RADM (Ret.) Marc Dalton
RADM (Ret.) Marc Dalton is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy (Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering) and Harvard’s JFK School of Government (Master of Public Administration).
Dalton’s assignments at sea include USS Long Beach (CGN 9), Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group 1, USS Cowpens (CG 63), USS Enterprise (CVN 65), and executive officer aboard USS Antietam (CG 54). As commanding officer aboard USS Boone (FFG 28), he deployed to the Atlantic and Mediterranean with Standing NATO Maritime Group 1. Following an assignment as reactor officer aboard USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), he served as deputy and commanded Destroyer Squadron 21, deploying with the John C Stennis Carrier Strike Group as the sea combat commander. As a flag officer, he commanded Amphibious Force U.S. 7th Fleet (CTF 76/ESG 7), and Battle Force U.S. 7th Fleet (CTF 70/CSG 5). During his sea tours, he completed 13 deployments to the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, Mediterranean, Southern Pacific and Caribbean.
Ashore, Dalton served on the Pacific Fleet Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board; in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, N513 Strategy and Concepts branch; on the Joint Staff in the J-5 Policy Division; as deputy executive assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; as executive assistant to the Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. As a flag officer, he served as deputy director of Policy, Strategy, Plans, Partnership and Capabilities (J-5/8) at U.S. European Command following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, responsible for the new strategy, theater campaign plan, operational plan and resourcing, including the European Deterrence Initiative; and as director, Maritime Operations (intelligence, operations, plans, engagement, networks, communications and training) for U.S. Pacific Fleet. Dalton also served as director, Assessment Division (N81) on the OPNAV staff.
His decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and various unit, campaign and service awards.
RADM (Ret.) Dalton is now president of Dalton Defense Consulting.
What do you view as the most important element in your leadership journey?
I view learning through a craftsman metaphor. Some people have more innate skill (not me), but learning and experience are the most important factors in developing skill as a craftsman. Of course, you need to accumulate a good set of tools along the way.
As an Ensign, you have limited experience and a small starter toolbox. If you have a learning mindset, as you and your team get more experience, your skill improves and your toolbox gets bigger – and by the time you finish command, you have a top-of-the-line Pro Craftsman 30-drawer leadership toolbox. Leadership challenges seem to come at you slower, you more easily identify issues and more often have the right tool for the job.
What leadership advice would you give young SWOs?
When asked about leadership, the insight I most often pass on is to regularly ask yourself the question: “What does my team need from me, and how am I going to lead?”
Most leaders have things that come more naturally to them, and that are generally successful. But if that leadership approach is not what the team and the situation demand, then what worked before can fail spectacularly. And if it’s not working, repeating the same leadership and expecting a different result…
While it is important to talk to your team about what they want, the crucial step in answering this question is an accurate assessment of team strengths, weaknesses and recent outcomes. What do they need most? Direction? Standards set? An example? Motivation? Positive reinforcement? Teamwork? A highly motivated team that isn't doing the right things and a team that knows what to do but lacks teamwork will both fail, but they need different leadership to succeed.
Closely related to this is the idea of playing to your strengths but getting out of your comfort zone to build your toolkit. For example, if you are a strong extrovert and provide lots of communication, motivation and an active example, but are not getting the desired result, consider spending individual time developing and promulgating the guidance and plan underpinning the team's efforts. If you are a strong introvert and provide a lot of written communications and detailed plans while setting a diligent example, consider sharing your energy about your ideas and getting in-person feedback. If your team assessment never drives you to get out of your comfort zone, you probably should look harder.
Over the course of your career, how have you failed? What did you learn?
Too many times and ways to count. Again, learning is so important. That said, I've also found how important it is to celebrate the wins. Capturing that team satisfaction and the resulting confidence, swagger, and mojo are as important for success as learning from losses.
When you or the team does fall short, it is important to learn the right lessons. Fix the crisis, find the root cause, ask why, and take actions that make failure much less likely next time. And then follow through and spotcheck.
How do you set priorities and manage your time?
I have found it helpful to have both a larger vision/mission/objective and explicit goals and focus. When you have the authority, delegating and aligning responsibility for each of those goals/lines of effort to specific individuals is also productive. I’ve often found simplified military planning steps and a campaign plan model can be an effective framework for anything more complex than what to eat for lunch.
As others have noted, controlling your schedule and tracking what you spend your time on are crucial to really implementing priorities, but require putting some process/tools in place. Mentoring is one of my examples – if it is important, make time for it.
What other secrets have you found to success in the Navy?
I like to share a couple of maritime metaphors.
“Up on plane and ahead of the wave” Like getting a planing hull up on plane, prioritize the harder effort up front to get you and your team in a place where you can maintain your desired situation and “velocity” with manageable, cruising speed effort. If your team is ahead of plans and/or expectations, than you will spend less time answering external questions and managing crises. A good team will use this space to consider common challenges and be ready if they happen. It is very satisfying to be cruising along, untroubled by churn, passing up others with seemingly less effort, but it takes upfront planning, drive and energy to get there.
“Sprint and Drift” This is about taking care of you and your team. In ASW, drift is when your sensors are at their best, and for people, it is about recharging to get to your best. It may sound like the opposite of “up on plane”, but is actually enabled by it. If you sprint to get to cruising speed, then you will have more ability to “drift” – taking time out for yourself (e.g. enough sleep and exercise) and your family and friends (e.g. building memories together). Sometimes we don't own the schedule and have to sprint for the mission, but identifying a plan to drift in the future helps manage stress. Of course, if you are on plane, you can both delegate more readily and more easily build time in for your team to charge their batteries and have some fun.
I also consider these metaphors when considering instituting change. Just because I think a change will make things better, I consider the cost vs. benefit and time scale. If the change will take us “off plane”, how much effort and time will it take to get back on plane and how long will it take for the new velocity to provide return on the investment and get back ahead of the wave? How much of available “drift” time will be sacrificed?
How and when should SWOs ask for help?
The best advice I received about asking for help was based on the insight that if you wait until you are ready to ask for help it is sometimes too late, and that often people cannot see they need help. The resulting prescription was to seek out one or more “sensors”. Sensors are people you trust, that you share with and most importantly who will tell you they think you are wrong about something or need help. Spouses, family, friends, co-workers, or medical and religious professionals can all fit the role, as long as you regularly share about your life and/or work with them, and make yourself open to their truthtelling. For junior officers, a good senior enlisted partner often helps fill this role at work. “Auxo, you look like crap. When was the last time you slept?”
What would you ask of junior SWOs?
Mentor, mentor, mentor.
I am convinced of the power of mentoring. As a flag officer, I formally mentored dozens of officers, talking with them about quarterly. I prioritized my mentoring even when I was working some long hours. I have found that mentoring adds energy on both sides of the relationship. As a junior officer, seek a mentor, ideally someone outside your chain of command you are comfortable sharing issues with and asking advice from. But also start providing mentoring to someone who is less experienced than you are. As you get more senior, your opportunity to share your experience and pay forward the mentoring you received will grow. I guarantee that you will find it rewarding.