3 Ways to Tell If You’d Be A Good Submarine CaptainDave Forman
The opening scene of the movie “Crimson Tide” suggests the Captain of a ballistic missile submarine is the 3rd most powerful man in the world, behind the President of the United States and President of the Soviet Union.
Times have changed of course, and submarine captains followed orders back then just as they do now (so they were never actually the 3rd most powerful, but it sure sounded dramatic). However, submarine captains still carry tremendous leadership responsibility, and as such, it’s a good leadership exercise to see how you’d stack up to the job.
Hypothetically, if you could successfully command a submarine, you’d probably also excel in your current leadership position.
The crew of a submarine is divided into three main departments: Navigation, Engineering, and no surprise, Weapons. These departments create a natural structure for a litmus test, and they are also useful to help you remember this blog after you’re done reading it (which incidentally is one aspect of good leadership…keeping things simple so your team can remember your intent well after you convey it).
As with so many things in business and life, to be successful, you need to be in the right place at the right time.
The military is obviously no exception.
In the Navy, these places are usually called “waypoints.” A series of these points together is called a “voyage plan.” Businesses have these too, but they are often called “long-range plans” or “quarterly goals.” It’s simply some relatively near-term “final destination” with some “checkpoints” along the way.
A successful Captain always has a plan to get his boat (we refer to submarines as boats) to the right place at the right time, and while the Captain approves the plan, the key point is that he’s not the one who develops it. As Captain, I was uneasy anytime I was the main driver of anything. My preferred position was to let my team develop a plan, which I would edit on rare occasions, and then watch it unfold in front of me.
Are you more involved in developing long-term plans than you need to be? Could you instead provide top-level guidance, let your team develop the details, and then review their plan?
What makes for a good voyage plan? Just two things: simplicity and resilience.
Submarining, and most business endeavors, are team sports. In anything that involves more than one person, complexity breeds costly errors.
Admittedly, some things begin complex, but it’s a leader’s job to make it simple through practice. It was common practice for us to do as many dry runs as necessary to make sure everyone knew their piece of the puzzle and knew it well. It was important that every individual piece, the piece for one person to handle, be simple.
Resilience is important because any type of planning has implicit assumptions, and those assumptions can always prove faulty. When they do, if the plan falls apart immediately, then by definition it was a bad plan.
We’d usually check our resilience by asking “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” Aside from a meteor falling from the sky and boiling the oceans, we’d use our experience to think of some likely potential “problems” and discuss our pre-planned responses.
The intent is to have the main plan with the answers to one or two major “what-ifs?” Any plan where everything had to go perfect was no plan for a submarine. It’s probably not a good plan for your team either.
Once we got into the execution phase, you might think the Captain was highly and directly involved, shouting orders and leading the team with “distinguished bravery” or something equally dramatic. Though there were a few occasions that warranted my direct involvement, it was never part of the base plan. The base plan for nearly every operation left me, as Captain, free from any specific responsibility.
By maintaining this “outside looking in” role on my team, I had the freedom to mentally stay ahead of my team and back them up to ensure we never deviated too far from our plan. If we ever got too far past the “one or two things that could go wrong,” I was there as a final backstop to get us back to safety. If I was too involved in executing the plan, then there was no backstop, and that’s no place to put the safety of your team or the success of your company.
The concept of “engineering” in your organization is all about reliable predictability. Our submarine engineering department provides electrical power, propulsion, air, and water. Alone, it can’t do a single submarine mission, but no submarine mission can be accomplished without those services. Thankfully it’s a predictable and reliable department. They consistently deliver, 24/7, 365, and to be a successful leader, you need to achieve similar reliability in your daily or cyclic operations.
Are your day-to-day operations (schedule, processes, communications channels) predictable to all levels in your organization? More specifically, when your employees arrive at work each day, how far out do they know the schedule, and how closely does their actual day follow their planned day?
This is the “engineering” of your company…the “propulsion” that drives whatever you do, so you must ask yourself, “How reliable is my propulsion?”
Unpredictable schedules, processes, and communication methods can lead to significant and immediate change for your company (“we were going to do this, but now we’re going to do that”). In any medium to large size organization, rapid unplanned change causes all kinds of inefficiencies and follow-on miscommunication. Miscommunication at sea can lead to deadly outcomes. Miscommunication at work can cost a lot of money.
As a leader, you achieve and maintain this reliable predictability through your personal leadership style. It’s your own ability to respond in a consistent manner that enables organizational predictability.
