Editor's note: This is the fifth installment in a series of articles about Christians who rescue cultures. The first installment was The Servant; the second, The Courageous Coach; the third, Saving Our Kids; the fourth, Strength, Courage, Wisdom, and Guidance. We hope that through this series you will be persuaded of God’s call for you to rescue the cultures you are in, that you will get ideas from the examples of others and that you will be encouraged to take action in rescuing the cultures around you.  

Within hours of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, destroyers and cruisers were in place to protect America’s shores. Naval leaders anticipated what had to be done and took action before they received orders. At the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., planning for America’s response began while fires from the attack still smoldered nearby.  

The rapid response of the U.S. Navy on September 11 was in part due to the culture led by Admiral Vern Clark who served as the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) from 2000 until his retirement in 2005.  The CNO is the principal naval adviser to the President and the Secretary of Defense on the conduct of war.

Prayer Warrior

Admiral Clark’s father was a pastor who taught him the importance of regular prayer.   Each morning throughout his career in the Navy, Vern Clark and his wife Connie went to the doorway of their home and wrapped their arms around one another.   The Clarks prayed they would be sensitive to where the Lord was moving that day, and that they would be aligned with His will.  

The Clarks were active in local church congregations in the cities where they served.   Admiral Clark said his closest friends were from the church.  One of the best periods in his life was when he attended 6:00 AM prayer meetings then headed off to work at a time when his job was especially demanding.  Outside of work hours, Vern and Connie Clark regularly invited Navy families over to their home for meals and conversation.  Their love for people, and especially for those who serve their country, compelled them to reach out rather than maintain a separation between their work and private lives. 

Culture of Connection: Vision, Value and Voice

The Navy was not meeting its sailor retention goals when Admiral Clark assumed the CNO role.  He made winning the war for talent the number one priority and promptly began developing a culture where sailors felt connected to the Navy. 

To begin, Admiral Clark articulated a vision that made sailors feel proud to be in the Navy. He said the Navy’s mission is to take the “war fighting readiness” of the United States to any corner of the world at a moment’s notice and it was “our turn to make history” by “building a Navy for the 21st century” that would be “strategically and operationally agile, technologically and organizationally innovative, networked at every level, highly joint (with the other services), and effectively integrated with allies.”  He would tell them: “What we do matters.  What we do is hard work. We intentionally put ourselves in harm’s way. We are away from our loved ones for months on end. We do it because it’s important and we are people of service. We are committed to something larger than ourselves: the protection of America's interests around the world and democracy.” 

Second, Admiral Clark valued sailors and helped equip them to make a difference. Clark described his strategy as using the Navy’s “asymmetrical advantages” of the “best technology in the world” combined with the “genius of our people.” When Navy budget officials proposed cuts related to training and developing people as part of the annual planning cycle, Clark wouldn’t allow it.  Instead, he increased the training budget to support personal and professional growth. As part of what Clark called the “Revolution in Training,” he established the Naval Education and Training Command with twelve Navy Centers of Excellence. He required everyone in the Navy to have a personal development plan. He changed the performance appraisal system to provide constructive feedback for everyone and added the requirement to leaders’ performance appraisals that they help sailors learn and grow.  In addition, he strongly supported an increase in pay that was approved by the President and Congress.

In the Navy, sailors who are part of the enlisted class can at times feel like second-class citizens as compared to the officer class.  Clark understood this and made it one of his priorities to “blur the lines” in some respects between the officer and enlisted classes while still maintaining the necessary decision-making chain of command. When he traveled to commands and bases around the world, Admiral Clark not only met with Commanding Officers but also met with Master Chiefs (who are the leaders of the enlisted class). He asked the Master Chiefs to value the sailors under their leadership and see to it that they prospered. Clark told the Master Chiefs “these young sailors under our command swear to support and defend the U.S. Constitution from all enemies and we as leaders need to make promises in return. We need to give them the training and resources to enable them to fulfill their promise.  We need to give them an opportunity to prove what they can do for their nation).” Admiral Clark said the advice and encouragement he received from a Master Chief when he was a young officer helped make him a better officer and he needed, and our country needed, the Master Chiefs to mentor and encourage today’s young sailors in that same way. Clark’s comments showed he valued the Master Chiefs.  In turn, they reached out to help those under their command learn and grow which helped the sailors feel valued too.

Clark addressed legacy systems that made sailors feel devalued. One such system was the Navy’s job assignment process. Under Clark and a program he dubbed “the revolution in personnel distribution,” the system was changed to a job bidding approach with incentive compensation provided to the jobs and locations that were in the least demand.  As a result, the percentage of sailors forced into positions or locations they didn’t want was reduced from over 30 percent to less than one percent.  

Finally, Admiral Clark gave sailors a voice in decisions when possible.  He encouraged participants to speak up. His approachable, conversational speaking style set the tone for others to share their ideas and opinions.  He asked everyone to “challenge every assumption,” “be data driven,” and “drill down” into the details. He challenged them to “have a sense of urgency to make the Navy better every day” in order to deliver greater efficiencies and readiness for the dollars America invested in the Navy.  

Clark was more concerned about getting it right than in being right himself.  He encouraged what he referred to as “constructive friction.”  This made it safe for people to disagree and express views that were outside of the consensus view.   As a result, Clark’s leaders felt connected to him and to the U.S. Navy, and they emulated his leadership style, which made the sailors under their command feel more connected. 

Legacy of Connection

Vern Clark is a humble man and he is quick to say that he’s not perfect.  Nonetheless, the Navy achieved some impressive gains during his tenure as CNO and the naval leaders I’ve met or spoken with have praised his leadership and positive impact.  In approximately 18 months after Admiral Clark became CNO, first term re-enlistment soared from less than the Navy’s goal of 38 percent to 56.7 percent.   

As the Navy improved sailor retention and developed greater alignment with Admiral Clark’s vision, it became faster and more responsive.  By the time Clark retired as the second longest serving CNO in U.S. Navy history, he had led changes that would have a positive effect on the U.S. Navy for years to come.  

Vern and Connie Clark are outstanding examples of Christians who are a blessing to the cultures they are a part of, including their family and friends, their church and the U.S. Navy.  Like the Clarks, are you staying connected to the Lord in prayer?  Are you staying connected with your church family and intentionally reaching out to connect with the people in your neighborhood and workplace?   What’s one action you can take this week to begin rescuing the cultures you are in? 

Michael Lee Stallard speaks and teaches seminars on leadership, productivity and innovation at churches, businesses, schools and government organizations.  He is president of E Pluribus Partners and the primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity (Thomas Nelson). This article was adapted from earlier articles published in leadership journals. 

Publication date: August 23, 2012