As a JO in the fleet, my own perception of that time - a difficult time for the nation itself - was that the Navy had a mid-level leadership crisis. Many CO’s and XO’s were ill-equipped to deal with the sailors of the day, now better educated, and often already cynical as a result of Vietnam. They wanted more from their leadership than 3 squares and a dry bunk, and rightly or wrongly, felt entitled to know the “why” behind their orders. My view is that Zumwalt tasked his leaders to actually lead - with personal leadership - this new breed of sailor. Some responded, and their ships reflected it. Others, protesting “how can I lead when the CNO took away the reg book?” failed.
I believe that time proved Zumwalt right. Admittedly, there were some missteps along the way, but ultimately, initiatives like Leadership and Management Education and Training (LMET) helped to give us better leaders, and in turn, with the All-Volunteer Force, a better Navy. The elders of that day had simply failed to grasp the implications of a dramatically changing country (my father, a career officer, was one).