Earn your Oxygen: A Sea Story

Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat. They establish a culture of competency where new employees feel positive peer pressure to work hard to earn their spot in the team.

Saturday at Sea

It was Saturday night on my second patrol on the USS Tennessee and I headed up to the wardroom for supper. Saturday night was always special on a deployed nuclear submarine at sea. It was pizza night. It was a time to shake up the normal meal rotation and enjoy some tastes of home. The crew cherished pizza night. It meant another week had passed and we were one more week closer to home. I loved the tradition of pizza night, although if I’m honest, the pizza was never all that good. Still, it was nice to kick back and enjoy a casual meal with my fellow officers.

For the officers in the wardroom, Saturday night almost always included a movie and a poker game as well. It was a chance to relax and burn off some steam after a long week. Everyone enjoyed Saturday nights on patrol. That is, of course, if you were qualified and I wasn’t there yet. It takes about a year to complete the submarine qualification process and earn your Dolphins as a new officer and I was almost finished. But, almost doesn’t mean anything to a qualified submariner.

When the meal was over, I quietly listened as the officers with embroidered Dolphins on their chest debated which movie they would watch. I listened enviously to their discussion. There were great movies on board and I would have loved the chance to escape submarine life for a few hours. But, that wasn’t going to happen. Not now.

“Life is Simple: You’re Either Qualified or You’re Not” Anonymous Submariner

It’s not Easy Being a NUB

“What are you looking at NUB? Go get some signatures on your ‘qual card’ if you want to watch a movie.” There it was. I wasn’t qualified and they let me know it. It was clear I wasn’t yet a contributing member of the crew. I was a NUB. A NUB is a Non-Useful Body, a colorful term used on a submarine to denote a new officer or sailor recently out of school and not yet qualified. It’s used to keep positive peer pressure on unqualified crew members so they will work hard on their qualifications. On a submarine, life was simple, you were either qualified or you weren’t. And, without Dolphins, I was just a NUB. I wasn’t yet carrying my load which meant I was taking food and oxygen from other qualified crew members who had earned it.

To a qualified submariner, a NUB is an annoyance at best and a liability at worst. It wasn’t a lot of fun being a NUB.

The truth is, peer pressure on the boat worked. It was effective on me and everyone else who had ever been in my shoes. We all wanted to belong. We all wanted to carry our load and we certainly didn’t want to be a liability. So, despite being tired, annoyed, and sometimes overwhelmed with the process, we trudged on. We worked hard to finish our qualifications. We worked hard to join the ranks of the qualified.

Earning my Oxygen

With my notebook, a cup of black coffee, and my dog-eared qualification card, I headed down to the torpedo room to work on my torpedo systems qualifications. That night I spent close to six hours in the torpedo room and got all the signatures needed to complete my torpedo systems qualification. The sailors there were quick to teach me everything I needed to know. They showed me the location of key valves, how the torpedo display worked, and we reviewed all the various torpedo casualties. It was a long night but, while the other officers watched movies and played cards, I got one more step closer to getting qualified and earning my oxygen. And, all in all, it was a pretty good night.

“Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat.” Jon Rennie

Enduring Lessons

The Navy taught me valuable lessons about getting qualified. I learned how uncomfortable it was to be unqualified, how I felt like an outcast, not yet part of the family. I felt the shame of not being able to stand watch and pull my own weight. But, I also saw how that pressure drove me to work hard to get qualified, to gain the knowledge and experience to become an effective submariner.

While the Navy took positive peer pressure to an extreme, there are some important lessons that can be applied to any organization. First, the goal of any leader is to build a team of experienced and competent employees. A team of qualified employees is hard to beat. Second, new employees should be given a path to “qualification.” They need to clearly understand what is expected of them to become part of the team. Finally, like the submarine Dolphins, there should be a symbol that shows an employee is qualified. Companies like Lowe’s Home Improvement, for example, make new employees complete all their training before they “earn” their red vest. The red vest is worn with pride symbolizing a qualified member of the team.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think. Does your organization have a qualification process? Is it effective?

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber

Leave a Reply