When you get good news, how do you respond? How about bad news? How do you react to external (supervisory or third-party) feedback about how your portion of the company is performing? If your employees ever wonder “what kind of boss are we getting today?”, then your consistency could use some work. You need to develop and set expectations for how things should be, and then you need to stick to it.
One final note on this “engineering” aspect of evaluation for your company; it’s not meant to stifle creativity. There can be entire days or hours within a day set aside for creative development. Schedules can be modular to the point that it doesn’t matter when in the day (or week) it happens, just as long as it happens (up to the employee to decide when).
The problem arises when employees arrive at work thinking they have all day to develop something, but instead they are called into reactive meetings and assigned short-term and unexpected tasks. It’s the constant changing that kills.
There is always a margin for infrequent turbulence that destroys the planned schedule, but it needs to be a pretty high threshold. If it’s not, then you have an unpredictable engineering department, and it won’t be too long before your lights go out.
When it comes to the “weapons department,” it’s all about protecting your people and protecting the values and culture of your team. To think you can maintain your current success or achieve a future success without needing to offer a few course corrections is simply not realistic. When these “enemies” to your success pop up, you must be ready to engage.
When it comes time to speak up to ensure everyone is respected in the workplace, or to address a small tiff between two employees, or to actively sustain a positive and enabling culture, the question is, will you be ready? Your words and your ability to respond are your defensive weapons.
I was taught two pretty simple lessons early in my submarine service. First, “you get what you inspect, not what you expect.” Second, “if you see something wrong and don’t correct it, you just set a new standard.”
I don’t know anyone who loves inspections, but the point here is that you need some objective status of how things are going, otherwise you won’t know if any real changes are required. Assuming everyone is getting along or assuming that nobody is cracking inappropriate jokes are poor assumptions.
Good leaders develop methods to casually and comfortably stay apprised of team “morale,” and when drift or decline starts to occur, they act quickly in an appropriate way. Many tools can inform a leader, from an anonymous comment box to formal online surveys, but the key is for them to provide candid and timely feedback.
When presented with information that something is not in line with your vision or culture, if you do not act quickly, then the second lesson above applies; whatever shortcoming you witnessed but did not address just became another chink in your armor. Responding after the fact is akin to publishing a newspaper correction; it’s technically on the record, but it has a fraction of the original effect.
Coming in late with corrective responses or actions also carries the perception that you are only echoing “company policy” and not your own beliefs.
Even for many of my seasoned crew members, staying mentally ready to speak up can be challenging. As humans, when everything is going well, nobody likes to be the one to create friction by calling out someone’s shortcomings. Nobody wants to be the buzzkill. Therefore we need to apply a little forethought as to how we’d handle these situations so we’re prepared when they pop up.
The easiest action is simply to ask to see the “offender” privately. “Hey Joe, you got a minute? Can you come to my office or could we step outside for a second?” This is another basic leadership principle, to praise in public, but reprimand in private. Even though reprimand may be too strong a word in many civilian settings, it’s still easier to give any kind of “less than 100% positive” feedback in private. It saves the person any embarrassment in front of others, and if they don’t agree with you, it also naturally protects you from any open appearances of disrespect.
Another element of “defense” under this weapons department is protecting people from external detrimental forces. This would mean defending a team member from an irate customer or another form of external criticism. Even if your employee is fully capable of “taking the heat,” if you, as the leader, simply stand there and don’t take ownership of the situation, you are abdicating your role.
Just picture what it would look like if a “boss” stood idly by as a customer “blew up” at one of the employees? My immediate thought would be “who is the leader here!?” Contrast that to a leader who witnesses an employee having a hard time with a customer, and then actively steps into the situation to be the one to accept the customer’s grievance. Which type of leader would you rather have?
Situations that require correction and input from you will come up quickly. If you don’t maintain a baseline mental readiness that will allow you to speak up promptly, then your weapons department will suffer, and your leadership performance will follow.
To review, how are your three departments performing for you? Just remember these three topics and the themes that go with them, and you’ll be a little better each day.
Navigation: Are you involved in “voyage plan” (long-range) planning and execution in the correct way? Give your intent, let your team develop the plan for your approval, and position yourself so you can monitor progress while maintaining objectivity?
Engineering: Have you enabled reliable and predictable expectations that allow your team to run smoothly, like a well-oiled machine?
Weapons: Are you mentally ready to defend your people against the forces that inevitably intrude and detract from your desired organizational culture and values?