Informal, even conversational in style, Lead On! is nevertheless a serious handbook from which aspiring leaders can learn how to achieve seemingly impossible goals. The book is replete with examples from the author’s experience and from the history of the nuclear navy, where the price of failure can be death.
Civilian managers will find that many of the principles discussed here can be employed with profit in private industry. The old school of motivation by coercion never accomplished much with submarine sailors, who are among the navy’s elite, and the author has found that what works with this new breed of mariner-technician can be of enormous value in dealing with the members of an entrepreneurial organization.
Praise for Lead On!
“A wealth of advice on military leadership that is also pertinent to civilian managers.”—The Retired Officer
“It is a particular pleasure to see an officer from the ‘silent service’ publish his thoughts and viewpoints. In a light and breezy style . . . Admiral Oliver [expresses] some current thinking on critical issues.”—USNI Proceedings
|Random House Publishing Group
Read an Excerpt
I was inordinately fortunate during my early professional career. I worked for some truly awful leaders.
Thus, during the subsequent free time that life sometimes provides, I always had a full wagonload of professional grist waiting to grind. The important questions were always the same. Why had my bosses acted without apparent thought? Why didn’t my supervisors understand the effects their actions had on people?
Why had our team always done everything the hard way?
I have spent hours on these questions.
It appears that leadership principles are applicable across a wide spectrum of human endeavor, and I hate for the winds of time to quickly scour away what I so painfully learned. I thus have written down some of the situations I ran into during my climb up the career ladder and what exactly I took home from those experiences. You may disagree about the particular nuts I choose to pick for my knapsack. If a friend also reads this book, one story or another may even lead to an argument. Good. Important ideas deserve emotion.
And whatever else leadership is, it is important—to us as well as to our society. If I have learned one thing in my first thirty working years, it is that leadership, just like Mother’s washday detergent, is at least a double-duty ingredient. Leadership first makes individual efforts better. Then leadership melds the individuals into superior teams. Leadership is the modern gunslinger that walks into town, throws the bad guys out, and then stands astride the county line, ready for trouble, arms akimbo at his sides.
Good leadership is that inexpensive multiplier for which everyone is searching. If you aspire to be a leader—if you think you are a leader—you are the person I want to reach. Please take my torch.
I can’t make the normal disclaimer that the stories herein don’t represent real people and events. On the contrary, they certainly do. Because some of the events happened some time ago, one or two of the facts may have been altered inadvertently. If you know better, sorry, it is the best I can recall. On the other hand, the dialogue is deliberately constructed—I heard something like what is quoted.
I witnessed each event; in some I participated. I have been deliberately inexact about my particular stool at the bar. Specifying my role wouldn’t add much.
You are going to find a great deal of discussion of nuclear submarines here. I hope you are not put off by what may well be an unfamiliar environment. I think I have included enough explanation that you will learn something about what is involved in submarining as well as the difference between good and bad leadership. This book is definitely not just for submariners. However, I spent much of my early life building, repairing, or operating submarines, and those experiences often clearly demonstrate a particular point critical to a story. Subsequent to those early years I have worked with aviators, surface warriors, special forces, Air Force and Army men as well as women,* politicians—even civilians! I believe the observations in this book apply not only to all of those people but also to each and everyone of you who is trying or intends to try to lead or manage someone.
There are also several examples in these chapters describing how Adm. Hyman G. Rickover handled one issue or another. (Admiral Rickover is widely credited with being the principal architect of the nuclear Navy, and often received equally broad criticism for his personal leadership style). I have inserted some of my personal experiences with Admiral Rickover into a story when it seemed pertinent. You will have to draw your own conclusions as to whether I approved of his style. Whatever you decide, if you then ever meet someone who worked for or with the “kindly old gentleman,” you will be armed to carry on one heck of an argument.
If, when you finish this book, you want to check the pedigree of any of the lessons that may have taken a liking to you and followed you home, the last chapter is a summary of what I meant to say.
