The Submarine Leadership Tour- Fourth Stop: Control Room!Dave Forman
Our last stop was the Torpedo Room, where we discussed how good leaders are ready to speak up and take decisive action (“fire all torpedoes!” – but in a polite way in non-military settings) when they witness behavior that undermines their personal and professional standards.
As we exit the Torpedo Room, it’s time to head up three decks to get to the Control Room.
“Control” is essentially the brain of the ship. Signals from all over the boat (electrical signals, mechanical signals, and verbal reports) come to Control for the watch team to assess and take action when necessary.
As the brains of the ship, the collective team must always do the “right” thing. Sailors are people, and as individuals, certain days they will just be “off.” But a team with the right culture and processes can account for this one individual having a bad day. I would tell my crew often: “Individuals can and will make mistakes. Teams cannot.”
As Captain, I spent a lot of time in Control. If I needed to know what was going on or give updated guidance, I went to Control. Leaders can’t be everywhere at once, and one sign of a good leader is knowing where to be and when. Do you know where your “Control” is?
Every organization has a place or process that is equivalent to Control. It could be a weekly or daily staff meeting, a Monday “stand-up” meeting, cyclic planning meetings, or even a periodic creative session.
Whenever the “brain” of your organization gets together to review information and make decisions, that’s equivalent to your Control Room, and as such, you need to ensure your “Control” serves its correct purpose for you and your team.
This is a view of most of the Control Room. The two Sailors in the foreground work together to keep the ship on depth. The guy on the left normally steers. Between them is the Diving Officer of the Watch who supervises both of them as well as the Chief of the Watch on the right. The Chief of the Watch controls all kinds of air, water, and hydraulic oil pressure all over the submarine.
Who is your “Dive?”
The “ship control party” keeps the ship on the right course and depth. It’s a four-person team: helmsman, planesman, Chief of the Watch, and the Diving Officer of the Watch, which is spoken “Dive.”
The Dive is a senior position, but unlike most other watch stations, there is nothing to touch. All he or she does is supervise the other three. As such, this person has greater situational awareness and is often the first to realize when things start drifting towards a problem.
Every leader should have someone in their “Control Room” that is free to maintain a clear perspective on how things are going. If the entire team is engaged in specific tasks, who is paying attention to the big flick?
Sea Story: Never underestimate the power of having someone in Control “without a job” who can simply observe and speak up if you start doing something stupid.
In 2001, the submarine USS Greenville tragically collided with the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru and caused the loss of nine of her passengers. The incident occurred when Greenville conducted an emergency blow during a VIP guest cruise, and the Navy rightfully stopped conducting those visits until the investigation was complete and processes were permanently changed.
Many months later, when we resumed guest cruises with additional precautions, I was the Officer of the Deck in Control (as a Lieutenant), and leading the watch team to get out and back to Pearl Harbor within a few hours. We were still not conducting emergency blows, but we demonstrated a lot of other capability to our guests.
We started to fall behind schedule, so I picked up the pace. I was soon ready to come up to periscope depth so we could look around before surfacing and heading back home. However, when I began our routine checks that all other stations were ready to go to periscope depth, one of the stations wasn’t ready.
As Officer of the Deck, I had the authority to “override” that station and proceed. However, our Executive Officer came over to me while I had my eyes on the periscope with my hands on the handles and he quietly said: “Officer of the Deck, why don’t we take a deep breath, back up, and do this the right way.”
I couldn’t agree with him more, but I was caught up in the moment. Since he had no specific task like I did, he was in the right position to sense the wrong and was free to speak up. He saw the forest, and I literally had my face in a tree (the barrel of the periscope). I lowered the periscope and started over at the beginning of our safety routine. We did it the right way and ensured we took no unnecessary risk as we finished our guest cruise.
I never forgot that experience for the rest of my career. I got too far ahead of my watch team. I made a mistake, but my team caught me. I didn’t follow the path of the USS Greenville, but any similarity was too much.
In this story it was my Executive Officer, but for countless other routine operations, the Dive would be the one to helpfully intervene with the metaphorical “slap upside the head.”
Is there anyone in your “Control” room that would back you up like this? Anyone like a “Dive” that will help the rest of the team realize if they start veering off course?
From this angle you can see the Diving Officer (Dive), wearing the Khaki uniform, doesn’t have anything to “touch.” He only looks and talks. He is situated to have the best awareness of what the team is doing, and having someone like this on your team is truly invaluable.
Create the Right “Vibe”
Regardless of your line of work, your equivalent of Control will be a reflection of your culture. If your culture starts to shift, one of the first places you’ll notice is in “Control.”
I’ve seen this go both ways. Some cultures are formal and hierarchical, and when people are not formal enough, standards slide and organizational performance suffers. Some cultures have a “flat” structure where everyone is considered equal or near-peer, and trying to introduce formal or rigid processes can cause mini-revolts, which also drives down organizational performance.
You must know the correct culture for their team. While you can’t change it overnight, you can influence it, and once you’ve got it right, you should be prepared to work to keep it that way.
Sea Story: As a Department Head I was the Engineer Officer, and I was responsible for everything on the boat except weapons and navigation or combat-related systems.
We had been having a minor ventilation issue, but it was intermittent. When it happened one time, I finally solved the mystery and went to Control to explain what it was and how to recreate it so we would know for sure.
However, the Chief of the Boat was already in Control when I arrived, and he had his own ideas. Needless to say, I disagreed. Strongly. In front of everyone.
I outranked the Chief of the Boat on a Navy rank chart (he was enlisted), but I did not nearly outrank him in level of experience or in the eyes of the crew, and that is all that mattered. His positional authority outranked me.
Either way, two “higher-ups” were arguing in Control and distracting the watch team. We were informal and unprofessional. Or at least I was.
When I disagreed with my Chief of the Boat in Control, we showed nowhere near the animosity between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in the movie Crimson Tide, but we were also not in a movie to begin with. Real-life carried real consequences, and I learned a valuable lesson to keep better composure in Control. The tone there sets the tone for the rest of the submarine.
Following our disagreement in Control, I was formally counseled by my Captain, and rightfully so. We could have had our disagreement, but not there. We should have left Control and discussed it privately.
My Captain had standards he needed to maintain, and especially in Control. I broke those standards, and he acted to correct me and to ensure it didn’t happen again.
And that concludes our tour of the Control Room! To recap, be cognizant of where or what the “brain” of your organization is. Where does all your information flow and how do decisions get made? Once you know what this process is, make sure it’s working for you.
One way to do that is to have someone remain “mentally free” so they can keep the broader picture. They should also have the right personality to be able to speak up before you or your team make poor decisions. Also, be ready to actively maintain the culture of your Control Room for your team to function at its best. However, you can only maintain the right culture if you pay attention to the culture.
The Wardroom is up next week! It’s where all the Officers eat together, and a majority of an Officer’s development as a leader occurs in this room.