Distributed Leadership at Sea: Why the Navy is an Example of Leadership Agility

By Daniel T. Murphy


Military and civilian historians have spent decades and countless thousands of pages trying to understand the nature of U.S. Navy leadership. In most cases, the study has focused on what Bennis (2007) has called the “bad old days” when heroic leadership was taught through the biographies of great men. The great leaders themselves, including Farragut, Jones, Nimitz, Spruance and others have been studied by dozens of biographers. Yet, the focus on leadership personalities, rather than the “practice” of leadership leaves a gap in understanding what makes an organization tick. Scholars believe the study of leadership needs a new lens. I believe the Navy is no exception, and, I believe distributive leadership theory can provide that lens. This paper seeks to provide a snapshot of Navy shipboard leadership through a distributed leadership perspective. To that end, I interviewed a Navy officer who, based on his education, training, officer specialty, and history of assignments, might be considered a “typical” Navy leader. To be specific, I interviewed a 33-year-old male surface warfare officer (SWO) named Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Mark T (pseudo name). LCDR T has served multiple tours of duty at sea and on shore. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and has been a division officer and a department head on destroyers and cruisers. He has not yet served as a ship’s executive officer or commanding officer.

Through a Distributed Leadership Lens

For my interview with LCDR T, I created an interview protocol grounded in Gibb’s (1954, 1968) and Gronn’s (2002, 2008) theory of distributed leadership. Gibb is generally credited as the first scholar to use the term distributed leadership, and suggested that leadership exists in a continuum of situations. On one end of the continuum, leadership can reside with a specific individual. On the other end of the continuum, leadership can be distributed amongst many.   Four decades after Gibb coined the term distributed leadership, Gronn reiterated Gibb’s theory and suggested that leadership tends to pass between individuals based on the situation, not on the capabilities of the people, and that leaders simply lead followers in the direction that the followers would have gone anyway. The interview with LCDR T was semi-structured and focused largely around: (a) whether Navy leadership at sea is highly centralized, highly distributed, or somewhere in the middle, and (b) whether leaders really do simply lead followers in the direction that the followers would have gone anyway.

For the record, while contemporary leadership theorists seem to imply (my opinion) that bad old heroic leadership is somewhat indescribable by leaders themselves, I believe most Navy leaders can describe leadership in a tangible way, and that they do have a consensus around multiple leadership attributes, and especially around one specific element. That element is accountability, also known in the military as “one throat to choke” when things go wrong.

Situationally Dependent

The key takeaway from the interview with LCDR T is that shipboard leadership is neither highly centralized, nor highly decentralized. Sometimes it is one, and sometimes the other. Where exactly Navy leadership resides on Gibbs’ and Gronn’s spectrum is highly dependent on the situation. As an example, LCDR T points to Navy shipboard leadership at the topmost level. For more than two centuries, presidents, policymakers, and admirals have directed Navy ship captains to take their ships to the far corners of the world, and they have trusted those captains to act as they see fit, often in highly volatile situations. Presidents have trusted Navy ship captains to suppress piracy on the Barbary Coast in the nineteenth century, to practice “gunboat diplomacy” in the early twentieth century, and in recent years, to keep open the Strait of Hormuz using tactics that the commanding officer deems “appropriate” to the task at hand. Even in today’s highly interconnected Navy, where real time data is available from the shipboard tactical level to the regional combatant command, and even to the White House situation room, Navy captains are trusted to act as they see fit. This is a point cannot be understated. Even in an era when upper command echelons can take significantly more tactical control of the battlespace, they generally do not. Instead, they continue to operate in a traditional distributive/delegation-oriented manner.

Extensibility of Authority

LCDR T suggested that an effective Navy leader institutionalizes that same distributive/delegation mindset within his or her own ship, and allows department heads, division officers, work groups and individuals to do their jobs as they see fit. For the most part, leaders care only that officers and sailors adhere to shipboard policies and regulations that meet the legalities of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and fit the norm of practices that have evolved as best practices through the decades, and in some cases through the centuries. As an example, the process for fixing a ship’s geographical position using celestial data is considered “settled science”, and cannot be changed. However, the process for recovering an aircraft in distress is always open to collaborative review in order to improve safety and efficiency. LCDR T emphasizes that the majority of ships’ commanding officers in the Navy these days have completed graduate studies in leadership and management. Thus, they tend to be very aware of, and do try to practice the same principles of process improvement, balanced measurement, empowerment, cross-functional focus, etc., as their civilian counterparts.