* I am a gender-neutral author. He and him should be read as he/she and him/her. Man can often be read as man or woman
A certain number of readers should skip this chapter. It doesn’t matter that it is early in the book. There are lots of other good chapters later. You can pick up the central concept then. If I mention any specific gems, I’ll be sure and summarize them in the final chapter. Your personal health is important. If injustice gives you a headache, or if your stomach churns when the bad guys win, you will probably be much better off just to pass this chapter by.
This is not a pretty story.
Once upon a time, in one of our fleets, all of the ships and submarines and most of the airplanes were dispatched to search for a three-star admiral who had reportedly gone down with all hands aboard one of our nuclear submarines. Everyone who could possibly help was scrambled to look for survivors.
Now let me tell you up front that the good part of this story will turn out to be that no submarine had actually been sunk, and in fact the admiral was right then fast asleep, in the best bunk aboard the submarine, dreaming the dreams of the just (all admirals dream such dreams).
Unfortunately, there was a bad part as well. The bad part was that all of the Navy had been officially told that the admiral, as well as the submarine in which he was sleeping, were lost. So when the admiral woke up, he was going to be very, very embarrassed. In addition, every sailor on the coast had been called out of his home, and warm bed, and back to his submarine, ship, or airplane to look for this admiral and his submarine. When this effort turned out to be unnecessary, all of the sailors were also going to be very unhappy.
What actually happened? Funny you should ask. To recreate the scene we first need to go back in time a few more hours and visualize ourselves at sea, down beneath the blue waves, aboard a submarine. Imagine. Are you there yet? Good. Find your way to the control room. Right, the one with the periscopes. Ask any one of the crew members. They are used to new people aboard being confused. When you get to Control, stand back out of the way and watch. There—over by the radar is a good place. Now, remember, this incident occurred several years ago. This was before satellites made communications to and from submarines so much easier. At the time of the story submarines had a great deal of difficulty talking with anyone—especially with each other. Given the options available, many submarines routinely communicated with each other by means of what was called an underwater telephone.
If you have never talked on an underwater telephone, it is similar to talking to Hong Kong on one of those cheap telephones you get for answering an advertisement for a magazine. In the water sound travels along an anything-but-straight line, bouncing off fish, slowed by kelp, bending with changes in temperature and salt content, and arriving at your ear as only a ragged shadow of its former self. This tortuous route is not the only path each sound wave can take, and the same words often arrive later as faint wavering echoes after bouncing off the surface of the water or the rocks on the bottom of the ocean. The delayed echoes add to the garble of an already almost unrecognizable voice.
Some days are good. It is as if the speaker were right at your ear. However, on most days the speaker could be on Mars trying to yell direct, and you would get roughly the same information.
There were, and are, all sorts of ways to help get around these problems. You search the ship for someone who can enunciate clearly. You use words with lots of consonants and make the message absolutely as short as possible. No “whereases” or “therefores” here. You break even short messages up into parts, and pass them a sentence or two at a time. You s-p-e-l-l. You speak slowly. You project your voice lower. You ban anyone who has even driven through the Bronx from ever touching the microphone. Got the picture? People get better with practice, but it is never easy to communicate with the underwater telephone.
So, there we were that day, our submarine acting as the bad guy, and the other submarine filling the good-guy role. The three-star admiral was on the other ship.* The training we were doing required us to meet the other submarine periodically at specified points in the ocean to restart the problem. For some reason I do not recall, the other ship decided to change the geometry for the next phase of the exercise. So they pulled up beside us underwater and directed us to stand by to receive a three-part underwater telephone message.
Okay. The officer of the deck pulled out a pen and notepad and stood by to copy. He picked up the underwater telephone handset and reported that he was ready. The other ship passed the first part of the message. The officer of the deck carefully listened and wrote down each word he heard. Two other officers, passing by, heard the incoming transmission and realized that communications were going to be difficult today. They also grabbed pieces of paper, took positions close by the loudspeaker, began listening intently, and started writing. So far, so good.
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