Military recipe for change: ‘Z-grams’

Throughout his life, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. modeled many aspects of leadership. His colleagues and subordinates drew positive lessons from his actions, attitude and decisions.

Starting his career as a junior naval officer, Zumwalt (1920-2000) earned a series of promotions to become the youngest vice admiral in Navy history. He commanded U.S. naval forces in Vietnam and, at age 49, became chief of naval operations—the youngest man to serve as the Navy’s highest-ranking ­officer.

In his 20s, he showed wisdom beyond his years when he was ordered to work at the Bureau of Naval Personnel after battlefield heroism in World War II. Most officers dreaded such an assignment, but Zumwalt made the best of it. He embarked on ambitious reforms of personnel systems, most notably by paving the way for African-American officers to advance in their careers.

Running naval operations from 1970 to 1974, Zumwalt confronted a problem that many CEOs face: Rewarding enterprising employees for taking smart risks while shoving aside their risk-averse, conformity-seeking bosses.

Zumwalt found that some naval officers sought to play it safe and not rock the boat. As a result, they discouraged underlings from proposing new ideas. Zumwalt removed such officers and replaced them with entrepreneurially minded doers.

To prod his team to embrace organizational change, Zumwalt wrote memos that became known as “Z-grams.” These directives summarized how and why Zumwalt wanted to reform a policy or procedure.

In simple language, he would de­­scribe his objective and the road map to achieve that goal. Examples included lifting rules against casual clothing and long hair and ending racial and gender discrimination.

Finally, Zumwalt took responsibility for his mistakes. His son served under his command and later became ill from exposure to Agent Orange. Zumwalt had ordered that the chemical herbicide—used to kill vegetation to prevent enemy troops from hiding amid foliage—be sprayed during the Vietnam War.

After his son’s death, Zumwalt championed medical treatment for ­veterans exposed to Agent Orange. In his retirement, he advocated for cancer victims and helped launch the national bone marrow donation program.

— Adapted from Zumwalt, Larry Berman, HarperCollins.