Organizational Culture: Big Navy vs. Specialized Units

Having interviewed four military members so far, three from the Navy, one from the Army, all with different jobs and backgrounds, I am struck by the fact that despite some overarching organizational culture, there is much variation at the unit level. All three Navy men I interviewed were from various specialized units: aviation, submarine operations, and explosive ordnance disposal. Each of these men described significant differences in organizational culture from each other and more importantly the Navy at large, or as they call it, Big Navy. Pilots, like Commander Cook, are an elite unit that operates within Big Navy. Being based on aircraft supercarriers, the core and embodiment of Big Navy, they have lots of interaction with the culture of Big Navy and of the Marines stationed on board. However, pilots also have their own elite community and culture on board. They are essentially a part of Big Navy, but they are the elite within it. They may operate on a carrier, but they have their own command structure, separate from that of the carrier at large. Additionally, pilot culture is further separated from that of Big Navy by the fact that all pilots are officers. This means that they are largely exempt from the more disciplinary aspects of Big Navy Culture.


Submariners are much more isolated from Big Navy, and thus have their own culture more separate from it than that of carrier pilots. The submariner I talked to described a culture of extreme competence and accountability. Everyone on board a submarine knows the near-constant danger they are in, and thus there is a laser focus on doing everything right. Chris, the submariner I interviewed, told me about a time he really messed up and got in a lot of trouble, an incident he will never forget. His mistake: doing his hourly reactor check 1 minute late. Submarine culture has no room for error, you can’t even be off by a minute out of an hour. This partially manifests into a cultural hierarchy, as experienced submariners, those who have earned their “dolphins” (the pin given to submariners when they become fully qualified) are considered a superior class to those who haven’t, regardless of rank. In such a high-stakes environment, experience trumps rank, in contrast to the strict hierarchical culture of Big Navy. 


Even further from the culture of Big Navy is Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), which is essentially a special operations unit. EOD has more in common with units like the SEALs than it does with Big Navy. EODs are trained in sky and scuba diving and execute many of their missions on land, hundreds of miles from any Big Navy ships. As a result, they have a culture that much more closely resembles that of the SEALs and other special operations units in all branches than that of Big Navy. Master Chief Petty Officer John Clay, the EOD sailor I interviewed, described a looser culture with less regard for the rules of discipline necessary in Big Navy. EOD guys are elite professionals fully committed to their jobs, and thus don’t need to be babied in the way that 18-year-old sailors fresh out of high school in Big Navy need to be. The focus in EOD is on professionalism and proficiency. There isn’t as much need for the type of punitive culture used on a submarine, as everyone who has reached an EOD unit is going to be experienced, well-trained, and highly professional. Those people do not need external discipline to motivate them, they are already motivated to constantly improve their skills and make sure every task is done perfectly. Of course an EOD unit can punish mistakes if necessary, but it sounds like it’s rarely ever necessary in this culture of professionals.


The Army man I interviewed, Gen. John Mountcastle, was in too many units throughout his career to discuss a single culture. He worked everywhere from an armored unit in combat in Vietnam to a teaching position at West Point. His favorite culture, it seemed, was that of the armored unit he commanded for several years in Germany. As the commander of the unit, he thought of the men under him as his family and his responsibility. I could tell how proud he was when he described them, described the trust he had in his NCOs and officers and the love he had for the men. He was proud of how his wife had worked to help other wives in the unit feel at home in a foreign country. For Mountcastle and his Wife, the unit was a family, and because of that attitude, the men of the unit were incredibly loyal to their commander. Commander Cook described a similar phenomenon later in his career, after his years as a pilot when he was an officer in Big Navy. He talked about the responsibility he felt for the young sailors under his command and the benefits to his leadership gained by building relationships with his subordinates. At one point, Commander Cook implemented a rule that all those under his command had to come talk to him before applying for any sort of loan or financing. He did this because he was sick of seeing naive young sailors being tricked into predatory loans. He took care of his people, and as a result, secured their undying loyalty.