Sgt. Steven Lewis

This Gen-Z Value Could Spell Trouble for Spec Ops Community

CNA looked at the leadership traits valued by today’s youth, special operators, and strategists of tomorrow.

What Gen Z and millennials want doesn’t exactly line up with what today’s military leaders offer—and a new report suggests there might be particular implications for the Pentagon’s special operations forces. 

A study conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) compared the leadership traits valued by three groups: today’s special operators, Gen Z and millennials, and the strategic thinkers envisioning tomorrow’s battlefield. 

CNA found a lot of overlap. Eleven traits span all three: character, creativity, flexibility, determination, competence, relationship builder, trustworthiness, problem-solver, approachability, empowerment, risk-taker. 

“Generally speaking, it's a good news story that SOF leadership is in a pretty good place with respect to the leadership traits that they at least say are important to them,” said Jonathan Schroden, director of CNA’s Countering Threats and Challenges Program and its Special Operations Program. “But there were a couple of things that emerged that we thought were interesting and that the other recommendations flow from.”

“Transparent values-driven leadership” is a trait younger generations are “really big on,” Schroden said. And it wasn’t mentioned once by today’s SOF leaders. 

“You're going to have people coming into the force who will apparently really value transparency and values-based leadership,” Schroden said. “And SOF have struggled with that in the recent past.”

While transparent values may be an attainable goal for certain career fields—even within the military—it presents a unique obstacle for the special operations community. 

Gen Z likes to know “why they’re being asked to do something,” Schroden said, “as opposed to just being ordered to do it and saluting and doing it because they were ordered to do it.” Younger people on the force might want answers that SOF commanders are not willing or not able—for classification reasons—to provide, the report found. 

“That’s going to have the potential to negatively impact the motivation of those younger members of the force,” Schroden said. “The leader is going to have to think differently about how they use information to motivate.” 

Key aspects of SOF culture are also going to be left behind by future generations. For example, a sense of initiative, action-oriented thinking, and a warrior mentality are all traits valued by current SOF leaders but were not identified as important to future generations or the future battlefield. 

“It’s not like SOF are broken in this regard,” Schroden said. “The traits that SOF talk about today are pretty close to what we identified as being necessary for younger people and future generations. But they’re not codified and there are some important missing pieces like transparency and values-based leadership that’ll be really important for them to focus on going forward.”