Disasters Happen when Leadership Fails

When leaders fail to lead, the results are often devastating.

On July 12, 2020, an arsonist set a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base in San Diego. The fire burned for four days, injured 63 people, and resulted in a complete loss of the ship.

This past week, the military released a 400-page report stating that 36 individuals, including the ship’s captain and five admirals, were responsible for the 3.5 billion dollar loss. The report concluded that “Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire.”

As a former naval submarine officer, I was shocked to learn that crew and shipyard personal did not know how to fight this fire. According to the report, “the response effort was placed in the hands of inadequately trained and drilled personnel.”

When an organization fails, it’s always a failure of leadership. Click To Tweet

In my experience, the only way a ship’s crew could be inadequately trained to fight a fire is that the captain failed to make it a priority.

I should know because I’m a trained navy firefighter. 

Every member of my crew was when I served. We were all trained to fight fires. It was part of our basic submarine training and something we drilled on constantly.

A fire on a navy vessel is one of the most dangerous things that could happen on board. Smoke can quickly fill compartments and asphyxiate sailors. The heat and flames can spread to weapons, volatile materials, and critical systems, creating catastrophic damage. Small fires become big fires. A massive fire can quickly incapacitate the crew and disable the ship as it did with the Bonhomme Richard.

That’s why we learned to rapidly attack the fire when it was still small and why we trained so hard in firefighting.

When I served on the USS Tennessee, I must have put more than five hundred simulated fires. Fighting fires was second nature to us. Our crew was exceptionally proficient at firefighting because our captain made it a priority, and he trained us hard.

Our captain knew that he was responsible for both the mission and the crew. He knew that a fire on board put both of those priorities in jeopardy.

Leaders are responsible for both the mission and the crew. Click To Tweet

In contrast, the crew of Bonhomme Richard took two hours to get water onto the fire and had failed 14 consecutive fire drills before the blaze. They were ill-trained and ineffective due to a failure of leadership.

The captain and senior officers failed their crew and the Navy.

They didn’t place a priority on the mission and the crew. They were distracted by other activities.

Think about this story as it relates to your leadership situation.

What are the things that can quickly disable your organization and adversely affect your mission and people?

Do your employees know what to do when that happens?

Have they been adequately trained?

When an organization fails, it’s always a failure of leadership, and the results can be devastating. The fire on the Bonhomme Richard is just another cautionary tale of what happens when leaders fail to lead.

In my new leadership book, All in the Same Boat, there is a chapter called “Run to the Fire.” I talk about the essential leadership lessons I learned as a navy firefighter and how I applied those lessons to business. Check it out here.

[U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross/Released]

4 thoughts on “Disasters Happen when Leadership Fails

  • In a recent interview with a leadership CEO I admire greatly I asked how they defined their culture. Her answer echoes much of what you reference above…”how the edges of your organization behave on your worst day.” If the folks “furtherest” from Command have clarity on their role, their accountability, what’s expected of them AND they have the faith and belief of their leaders, there is very little they can’t tackle. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/culture-transformation-nurturing-barry-wehmiller-where-hilton-barbour/

  • With multiple failed drills, what happened? Did they not understand the root cause of the failures or simply not make the corrective actions? If you were taking over command of a ship with that track record, how would you correct? Do you have the flexibility to replace officers that ‘don’t get it’ or lead in the wrong direction?

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