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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Overcoming Life’s Obstacles with Consistent Persistence

Have you ever been in a situation where you knew you were in trouble?

It happened to me on my first day at Nuclear Power School. I found myself surrounded by graduates of top engineering schools like MIT, Stanford, and Georgia Tech. These were the brightest technical minds in the country assembled in one place for one reason – to become nuclear engineers in the U.S. Navy.

It didn’t take long to realize; I was in over my head.

Growing up during the Cold War, my dream was to one day become a Nuclear Submarine Officer. I was fascinated with the idea of undersea warfare.

The problem was, I needed to be technically strong to get into this elite service.

I did well enough in High School to get into a decent Engineering School. I had even graduated with honors, but there was a dirty little secret.

I wasn’t that smart.

All my academic achievements had come through hard workperseverance, and stubborn persistence.

All my academic achievements had come through hard work, perseverance, and stubborn persistence. Click To Tweet

I walked into the military’s most challenging technical school – one with a 40% failure rate – as a fraud.

This school was a place for the best and the brightest, and I knew I was neither. I was just a blue-collar kid with a big dream. I also feared that hard work, the one thing I had relied on for years, wouldn’t be enough to get through this challenge.

I started well. My grades were decent, and I began to think I could make it. But soon, the depth and pace of the training took its toll. My GPA started to slip.

It was clear I was in a fight for my life.

I consider the alternatives. What would happen if I failed?

For one thing, it would crush my dream. I would probably get assigned to some rusty, reserve frigate out of Long Beach, and spend my Navy career hunting for drug smugglers.

The Cold War was on, and I wanted to chase Soviet submarines.

I made a decision then and there – I would do whatever it took to get through this school.

Failure was not an option.

I doubled down on the only thing I knew, hard work. I studied my notes from every lecture and completed extra assignments every day. I sought out tutoring and spent my nights in the study room, ensuring I fully understood every concept.

I attacked this challenge with the same stubborn persistence I had used my whole life.

And it worked.

I graduated from Nuclear Power School, and I achieved my dream of becoming a Nuclear Submarine Officer.

It was the most formidable challenge I have ever faced, and I almost failed. I almost gave in to the overwhelming feeling that I didn’t belong there, I wasn’t smart enough, and I couldn’t do it.

I achieved my goal by not giving up.

I achieved my goal by not giving up. Click To Tweet

I tell you this story because I recently had a guest on my podcast, Dean Bundschu, who talked about this concept.

He explained that military veterans are well-suited to become entrepreneurs because they display one crucial characteristic – consistent persistence. When things get tough, they work harder to overcome the challenge.

It reminded me of the Babe Ruth quote, “You just can’t beat the person who never gives up.”

Whatever you face today, understand you can overcome even the most challenging situation through daily, consistent effort and refusing to quit.

I have the watch book


Listen to my full interview with Dean Bundschu here.

And for more stories like this,  pick up a copy of my bestselling leadership book, I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following here.

Using Failure to Fuel Sucess

You’ve probably noticed the same thing as me.

There is success all around us and, as a society, we love to celebrate success. Think about social media. It’s really just a collection of everyone’s highlight reel sent out into cyberspace hoping to get a little positive affirmation.

We also love a good rags-to-riches success story.

Like J. K. Rowling for example.

She went from living on welfare to becoming the world’s first billionaire author.

We love stories like this because it helps us imagine that one day, if we get lucky, maybe we might become the next rags-to-riches story.

But, what about failure?

We don’t like to think or talk about our failures.

We purposely hide our outtakes and our blooper reel from the world.

We purposely hide our outtakes and our blooper reel from the world. Click To Tweet

We fear failure. It’s embarrassing and discouraging when we fail. We feel like a loser in a world where everyone else is winning.

The problem is that failure gets a bad rap. It’s actually more important than success.

Let me explain.

Consider this. Between 2004 and 2006, at the height of auto-maker Toyota’s success, it recalled more vehicles than ever before. They learned the hard way that success leads to complacency.

We need failure.

We need it to learn, grow, and to provide the fuel to propel us towards our goals.

We need failure to learn, grow, and to provide the fuel to propel us towards our goals. Click To Tweet

Even the great J. K. Rowling was rejected by 12 different publishing houses before Bloomsbury finally accepted her stories.

Think of this quote that is often attributed to Winston Churchill (although he never actually said it):

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” 

Failure is not the problem.

Our response to failure is. It’s the courage to continue that counts.

I recently had Colonel George Milton on my podcast and we spoke specifically about failure. He took a life of failure and built an amazing career in leadership.

He is a highly decorated combat Army veteran who barely graduated from high school. The story of his early struggles and how it provided fuel for his success is powerful.

He never let failure stop him and he was eventually inducted into the United States Army Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame.

Listen in to this episode and learn how to harness the power of failure.

P.S. If you haven’t followed me on Instagram yet, you should. You’ll get a little more “behind the scenes” view of what it’s like to lead a manufacturing business.