Skeptic in Chief

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig pushed the service to question its traditional methods and embrace innovation.


n early 1999, shortly after being named Secretary of the Navy, Richard Danzig traveled to the Persian Gulf and met with junior aviators on the mess deck of the USS Carl Vinson. During the meeting, a young pilot launched a tirade against the military base-closing system set up by Congress. After listening to her carefully, Danzig came back with a no-nonsense reply: In a democracy, he said, congressional priorities matter, even if they contradict what the Navy wants. And Congress got it right in the case of base closures, Danzig added.

Junior officers left the meeting impressed with their new leader. "They could not believe he had prepared so well, that he understood their problems," says a senior officer who was present. "But Danzig goes right at them. That type of interaction between a Secretary and junior officers is unheard of. They're taken aback when somebody doesn't patronize them."

While Danzig is a gifted communicator, his behavior with the junior officers was the result of careful study of the Navy's culture and present-day needs. "I've always felt very strongly that, as Secretary, I need to work very closely with a broad range of people positioned in different places throughout the hierarchy," Danzig explains. "And my feeling is that we are a healthier organization when we candidly talk about anything."

During his tenure of a little more than two years as Navy Secretary, Danzig's candid, activist management style won him wide acclaim amongst the service's officer corps and respect on Capitol Hill. Operating from the often-ignored civilian Secretary's position, Danzig convinced the Navy to rethink a host of conscription-era practices and act on ambitious technological projects. By early 2000, Danzig's performance had made him a contender for high-ranking positions at the Pentagon-including Defense Secretary-in a potential Al Gore administration. To many observers, however, Danzig's legacy may lie in his larger effort to question all aspects of the Navy's organization and management, urging wide-ranging discussions of department practices and encouraging innovation. "He's always probing, questioning, in a polite, friendly fashion that is in its own way quite remorseless," says Eliot Cohen, director of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "It's a tremendously effective style for a civilian leader [of the military]."

Danzig also managed for results. While he headed the Navy, the service met its recruiting goals, awarded a contract for the massive Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) project, and resolved thorny issues such as the department's relationship with the Tailhook Association. He helped negotiate an agreement to reopen the naval training range on Vieques island in Puerto Rico and pushed the Navy to commit to using electric-powered motors in its next class of surface destroyers, the first change in propulsion systems in Navy ships since the 1950s.

As a longtime student of government management, Danzig was attuned to how projects such as NMCI-which will replace the hundreds of separate computer networks in the Navy with one service-wide intranet-could transform the Navy bureaucracy. "[NMCI] will give us as managers at the top a view of the whole organization that hitherto we've been lacking," he said in an October speech to technology executives in Silicon Valley. "And most wonderfully of all, it would give junior actors in the system access to the totality of the information . . . so that they, in fact, had a freedom of action."

Learning the Culture

A Rhodes scholar and former Stanford law professor, Danzig used his position as Navy Secretary as a bully pulpit to engage each branch of the department-including the Marine Corps-in a discussion about how to treat its people better and encourage innovation. But first, Danzig listened: From the summer of 1993, when he was waiting to be confirmed as the Navy's undersecretary, he made a point of listening to people inside and outside the organization about how it operated.

"He thinks that when you come into a bureaucracy you have to first work to understand its cliches, what it holds dear," says Col. Robert E. Lee, who served as Danzig's executive assistant when he was undersecretary, the Navy's second-ranking position. "Once you understand an organization's history, mottos and culture, then you can talk about changing it."

Danzig's understanding of Navy culture enabled him to link far-reaching initiatives to service traditions. For example, he convinced the Marines to participate in the NMCI project in part by arguing that it would bring new meaning to an old adage, "We Are a Navy-Marine Corps Team."

Likewise, Danzig looked to Navy tradition when tackling the biggest management challenge of his term: the Navy's personnel situation. When Danzig became Secretary in November 1998, the Navy was faced with a fleetwide shortfall of 22,000 sailors and a growing exodus of mid-level officers. Danzig argued that the service was mired in a "psychology of conscription" that kept it from fulfilling its commitment to the principle that people are the Navy's most important asset. He launched Smart Work, an ambitious set of initiatives to improve living conditions on ships and shift menial tasks-ship painting, for example-from sailors to civilians. To support various Smart Work proposals-such as allowing sailors to receive college credits for boot camp and technical training-he held the line on spending for new weapons platforms over howls from Congress.

Danzig also invoked the Navy's commitment to its personnel to justify his war against the service's "zero-defect" attitude toward promotions, which Navy observers had widely blamed for crushing the morale of junior officers. By looking for officers with spotless records, the argument went, Navy promotion boards discouraged personnel from taking risks or proposing new ideas. The zero-defect mentality also caused service members to hide faults, says Danzig. So, at a time when numerical measures are increasingly used to quantify government performance, Danzig ordered promotion boards to select officers based on a variety of criteria, some nonempirical. "If you find the best people, they're going to come in more complex ways than [a spotless record might show]," says Danzig. He also strove to increase the Navy's recruiting staff and established a retention center to advertise the benefits of staying in the service. At the end of Danzig's term, retention figures were up slightly and the Navy and Marine Corps were the only military services to meet their recruiting goals in each of the past two years.

