The Submarine Leadership Tour- Sixth Stop: Berthing!Dave Forman
Our last stop was the Wardroom and Crew’s Mess, and we discussed the need for leaders to spend quality social time with their teams and ensure some allotment for activities that are actually fun (for the team, not necessarily the leader).
To get to Berthing from Crew’s Mess, head aft through the watertight door, take a few more steps, and you’ll see the entrance to each “bunkroom” between nearly every set of missile tubes.
These are missile tubes. Between nearly every set is an entrance to a bunkroom. This is the heart of “Berthing.”
On ballistic missile submarines, Officers and Chief Petty Officers berth in the forward compartment, but the rest of the crew berths in 9-person bunkrooms in the missile compartment; three stacks of three bunks each.
This is a nine-person bunkroom. The middle bunk is propped up showing the “bunk pan” where a Sailor keeps most personal and uniform items. There is a shared closet for hanging items and a small drawer too, but overall it’s not much space at all!
While underway, we live less than a minute from where we work, so the “work-life” integration is painfully obvious. When in port, many of the junior crewmen live in government barracks, and we do weekly inspections to ensure the berthing areas support the health and well-being of our crew.
These physical inspections clearly don’t translate to civilian jobs, however, the concept absolutely does. All good leaders concern themselves with the overall well-being of their team.
Nobody wants an awkward line of personal questioning on a daily basis, but there are ways leaders can politely skim the surface to let their team members know they care about them as “people” and not simply “employees.”
How much do you know about the non-work lives of your team? Some will share more than others, and that’s fine, but over time there will be plenty of opportunities to ask polite, topical, open-ended questions that allow them to share what they are comfortable sharing. When they do, we are obligated as good leaders to support them as best we can.
This is how much space someone has in a submarine bunk. We usually sleep well because our schedule is so busy, but it’s still rather modest living conditions. When leaders have an opportunity to support or improve “living” conditions for their team, it should be an obvious decision.
Sea Story: As a department head (my second tour on a submarine), I was the Engineering Officer (we refer to this job as “ENG,” like the first syllable of the word “engine”). I was in charge of planning and managing our maintenance periods. I often worked late.
I also had three kids under the age of five, so dates with my wife were few and far between.
The Disney musical “The Lion King” came to town, and we got tickets.
The show date arrived, and I had planned a light schedule so I could get home in time, but my day started to fill up quickly. In the passageway I said to one of my Sailors, “Ok, bring me the work package to review, but if I don’t get out of here by 4:30, my wife’s gonna divorce me.”
Less than an hour later, my executive officer called me into his stateroom: “ENG, earlier I heard you say your wife was going to divorce you. Everything okay?”
I thankfully explained that I was only kidding, which I was, but the fact that he cared enough to bring it up meant the world to me.
He had plenty of more immediate concerns to worry about, and he could have been justified in letting it go. It was my marriage after all, not his. My job was to get the boat materially ready for our next deployment, and a different leader could have cared less about my personal life because it wasn’t in my job description.
And unfortunately, as you’ll see in this next story, some leaders actually don’t care.
Sea Story: A friend of mine, also in his department head job, had his wife go into labor while he was standing watch as the “Ship’s Duty Officer.” The Ship’s Duty Officer is the Captain’s direct representative for a 24-hour period when the ship is in port, and he stays onboard.
We have a Ship’s Duty Officer watchbill (calendar of assignments) so we know what to plan for. Swaps are usually no problem, but since the Captain approves that watchbill, he must also approve changes to it.
When my friend’s wife went into labor, several other officers volunteered to come in and assume the role of Ship’s Duty Officer so my friend could go to the hospital. They had enough time to go through the full turnover process and minimize the risk to the submarine of having an otherwise unplanned change of Duty Officer.
The answer was no. No options for additional consideration, just a simple, thoughtless, black and white, no.
My friend missed the delivery of his child, but thankfully mom and baby were healthy.
What an unnecessary imbalance of accounting for the whole person!
Understandably, it took some time for my friend to mentally “get over” this incident, but he did. He kept the role of Ship’s Duty Officer until his shift ended the next day, but it came at a high price to his association with the Navy, and for all those who observed it. It was an unnecessary cost that could have been avoided with a better leadership decision.
And that concludes our time in Berthing! To recap, leaders must never lose sight of the linkages between work and non-work life. Without being overly intrusive, good leaders appropriately view each team member as a “whole person.” With this proper mindset, leaders make better decisions that support the short and long-term interests of both the company and its employees.
The Battery Well is up next week! Do you have a “battery backup?” To better survive crises, you absolutely should. Once you get them, how do you keep those batteries charged, and how often do you test them?