my sailors didn’t see me outside of work, and for the most part, there were two sides of me: the Navy side, and the civilian side.

I can’t do that anymore.  My Facebook friends now include sailors that used to work for me in the past.  My command’s leadership, and a good number of my sailors, have my personal cell phone number.  While I’m deployed, my barracks room door is rarely shut, and my sailors stop by all the time.  At my last command, my wife was the command’s Ombudsman, and on more than a few occasions we were both working in the same building.  In some ways, she knew as much Navy lingo as I did.

The social media revolution has shrunk the world around us.  In days gone by, interaction with the Commanding Officer of a ship was rare for the average sailor.  Unless you were getting an award or going to mast, you rarely saw “the old man.”  Now, many commanding officers have Facebook and Twitter, and even the CNO runs a blog.  While there are benefits, the consequences are there too, whether it is a Marine being fired for speaking ill of the president on Facebook or sailors being kicked out for sending lewd photos on their cell phones.  What might have been a private conversation or a good time at a party can quickly become public property on the internet, with devastating consequences.

We can’t close the Pandora’s Box of social media.  Too many of my fellow officers are trying to hide in this environment.  Can you blame them?  The Navy isn’t hesitant to fire officers, and it seems like one wrong move gets you PCS’d to CIVLANTFLT and on the front page of the Navy Times.

The fact is, in the future, Naval Officers cannot hide from the social media revolution, and must be taught how to thrive in the environment.  Our leadership classes, affectionately called “leader-sleep” by our junior officers, need to be updated.  For example, what do you do when your junior enlisted sailors want to friend you on Facebook?  What about the dangers of setting up a blog for your ship?  How do you keep your sailor that has the latest smart phones from giving away your ships position when they want to chat with their wife? 

The most important question may be the line you draw on what information you share about yourself with your sailors.  Especially if you have a family, this becomes dicey quick.  My wife was very good friends with a sailor on my submarine that ended up getting a divorce.  We managed to stay out of it, but it made me do a double take on just how close I get with my sailors. 

Although we should be careful about our involvement, we as Naval Officers cannot afford to stay aloof from our sailors.  The next generation of sailors wants leaders that interface with them, and not some distant officer they never see.  These sailors are smart, and if we want to keep them in the Navy, we have to make their time in the Navy more than just a job.  We often hear that employees quit bosses, not jobs, and this holds true in the Navy.  Of all the sailors I knew that didn’t reenlist, almost 80% chose to leave because they did not like or trust the Navy’s leadership.  As an officer, that’s a hard number to swallow.  We have to get better.

To get better, we need better training and more engagement.  We need our senior leadership to have frank discussions with our junior officers on what is and is not acceptable.  Our senior leadership has to use and understand the new technologies, understand how invasive they can be, and help us best use them to improve the Navy.  We also have to realize that some of these are disruptive, and will challenge how we do business.  For example, it takes me only a few minutes to upload files to Google docs, yet it sometimes takes forever to update our electronic records.  Our future sailors, used to quick turnaround, won’t tolerate this, and our bureaucratic processes will have to develop along with the technology in order to meet these new expectations.

The days are long gone when the Captain of a vessel could pull out to sea and not be reached for weeks or months on end, or an Admiral could hide behind a closed door and large staff.  Naval Officers, as representatives of the US government, will always be under the spot light of the media.  We can’t turn the clock back, and we need to raise our junior officers to be able to use this change to become even better warfighters for the future. 

I still plan on leaving my door open, and my sailors can call my cell phone at any time.  For me, I’ve accepted the fact that I have a larger public role to play, and that being a Naval Officer isn’t just a 9 to 5 job.  In fact, I wouldn’t do what I do if it was.