While Danzig moved quickly to address the fleet's personnel woes, he did not take office with a specific set of proposals in mind. Instead, he convened a series of meetings with senior staff to develop the Smart Work agenda. "If you spend a lot of time talking with [senior officers], where you have a pretty clear focus on the problem, but no rigid, predetermined sense of the solution, it tends to produce better outcomes than coming in with an agenda that says, 'This is what I care about: one, two, three,'" says Danzig.

Colleagues say that although Danzig's civilian status helped him see the Navy's personnel situation for what it was, his insider's knowledge of the Pentagon gave him the credibility to speak out about it. He was undersecretary under Clinton for more than three years and was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for manpower, reserve affairs and logistics in the Carter administration.

"Nobody would have dared talk to military folks about the conscription mentality without his background and understanding," says acting Navy Secretary Robin Pirie, who was Danzig's boss at Defense in the late 1970s and was undersecretary under Danzig.

Management Challenge

Danzig grew up in New York City and attended Bronx High School of Science before heading west to liberal Reed College in Oregon. At Reed, he met his future wife, Andrea, and won a Rhodes scholarship. In 1968, after receiving an exemption from the draft because he suffers from Crohn's disease, a chronic intestinal disorder, Danzig decided to attend Yale Law School.

From Ben Stein, future economist and game show host, to future White House lawyer David Kendall to Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, Yale Law had its share of luminaries in the late 1960s. But Danzig was "clearly perceived as if not the brightest as amongst the handful of brightest people," says classmate Dan Guttman, a fellow for the study of American government at Johns Hopkins University. In his third year of law school, Danzig worked one day a week for Peter Szanton, director of the RAND Corp. in New York, where he helped Szanton improve RAND's relations with the city council. He also taught a seminar at Yale on innovations in police departments, extending an interest in the management of bureaucracies that was sparked by a RAND analysis of the New York City police department he did the year before. "If you had told me he also played flute for the New York Philharmonic, I'd have believed you," says Szanton.

As a professor at Stanford Law School, Danzig wrote a well-regarded book on contracts and shifted his interest in management to the legal arena, studying conflict mediation and pressing his students to recognize that litigation was not the only way to influence organizations. When Carter was elected, Democrat Danzig saw a chance to enter federal service, expressing a preference for the Pentagon over a possible White House position because it represented a "management challenge."

"I didn't want to enter [government] as a lawyer," Danzig says. "I wanted to enter as a manager, and the classic place to do that in the depths of the bureaucracy was the area of manpower and logistics [at the Pentagon]." At Defense, Danzig quickly immersed himself in the details of personnel issues. "He was naive and wildly optimistic about what could be done to move the Defense bureaucracy," Pirie remembers. "But he delivered." Danzig's youthful confidence and informal style did not always make for a seamless fit with career military officers. Szanton says that once, at the start of a presentation on a war game, Danzig was surprised to hear his voice coming through speakers in the ceiling. "I'm not used to my voice coming from on high, but I guess I can get used to it," he said. A general sitting next to Szanton whispered to him, "That didn't help."

But Danzig took pains to develop a good working relationship with career officers when he returned to the Pentagon as Navy undersecretary in 1993, after a 12-year stint as a partner with Latham & Watkins in Washington, where he represented military contractors and started the firm's Japan practice. Near the beginning of his tenure, Danzig noticed that senior Navy officers were slow to warm to him. He decided to start holding basketball games for senior staff every Sunday morning at the Naval Security Group headquarters gym in Washington. "The original purpose was to break down barriers at work," says Lee. "When he returned [as Secretary], he had natural allies here."

Danzig took steps to learn about the Navy's culture and the major issues facing the service by using the six-month period between his nomination and confirmation as undersecretary to pick the brains of officers and outside observers. "I was perhaps the first person to have the job who could actually spend some months preparing for it," Danzig says. He quickly developed a partnership with Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, who handled the ceremonial aspects of the secretary position while Danzig became an expert on programs. "Richard never liked the formal ceremonial stuff," says one longtime friend. "He never hungered for the top job, because he found almost as much scope in being undersecretary as Secretary."

Process and Results

Nevertheless, Danzig did win the Navy's top civilian job in 1998 when Dalton stepped down. He quickly made clear his intent to be an activist Secretary by operating with a small personal staff and refusing to sit through long briefings. Instead, Danzig read briefing materials in advance and used meeting time to grill the officers who had prepared them. He also brought mid-level officers with expertise on specific topics into meetings alongside their more senior counterparts. "It's not uncommon for him to sit in a room with three- and two-star [officers] and look at a [one-star] commander and value them as much as the three-stars," says one officer. "It can be very disconcerting to senior officers." While using junior officers in this way does chafe against the hierarchy, it can also reinforce the bond between senior and junior officers. "It gives [senior officers] a chance to guide and mentor mid-grade officers," says Lt. Cmdr. Kevin "Kip" Thomas, a mid-level officer Danzig tapped to help on the NMCI project.

