New Era at the Stockdale Center

When Colonel Art Athens ’78, USMCR (Ret.), stepped down as director of the Naval Academy’s VADM James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the end of 2018, he left big shoes to fill. His 12 years as director of the Center encompassed its transition from an ethics center to an ethical leadership center, an important distinction that has ensured the integration of ethics and leadership throughout its programs, publication and presentations, as well as throughout the midshipman experience as a whole. His key achievements included the “Integritas” film project; the development of ethical decision-making simulations; establishing the Influence the Influencer program for faculty, staff and coaches; designing a Leadership Innovation Lab funded by Boeing; enhancing communications; more than tripling the annual operating budget; working with the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation to secure private funding for the Gettysburg Leadership Encounter, Naval Academy Women’s Network and a wide array of midshipman leadership development opportunities; and reorganizing the Center to establish a civilian deputy director position to provide long-term continuity of operations and pursuit of the Center’s mission.

Athens’ first civilian deputy director, Dr. Joseph J. Thomas, proved a fortuitous choice, and he’s now assumed the role of director of the Center, named for Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale ’47, USN (Ret.). While not a Naval Academy alumnus, Thomas, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, has been part of the Naval Academy family since 2003 when he arrived as 6th Battalion Officer. He retired from active duty in 2005 and accepted a teaching position in the Leadership, Ethics and Law department. A graduate of Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Thomas also holds a Master of Social Science from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, a Master of Strategic Studies from the Army War College, and a Ph.D. in Leadership from George Mason University. His active duty Marine career included assignments with the 1st and 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1, assistant professor of naval science at the University of Notre Dame and Head of Training Management and Evaluation/Senior Education Officer at Marine Corps Training and Education Command. A prolific author whose research interests focus on experiential leadership development in remote and austere environments, Thomas also speaks on the topics of leadership and ethics regularly throughout the U.S., Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also been a frequent leader of midshipman language, regional expertise and culture (LREC) expeditions in a wide variety of locations.

What was it about the opportunity to lead the Stockdale Center that most appealed to you?

I had gotten to know Colonel Athens so well … we worked in similar communities in the Marine Corps, and as I often say, I’ve unfortunately had to follow him into several jobs. What I mean by that is he sets the bar so high. He and I worked very closely together throughout the time he served as the Stockdale director, and it helped me understand more clearly the purpose of the Center and where it was headed. In serving as the first civilian deputy director for 18 months, I got an immersion in the day-to-day operations of the Center and a full appreciation for how busy this place gets and the time demands of everyone who works here.

What do you think is so important about the Center and its mission?

We try to center everything we do around the mission of empowering leaders to make courageous, ethical decisions … to live up to our vision of ‘preparing future Jim Stockdales.’ But everyone has a mission. Everyone has a vision. They’re almost always aspirational, and they’re sometimes grandiose. But you have to have accomplishable, realistic objectives nailed down along the way. It’s in our five core competencies—research, consultation, innovation, dissemination and integration— where I think we really produce things of value to midshipmen, to staff, faculty and coaches, to the Naval Academy at large, to the Navy and Marine Corps and even to the government agencies we connect with. That’s how we make the mission and vision practical.

Of those competencies, are there any you would single out for their impact?

Stockdale started in 1998 as the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics. From the very beginning, the idea of researching cutting-edge moral development has been the heart of what the Center has done. Research Director Dr. Ed Barrett has been here for a long time, and his fellows program brings in three people each year, ethicists and philosophers drawn from other universities to dedicate a year of intensive study on the most pressing ethical issues of the day related to the Navy and Marine Corps specifically, but military ethics in a general sense. There’s intense weekly conversations, a publication, speaking events and it culminates with the annual McCain Conference. People come from all over the world to attend that.

Beyond research, another one I think bears specific mention is the idea of integration of ethical leadership across the Academy. One of the really great programs that has enabled this concept of integration is the Influence the Influencer program led by Rear Admiral Alan T. “Blues” Baker ’78, CHC, USN (Ret.). He has, with the support of philanthropic giving, been able to put real meaning behind the idea that all of our key influencers here are speaking from a similar language of moral, ethical leader development. We send coaches, faculty members and administrators to world-leading programs at the Center for Creative Leadership, Northwestern, Harvard and so on. Our graduates go on to do really diverse things within the Navy and Marine Corps, but the one thing that’s consistent is their role as leaders. I think it’s really important, and the folks who fund the Influence the Influencer program think it’s really important, to have the language of leader development recognized as an academic field in a way it might not have been 20 or 25 years ago.

