How the U.S. Navy Perpetually Produces Top Business Leaders: Interviews with Local Executives

Bob Gourley, Founder, CTO

Bob Gourley, Founder, CTO

For the civilian world, leadership is choice. Some make the choice to become leaders and inspire action, some don’t. In the military leadership is a necessity.

The large presence of senior-level executives across industry with military backgrounds is a testimony to the military’s ability to produce great leaders. The U.S. Navy, in particular, has a strong presence of veterans who have taken the helm at some of the area’s most respected corporations.

The question then becomes… Why? What is it about the Navy in particular that produces leaders who go on to excel in virtually all sectors of industry and government?

To answer the question, we interviewed two of the area’s leading executives with Navy backgrounds, Bob Gourley, Chief Technology Officer at Crucial Point, LLC and Charles Church, Manager of Business Development at Oracle. With their feedback and some investigative research, we found that the broad answer comes in two parts.

First, the military spends an enormous amount of money and time nurturing leadership in individuals from the first day of training. Military leadership qualities are formed in a progressive series of carefully planned training, educational, and hands-on experiences that are more time-consuming and expensive than similar training in industry or government.

Charlie Church, Oracle

Charlie Church, Oracle

“The Navy provides an environment that fosters a culture of leadership. Each individual started their career at the bottom and worked their way to the top through a knowledge-based collaborative environment,” said Charles Church.

Second, military leadership is based on a concept of duty, service, and self-sacrifice. The needs of the followers must always be put before those of the leader. These values are instilled early on and are an absolute necessity for the success of a unit in war-type scenarios where monetary gain or rewards no longer hold value.

Through the lens of the Navy, the metaphor of the captain of a ship provides a relational foundation for value-driven leaders.

“The captain is responsible for absolutely everything on that ship, at all times,” said Bob Gourley. “Having one person in charge empowers that leader to ensure everyone is focused on mission success. This attitude of personal responsibility permeates all ranks in all organizations in the Navy and gives the Navy vet a great foundation for leadership in the commercial sector.”

Prior to his career in the federal contracting community, Gourley was a naval intelligence officer, which included operational tours in Europe and Asia. After retiring from the Navy, he went on to become an executive at TWD, Northrop Grumman, and Chief Technology Officer of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). He was selected as one of the top 25 most influential CTOs in the globe by Infoworld in 2007, “Most Influential on Twitter for Big Data” by Forbes in 2012, and his blog, CTOvision, is now ranked among the top 50 federal technology blogs.

Gourley attributes much of his success to his experience in the Navy. He noted the Navy’s culture that seeks to “win the battle before it is fought” through differentiation as one key ingredient to produce great leaders.

“Our culture is one that seeks out differentiation in our weapon systems. We want every advantage prior to the fight,” says Gourley. “Building in differentiators, like missiles that go further, aircraft that go faster, subs that go deeper and silent are very important. And we have always sought information differentiation, like the best information on the environment and the best real time intelligence on the adversary. We have along sought and have the best, most highly- trained sailors in the globe and that is the ultimate differentiator. The result of all this differentiation: there is no better Navy in the world. We win the battle before it is fought.”

Relative to the Government contracting environment, Gourley says that the successful contractor must be differentiated; otherwise you are just the same as everyone else and will become a bottom feeder of the Government contracting world.

“If you are just the same as everyone else you probably don’t have a Navy leader in charge. If you differentiate yourself you win business and grow,” Gourley said.

The tendency for Navy leaders to migrate into the Government contracting world is often attributed to the fundamental value of service and duty. Upon graduating from the United States Naval Academy, Charles Church spent 15 years as a nuclear submariner during the Cold War. He left the Navy in 1995 to contribute to the revolution of business in the Internet. He spent the next five years at such companies as America Online, UUNET, and Onesoft. Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and Church felt the need to serve.

“After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, I joined the government and was able to work for Steve Cooper, chief information officer, Department of Homeland Security (DHS),” said Church. “We stood up the Information Technology area of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Church, like many leaders with military backgrounds, felt compelled to serve and fulfill a critical need for his skills during a time of crisis. It is this kind of selfless and perpetual leadership that differentiates military leaders from others.

The truth of the matter is that great leadership is a byproduct of a value-driven foundation. The Navy, and the military in general, continue to provide this foundation and produce leaders across all divisions who thrive in all sectors of industry and government.

Colonel Tom Kolditz, Professor and Head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the US Military Academy at West Point, NY articulates the foundation for great leadership best in this final statement:

“The best leadership—whether in peacetime or war—is borne as a conscientious obligation to serve. In many business environs it is difficult to inculcate a value set that makes leaders servants to their followers. In contrast, leaders who have operated in the crucibles common to military and other dangerous public service occupations tend to hold such values. Tie selflessness with the adaptive capacity, innovation, and flexibility demanded by dangerous contexts, and one can see the value of military leadership as a model for leaders in the private sector.”



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