Danzig also signaled his activist style by inserting himself in the annual budget process at an early stage. Where Dalton would let staff members assemble the components of the budget and then sign off on the final product, Danzig held small, seminar-style meetings throughout the process, usually with senior leaders in attendance. While this took more time than Dalton's approach, it ensured senior leaders were present when major decisions were made.

Aides say Danzig ran inclusive, candid meetings by asking focused questions and capping discussions by putting a summary proposal on the table. If the issues were important enough, he would then run the proposal by the chief of naval operations and commandant of the Marine Corps to ensure decisions were made with consensus. "Everything I do really is based on talking to them . . . or coming to an understanding together," says Danzig.

Danzig's post-Navy plans surprised few familiar with his meeting style. In addition to joining the Center for Naval Analyses as a senior fellow, Danzig also hopes to launch a career as a talk show host.

Despite Danzig's deep involvement in the details of issues, insiders describe him as a "low-maintenance" boss who willingly ran interference for officers up the chain of command. "He was very willing to step in and deal with our superiors," says a senior officer. "A lot of problems, really hard ones, he just took for himself." Actions like this help explain Danzig's remarkably close relationship with senior leaders. "They knew he genuinely cared about the service and its personnel," says one officer.

While many of Danzig's management tactics were process-driven-improving the accountability of senior leaders, tapping able junior officers to aid in high-level decisions-he also proved effective at getting results on projects stuck in the bureaucratic pipeline. Consider his efforts to advance the NMCI project. After deciding to pursue the project, Danzig orchestrated a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to win over each of the constituencies with a stake in the project. He hunkered down with mathematicians and cryptologists until he understood the technology well enough to personally resolve the concerns of Arthur Money, assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications and intelligence. And when federal unions mobilized against the deal over fears of job losses, Danzig authorized a compromise to let any potentially displaced workers transfer within the Navy or become employees of Electronic Data Systems Corp., the contractor designing NMCI. "He led the charge inside and outside the building," says former Chief of Naval Operations Jay Johnson. "We were going there one way or another, but the truth is, Secretary Danzig pulled the whole team together and brought it home."

No Moses

In a speech last November to members of the National Academy of Public Administration, Danzig gave perhaps the most complete statement of his management views. Moses, he told the federal management experts, was a great leader, but he never had to manage the Navy bureaucracy. Danzig said the Moses-like notion of leadership-in which a leader preaches a vision and an organization follows-is a business world concept that can be dangerous when applied to a tradition-bound military organization like the Navy. The 225-year-old Navy is too important to risk on a vision that may not work in the future, Danzig said. And while Moses took the chosen people to the Promised Land, he noted, the Egyptians stayed put. As Navy Secretary, Danzig had to "persuade the Egyptians to do something different," he said.

Danzig, who writes his own speeches and always delivers them without notes, is widely known as a great persuader. "I consider him to be the best extemporaneous speaker I have ever heard," says naval analyst Ronald O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service.

In his first year, Danzig gave speeches before each of the fleet's mission components-surface, air and submarine-in which he praised their achievements and suggested ways they could change. When he said the submarine fleet must come to terms with its "white male character" and have an open discussion on allowing women to serve on subs, the Navy barked back.

"I wish he hadn't said it," says Johnson. "I believe pretty strongly the submarine force has it about right. But he took a longer view." Danzig felt an open discussion of women's role in the submarine fleet would be more credible to the public and better for the organization. "An organization that can talk honestly to itself has a priceless asset," Danzig says. "And as an outside civilian, I think it is extremely important for me to be candid with them."

Danzig urged both new flag officers and members of the service's civilian Senior Executive Service to question orthodoxy and embrace risks, even at the expense of their careers. And he is quick to credit those who advanced new proposals. For example, the success of NMCI, he says, "didn't come from me. It came from within the organization, from our information experts."

Nevertheless, Danzing clearly was a hands-on manager, an approach that had its limits, insiders say. For example, the parts of the Smart Work program "that have succeeded have done so through his personal intervention and example," says a senior officer familiar with the effort. But, the officer adds, "he has by no means turned the internal bulk of the organization in his direction."

While some officers have adopted Danzig's inclusive, seminar-like meeting style, they have sometimes done so for the purposes of thwarting change, not advancing it. In June 1999, Danzig proposed updating the Navy's 1994 vision paper, "Forward, From the Sea." When internal disagreement broke out over the direction of the effort, the committees involved held repeated meetings to delay the process. "In that instance, the services used the Secretary's style to keep progress from happening," says a senior officer.

Danzig himself uses a musical metaphor to describe what he tried to do at the Navy. His role in the ongoing debate among Navy offices over programs or policies was like that of a jazz bandleader, he says-sounding the note of innovation and then letting officers pursue various themes on their own. It's an apt metaphor, O'Rourke said just before Danzig left office at the end of the Clinton administration. "He's taking an orchestra that's playing Mozart or Beethoven and he's trying to get some people to pull away from that music and play jazz. If he can get a few people to do that, he's done a lot."