My first commanding officer in the Navy was a hard ass and it was one of the best learning experiences of my career.
Trial by Fire
When I first arrived on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee, I was a lowly Ensign, the lowest ranking officer in the Navy. Ensigns are affectionately called “butter bars” because they wear one gold bar on each of their collars. As a “butter bar” fresh out of submarine school, I had zero experience in submarine operations. I was young and clueless.
My commanding officer wasn’t. He was a Captain, an O-6, five ranks ahead of me in the Navy food chain and he was commanding submarines while I was still in high school. He was a rough man of few words and the words he did use were exactly what you would expect from a sailor at sea. He walked the boat with a scowl on his face just looking for something that was out of sorts. If you left a cup of coffee on a cabinet and it wasn’t “rigged for sea,” he would knock it to the ground just to make a point. It was not uncommon to get chewed out from him while you were standing watch for the smallest infraction.
He expected the best out of his crew, especially his officers. We typically bore the brunt of his tirades. I once witnessed him throw a spoon across the wardroom table because the soup that was being served was cold. He had high expectations and if your performance was not up to speed, he’d let you know. In truth, he was commanding a nuclear-powered submarine with 24 nuclear missiles in the middle of the Atlantic during the Cold War. The stakes were high and he made sure his crew was ready.
“I firmly believe that respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity.” Julius Erving
As I learned my role and qualified for various watch stations on the boat, I noticed the crew had high expectations as well. They knew the Captain required the very best and they made sure to train young officers properly. It was not easy being held to such high standards but it made me work that much harder. When I finally qualified as Officer of the Deck, the officer in charge of the entire boat, I knew my stuff. I was tried and tested. I was good and I was surrounded by officers and sailors who were good as well.
The Tennessee proved its readiness time after time. Because of our commanding officer, we were able to effectively conduct all the missions we were assigned. We also became the best boat in the fleet. We received two Battle Efficiency Awards “Battle E’s,” a Navy Unit Commendation, and in 1993, we were awarded the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Ballistic Submarine of the Year.
I went from a young and clueless Ensign to an experienced and knowledgeable Lieutenant, qualified to stand every watch station on the boat. I learned the art of underwater combat from my Captain. I knew how to take the Tennessee to sea and to prepare her to launch missiles. I learned how to avoid detection and to hide in ocean currents and eddies. I learned navigation, engineering, and the full capabilities of our weapons. I also learned to love working for him.
“Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, [or] difficulty.” Theodore Roosevelt
Was my commanding officer warm and fuzzy? No. Was he overtly friendly? No. Did we all respect and admire him? Absolutely! Would we go to war with him? In a second.
To be fair, when the boat was in port and we were on R&R, the Captain was fun to be around. Once you had proven yourself to him, you became a part of his inner circle and he treated you with respect. We enjoyed many good times together when the boat wasn’t at sea.
The lesson for leaders is this, it’s good to be liked but it’s even better to be respected. Too often I see leaders trying to please everyone. They spend more time trying to be liked than focusing on the mission of the organization. If you read my articles, you know that I’m a big proponent of treating employees with respect but that never should be at the expense of the mission. If an employee is not performing to expectations, a leader needs to take action. Leadership is about motivating a group of people to complete a mission. If the mission is in jeopardy because of the actions of an employee, the leader needs to step in.
“It’s good to be liked but even better to be respected.”
We all had tremendous respect for our commanding officer. He was mission-focused and he pushed us all to be our best. My Captain taught me to keep my standards high and expect more from my team. He showed me that there is pride in completing difficult tasks and there is confidence when you are surrounded by competent peers. He pushed us hard but we each grew because of his direct leadership.
Ask yourself, are you trying to please your employees or are you focused on the mission? Are you pushing your team to be their best or are you accepting subpar performance?
Remember, it’s good to be liked as a leader but it’s even better to be respected.
Learn more about the leadership skills I learned in the Navy in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.
[Photo credit – U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom]