10 Leadership Lessons I Learned Living on a Nuclear Submarine

My first job out of college was my dream job. I served as a Naval Officer on a nuclear submarine, the USS Tennessee. In five years, I earned my “dolphins” (qualified submarine officer) and was certified as a naval nuclear engineer. I made seven deployments and spent around 540 days underwater.

Yes, that’s a year and a half under the ocean.

Some say living on a submarine is a lot like space travel. I think it’s more like being locked up at work with 150 of your coworkers where no one can go home for three months at a time. The truth is, it’s a bit of a social experiment. You learn a lot about people, social issues and leadership when you’re locked in a 560-foot metal tube with a nuclear reactor and 24 nuclear missiles for 77 days straight.

“Submariners are a bunch of intelligent misfits that somehow seem to get along, understand each other and work well together” ~Anonymous Surface Ship Officer overheard by Submariner Red Hanley

How I lead in civilian life is based on what I learned from my years on the Tennessee. While the work situation is vastly different, the people, social and leadership issues are the same.

Here are a few things I learned from my days underwater:

Run to the Fire.
One of the first things they teach you on a submarine is to run towards and not away from a fire. The reason is, if you don’t put out the fire quickly, everyone is at risk. This taught me to attack problems quickly and not to ignore them. I wrote about this in detail in an article called Leadership Means Running Towards the Fire. This skill is critical in running a business as well.

Get qualified.
The more skills you know, the more valuable you are to a submarine crew. The more sailors qualified for each watch station, the fewer watches each person needs to stand. This means it’s in everyone’s best interest to train and teach new sailors. This also ensures everyone is qualified and competent. This principle applies to businesses as well. Teach your new employees, it’s in everyone’s best interest.

Verbatim repeat-back.
One practice in the submarine Navy is for watch-standers to repeat commands verbatim. This ensures perfect understanding before the order is executed. This translates into business leadership as well. Think about how many times you are misunderstood. Checking with your employees to ensure they fully understand the assignment will lead to less rework.

“Submariners are a special brotherhood, either all come to the surface or no one does” ~ Vice Admiral Rudolf Golosov of the Russian Navy

Surfaces must equal dives.
The universal rule in submarining is that the surfaces must equal the dives. Failure isn’t an option. There is no way to save a submarine if it goes down in the depths where we operate. You must reach the surface. Attacking problems with the same attitude and tenacity has served me well in the business world.

Everyone is in the same boat.
Literally. The lesson I learned from my time on the Tennessee is that no one is better than anyone else. There is no special treatment. On board, officers & enlisted eat the same food, wear the same uniform, and sleep on the same size bed.  If we ran out of something, no one had it. This taught me to treat everyone with respect, no matter what role they serve in the company.

No escape from a bad colleague.
In business, it’s easy to escape a bad co-worker or complain to management to get them fired or transferred. On board, you were stuck with the crew that was deployed. There was no escape. I learned to get along with people I had differences with. I learned to resolve conflicts. I learned to look for win-win outcomes which has served me well in business.

The captain is in charge.
On a Navy ship, there is only one authority, the captain. The captain has full command of the ship and its personnel. If you consider the destructive power of a submarine’s weapons, it’s an awesome responsibility. I learned to be a good follower. I learned to be very careful and respectful in questioning authority. I also learned to earn the respect of my captain.

Young people are amazing.
Consider this, the average age of a submariner is 22. Even the captain is young, around 40. On a submarine, you are given significant responsibility at a young age. I learned a person’s age doesn’t affect their ability to lead and take on projects.

The ability to learn quickly is better than being smart.
The volume of information we had to learn as a submarine officer was significant. From reactor plant manuals to hydraulic systems, to strategies and tactics, we had to know it all. Those that could learn quickly could get qualified faster and were successful. I’ve learned this principle applies to business as well.

“The North Atlantic is a cruel and unforgiving body of water” ~ Thomas Barnhart, Chief of the Boat, USS City of Corpus Christi

Bad times provide good perspective.
Probably the best lesson I learned is that bad times don’t last and they help provide perspective. I wrote about this in an article called 5 Reasons to Celebrate the Tough Times. When you endure long periods away from home, days without sleep, months without fresh food, or winter storms in the North Atlantic, you appreciate the good times that much better. My toughest day in business has never been as hard as my time on the Tennessee.

I only served in the Navy for five years but the lessons I learned have never left me. 

The challenges of leading in that environment were extreme but it provided a strong foundation for the rest of my career.


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Eliminating Us and Them using this Simple Technique

One of the biggest things I noticed in the business world after spending years working on a submarine was the physical separation of employee groups. In the Navy, officers and sailors worked together in small spaces like maneuvering or the control room.

We spent long hours standing watches together, often with little going on. During those long shifts, we got to know each other. We developed relationships, and we built trust because we shared common experiences.

We developed relationships, and we built trust because we shared common experiences. Click To Tweet

Imagine my surprise when I took over my first manufacturing business at just 32 years old. I noticed the employees in this plant were physically separated by role. The white-collar employees, like purchasing, sales, marketing, engineering, and accounting, all worked in two office areas on each side of the plant. The blue-collar workers all worked on the shop floor.

The only areas they shared were the breakroom and bathrooms. Other than that, these employee groups had no common experiences. The blue-collar employees worked in one place and the white-collar employees in another.

As a result of years working this way, animosity had developed between both of these groups. There was a strong “us and them” attitude that existed in the plant.

The white-collar workers had very little understanding or appreciation of the difficulties that existed in the production environment. The blue-collar employees had no idea what the white-collar employees did all day. Each group blamed the other when things went wrong.

As the new plant manager, I knew I had to do something to change this. I also knew it had to start with me.

So I did what good leaders have been doing for years, I got out of my office, and I walked around. Every afternoon, I would head out to the shop floor to get to know the employees, learn what they did, and let them ask me questions as well.

Getting out in the plant had some positive effects, and I could tell the shop employees were genuinely glad to see that I was interested in them. But, I kept thinking about my time in the Navy. We eliminated the “us and them” attitude through working together and building shared experiences.

My visits to the shop floor were helping, but I knew it wasn’t enough.

I decided that if I wanted to build relationships with the factory workers, I needed to work with them side-by-side. So that’s what I did. I started a program called “Fridays on the Floor.”

I decided that if I wanted to build relationships with the factory workers, I needed to work with them side-by-side. Click To Tweet

On the first Friday of every month, I would spend four hours working in different plant areas. Employees would show me how to do the job, and I would work with them throughout the morning.

Through this process, I got to know the employees better, they got to know me, and I learned more about our problems. For the first time, white-collar and blue-collar employees worked together, sharing an experience and learning more about each other.

Eventually, the entire site management team joined me in these sessions.

The production employees were excited that management was finally paying attention and trying to make conditions better. A common understanding of the challenges in the plant began to evolve. Managers got to know shop employees better, and we formed deeper relationships.

When managers realized how difficult some of the production processes were and how skilled the employees were, respect deepened. In the same fashion, shop employees learned what managers were doing in their offices each day. They realized how difficult their job was as well.

Mutual respect spread throughout the operation.

“Fridays on the Floor” became standard practice at this operation, and it helped us build unity in the organization. As we broke down barriers between blue-collar and white-collar employees, we began to appreciate each other.

As we worked together to fix the problems we found, our performance improved as well. The plant eventually became the top-performance operation in the division setting new records for sales and profitability. It all happened because we worked together and became a unified team.

Twenty-two years later, I’m still doing it. I’m still leading a manufacturing business, and I’m still working on the shop floor with my employees. In fact, the worn-out boots in the picture are my boots.

You’ve probably heard that you can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Well, I’ve walked that mile (and maybe a little more). I can tell you that it’s true. I’ve built a greater understanding of my teams through this process.

To eliminate “us and them,” you need to find ways to work together and build those shared experiences. It’s the only way to create unity, and a unified team is hard to beat.

If you’re interested in learning more about “Fridays on the Floor” and the impact it can have on an organization, pick up my latest book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner.  I cover  this topic extensively in chapter 5.







Excellence Attracts Excellence

Last week the 2020-21 Tampa Bay Buccaneers players and coaches were awarded their Super Bowl LV rings. Shortly after that, Tom Brady took to social media and posted a picture of himself wearing his seven Super Bowl rings.

Like most lifelong Patriots fans, I had mixed emotions seeing our former quarterback getting another ring. Sure, we were all happy for him and sad that he won the big game wearing another team’s jersey.

This weekend, I talked with my 24-year-old son about that picture. He had an excellent observation about Tom Brady that I hadn’t considered. Like me, my son is a lifelong Patriots fan. I mentioned how truly unique it was to see a player like Tom Brady go to another team and win a Super Bowl in his first year.

My son simply said, “excellence attracts excellence.” He reminded me of all the great players that joined the Buccaneers shortly after Brady announce he would be signing with the team. He also reminded me of how many notable players came to the Patriots over the years for that very reason.

Great players are attracted to great leaders Click To Tweet

The truth is that great players are attracted to great leaders. This is true for football and business.

If you think about it, football is a lot like business. Winning a Super Bowl or building a world-class business takes an entire team. One quarterback or leader can’t do it alone. So it only makes sense that you will be more effective as a team if you can attract and retain the best players.

In close to 30 years of business leadership, I have seen countless examples of great leaders attracting the best talent. For example, my first boss out of the Navy was an R&D manager who had several great engineers who had followed him to several different companies.

The same thing happened to me when I started my manufacturing company. I was shocked by the number of talented people who sent me their resumes with the intent to leave their safe, corporate jobs to be part of my small company. In fact, one employee turned down a job offer to join the Ford Motor Company as a design engineer so he could be part of our team.

Excellence attracts excellence, but the opposite is true as well.

Bad leaders repel great employees Click To Tweet

It’s not that bad leaders attract bad employees; it’s more like bad leaders repel great employees. A recent Gallup poll of more than one million U.S. workers concluded that the top reason people quit their jobs was because of a bad boss. More than 75% of employees who voluntarily left their jobs did it because of their boss.

Despite what you think of Tom Brady, he’s a winner. And he keeps winning because he attracts and retains talent.

If you want to have a winning organization, you need the best players as well. You will attract those players when people know you are a great leader. People want to work for someone they know that will treat them with respect, listen to their ideas, and help them become the best version of themselves.

If you want to become a better letter, you need to keep developing your leadership skills. One way to do that is by reading books like my bestselling new leadership book All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner.








[Photo credit – Tom Brady’s Twitter Feed]