If the “philosophy” of Navy leadership resides at the more distributed end of the leadership spectrum, LCDR T pointed to a situation where the opposite is true. Sometimes a ship is in an emergency situation, and orders “general quarters” or GQ. This occurs when a threat is imminent, when the ship is in danger due to fire, flooding or some other situation. When that happens, the ship’s captain is “much less interested” in hearing about anyone’s ideas for process improvement or improved morale. When GQ is ordered, all members of the ship’s crew have very specific reporting relationships and very specific tasks to accomplish. If one sailor does not do their job, the entire ship or operation may be at risk. Similar to the GQ situation is when the ship initiates flight operations or when the ship sets the “search and rescue detail” or the “towing detail” or the “law enforcement” detail. At those times, the ship shifts to a very “command and control” environment where leadership is not very distributed at all.

When Command and Control Really Isn’t

I must don my scholar practitioner hat for a moment her, and explore LCDR T’s argument regarding GQ. Contrary to LCDR T’s argument, one could argue that a GQ or other emergency scenario is the moment where leadership on a Navy ship is at its most distributed point. For their entire careers, sailors and officers at all levels in the organization do train on what to do when things go wrong. Yet, along with the technical things they have been taught (e.g., how to apply a jubilee clamp to a broken fire main pipe, how to respond to a man overboard, etc.), they have also been taught to remember to use their intuition. Like the captain who has been trusted to act as he or she sees fit to suppress Barbary pirates (or Somalian pirates these days), a Repair Locker Leader is trusted to use resources as he or she sees fit to suppress a fire or flooding situation. Like the ship’s captain, oftentimes, that leader must improvise, and sometimes that leader must break some rules.

Regarding Gronn’s (2008) assertion that leaders simply lead followers in the direction that they would have gone anyway, LCDR T could not disagree more. “I think you are right, that people intuitively know what they should do. Except in a fog of war situation, most situations aren’t so complex that people don’t know intuitively what they should do. But throughout history, there are many examples of where people knew that something was wrong, and they still allowed it to happen. That’s why bad old leadership, as you called it, is still very relevant. And not just in the Navy either.” (LCDR T interview, 2017) In other words, leaders, increase the likelihood that followers will choose the right course of action. And how do they do that? “They lead. They go first,” says LCDR T.


So, what can we recommend for the Navy? Should we move to the more centralized side of Gibb’s (1954, 1968) and Gronn’s (2002, 2008) spectrum of distributed leadership, or should we move to the more distributed side? I recommend the Navy not change a thing. The Navy exemplifies the notion that distributed leadership is not a strategy to be implemented, as some organizations believe it is. Rather, it is a spectrum within which all organizations exist. Surely, some organizations should seek to move a bit more in the direction of distribution, and other organizations should move a bit more in the direction of centralization. In my own experience as a Navy officer and as a management consult, I believe most organizations do not need to shift too far either way. Most organizations reside in a particular location in the spectrum because that is the point to where they evolved for good reason. More importantly, what we can learn from the Navy is that an organization’s location on the spectrum should be dynamic, depending on what the organization is experiencing at any given time. A nimble organization should be able to situationally shift left, or situationally shift right.

At the beginning of the interview, I tried to read LCDR T’s expression and feelings. I believe he was somewhat stressed by the idea of having to categorize Navy leadership. Is the Navy a command and control organization, or are we a distributed leadership organization? As LCDR T spent time describing the situations in his organization, he became more comfortable seeing the organization as neither one nor the other. The nature of leadership at sea is situational, and unless it is forced into the wrong direction, the organization finds its place in the distributed spectrum in a natural way, just as it has done for centuries.


Bennis, W. (2007). The challenges of leadership in the modern world. American Psychologist, 62(1), 2-5. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.1.2

Gibb, C.A. (1954). Leadership. In G. Lindzey (Ed.), The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2, (pp. 877-917). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gibb, C.A. (1968). Leadership. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology (2nd ed.), Vol. 4, (pp. 205-283). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gronn, P. (2002). Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis. Leadership Quarterly 13(4), 423-451. doi: 10.1016/S1048-9843(02)00120-0

Gronn, P. (2008) The future of distributed leadership. Journal of Educational Administration, 46(2), 141-158. doi: 10.1108/09578230810863235