The Stockdale Center supports midshipman leadership development in a lot of ways, but it also reaches out to the rest of the national defense community and beyond. Why is that aspect of the mission so important?

I realize that some people are not in favor of the word ‘brand,’ but the Naval Academy brand is such that it commands attention. The Stockdale Center was founded, at least in part, to serve as ‘a beacon for the nation.’ On any given week at the Stockdale Center, we’ve got people from local, county, state and federal government reaching out for insight, advice, seminar facilitation, keynoting and so on. We’ve got longer-term relationships with everyone ranging from the FBI to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the state fire academy. There’s a lot of private sector organizations we support on a bandwidth-available basis. Last year, I taught in Tunisia and Madagascar, and I’m headed to teach at the war college in Kazakhstan in a few weeks. The Britannia Royal Naval College has been here four times in the last six months to leverage good ideas, share best practices and so on.

What emerging Stockdale Center programs are you most excited about in terms of supporting not just the Stockdale Center mission but the overall mission of the Academy?

We were really fortunate to bring Michael Sears ’78 on as director of the Boeing Leadership Innovation Lab. He spent five years in the Marine Corps, got a joint J.D./MBA from Stanford then embarked on a 30-plus year career in Silicon Valley doing everything related to tech and innovation, from founding a company to being CEO of a tech firm to being a venture capitalist. He’s been involved in innovation in a place that’s known better than anywhere else on the planet for innovation and he has come back here to share those talents with us. He’s using midshipmen, faculty and staff as focus groups to figure out how to meet a demand signal for 21st century technology and innovation. Innovation is what’s really going to distinguish the Stockdale  Center and cement it even further as an international center of excellence in the development of ethical leadership. Much of the research he is doing right now relates to delivery methods for ethics and leadership lessons via apps for smartphones and specifically augmented reality. It’s easy to get excited about that, and for the mids to get excited about putting on an oculus and using artificial intelligence to game through lessons that up until this point have more or less been limited to paper-based books. Obviously, we still have books—I’m a big fan. But for the last 10 years we’ve been in the movie-making business, too. Our videos have been used in the larger Navy in a lot of outreach to communities within the Navy and the Marine Corps. We’ll never get out of the business of books or videos, but a smartphone app can reach a tremendous number of people around the world at a very minimal cost.

What makes the Stockdale Center and its mission so worthy of outside investment from alumni and even corporate partners like Boeing?

I think every alum would recognize that the raison d’etre of the Naval Academy is to produce leaders to serve the nation. The Stockdale Center is not just symbolic of that raison d’etre, but it’s actively engaged in giving it meaning. Stockdale is almost exclusively driven by philanthropic giving. Very little in our budget is appropriated. Stakeholders, alumni especially, are enabling the Stockdale Center. It’s grown the way it has over the past 20 years based on class giving, individual donors … now we’re starting to see corporate giving and family foundations step up.

Why was this the right next step for you, personally and professionally? Why are you the right person to lead the Stockdale Center today?

In so many ways and on so many levels, this is the job I’ve been preparing for my entire professional life. I enlisted with a high school diploma and almost no plan for the long-term future. By the time I retired from the Marine Corps, I had a bachelor’s, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. But more importantly, I had been given opportunities to lead educational programs. I feel a heavy responsibility—I won’t call it a burden—but a responsibility to contribute and to add to the legacy that’s been built here over the last 20 years. All of us at the Stockdale Center are very aware that some universities have centers that are standalone entities on the campus of that university; they have a distinct function different from the overall purpose of that university, not aligned or even coordinated with what the university’s mission is. I spoke with Admiral Stockdale’s son at Colonel Athens’ farewell. Admiral Stockdale was the ultimate warrior philosopher, and I think the things we are doing in our five core competencies fall perfectly in line with what he wrote about, what he spoke about and most importantly what he embodied during his time in the Navy and beyond. I feel a very strong sense of responsibility in upholding their family name and to burnishing the reputation of the Center and the Academy into parts of the country and even parts of the world that the Academy doesn’t otherwise touch on its own.

Source: Shipmate, March 2019