The Submarine Leadership Tour- Fifth Stop: Wardroom and Crew’s Mess!Dave Forman
Our last stop was the Control Room, and we discussed how leaders must focus on the critical processes that serve as the “brain” of their organization.
To get to the Wardroom from Control, we head down two decks, and grab a seat. The Wardroom is where all the officers eat, but since we’re limited in space on a submarine, it doubles as a small training classroom, a briefing room, a movie theater, and in extreme cases, an emergency surgery operating room.
Just a few steps through the galley and we get to Crew’s Mess, another multi-purpose space where about one-third of the crew can fit at once.
An important attribute for any leader is the ability to effectively apply available resources. Put a slightly different way, we must leverage existing situations and organizational structures to our advantage.
In this instance, submarines have a huge advantage when it comes to building camaraderie and trust: we all have to eat together. For every meal. Everyday.
There is obviously no Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, or Chipotle underway. There are no new sushi joints to check out either. When it’s time to eat, we eat with our crew, so we naturally get to know each other well.
Once we know each other, we come to trust each other, and that trust is essential for the teamwork we require onboard. Every team needs this to some degree.
Officers studying at a Wardroom table. Photo Credit: PH2 Todd Cichonowicz.
Sea Story: We didn’t have flat-screen TVs on submarines in World War II, but we do now. Lots of them actually. We have a large one in the Wardroom, and we use it to give training, show tactical displays when we need it, and also watch movies.
After several weeks at sea, when each day is very similar to the next, we naturally seek ways to “spice things up.” However, not all change is good.
A few weeks into a deployment someone had been watching recorded TV shows before the meal started. It never got turned off as they prepared the room for the meal (we still set up full plates, glasses, silverware, etc.), so it was still playing as we all sat down to eat.
We were all ok with a little break from the norm, and “TV during the meal!” was something new. I went along with it.
But as Captain, my spot was at the head of the table, and the TV was at the other end, centered in front of me. I saw all my officers with their necks cranked towards the TV, eating quietly, and not talking to one another.
I realized that as much as the TV was a nice break, it represented a regression for my team. I felt like the grumpy father, but TV during meals went away and didn’t come back. We still watched movies at night when the schedule allowed, but not during meals.
Meals with my officers enabled a critical element of their professional development, and I wasn’t ready to sacrifice that for some reruns.
As a leader of your team, how much time do you spend together strengthening personal ties? Do you have opportunities that you’re not using right now? Are you paying attention to not lose what you have now?
The challenges in this area created by the 2020 pandemic is its own separate topic, but how will you recover when the time comes? When you can get back together, make sure you create enough time and structure for your team to bond to the degree necessary based on your organization and your team goals.
Sea Story: The other leadership lesson to learn from Crew’s Mess is when to stop working and have a good time. As submariners underway, we don’t “let our hair down” too often, but some traditions warrant the occasion.
When our deployment is halfway over, we celebrate “halfway night” with a variety of fun and unique activities. Leaders can influence the tone of these kinds of events, so as Captain, I wanted to do my part.
Earlier in my time in the Navy I came across two kinds of push-up challenges. One is to do a push-up each time Bruce Springsteen says “down” in his song “I’m Goin’ Down.” He says it 89 times. The other is to keep pace with the “up” and “down” in Moby’s song “Flower,” which some people will recognize as “Bring Sally Up, Bring Sally Down.” He only says it 30 times in this song, but you spend a lot of time in the down position.
I had to train up for each of these. On separate deployments I challenged a few Sailors to take me on, and I felt this was a valuable element of the overall halfway night festivities.
Everyone completed each challenge, but just barely.
This is Crew’s Mess on a ballistic missile submarine. This is where we did our push-up challenges, but we had to remove a table first!
Playing these songs in Crew’s Mess, with the rest of the crew gathered around and egging those Sailors to not be outdone by their own Captain, are some of my most memorable times onboard.
But more importantly, the crew really enjoyed it too. After one of these challenges one of my Sailors said that was the most fun he’d ever had onboard. Perhaps that’s not saying much, and I’m sure he enjoyed significant professional satisfaction often, but that was the most fun he’d had, and I can believe that.
And that concludes our time in the Wardroom and Crew’s Mess! To recap, leaders need to spend enough social time with their team to develop requisite trust between each other and foster the informal but natural mentorship that results.
The best cultures also support healthy traditions and genuinely “fun” activities. The “work” times are plenty and we don’t have to plan for those. A good leader ensures there is space for the other important aspects of life, like fun.
Berthing is up next week (where Sailors sleep and “live” underway)! Do you look out for your team holistically? Do you support them personally as well as professionally?