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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Who’s to Blame When a $3 Billion Submarine Runs Aground?

On October 2, the U.S. nuclear attack submarine USS Connecticut hit an unknown underwater object while operating submerged in the South China Sea. 11 sailors were injured in the collision forcing the Connecticut to limp back to Guam on the surface to assess the damage to the $3 billion warship.

As a submarine veteran connected to the submarine community, I heard a lot of speculation about what might have happened. Was it a collision with another submarine? Were they operating in the shallow waters near the coast of a foreign nation?

Most of the submarine veterans I spoke to came to the same conclusion – it was probably an uncharted seamount, something we all feared.

Seamounts are significant geologic landforms that rise from the ocean floor but do not reach the surface. They are formed by extinct volcanoes and rise abruptly to more than 13,000 feet, as tall as the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

Despite having detailed charts of the ocean floor, many seamounts are unknown. Driving a submarine into one of them at high speed is the equivalent of flying an airplane into the side of a mountain shrouded in fog – it can be deadly.

In 2005, the USS San Francisco struck an uncharted seamount at full speed near Guam. One sailor died in the collision.

So, who is to blame when a nuclear submarine slams into one of these uncharted sea mountains?

Everyone in the U.S. Navy knows the answer to that question – it’s the Captain.

The Navy has a zero-tolerance policy for running a ship aground.

Not surprisingly, the Navy just announced that the Captain of the Connecticut was relieved of command due to a “loss of confidence.” The Navy wants their billion-dollar warships operating in liquids, not solids. When there’s a collision, the Captain always loses their job.

Even if the Captain wasn’t standing watch at the time, they are still liable.

You’re probably thinking, how is this fair?

How is it fair that the Captain, who isn’t even driving the boat or giving orders at the time, can still be liable if something wrong happens?

Well, the answer deals with how the Navy views responsibility.

The Navy believes the Captain is fully responsible for everything that happens onboard. If the ship runs aground, it’s ultimately the Captain’s fault for not training the crew and supervising them properly.

This is how the Navy views responsibility – the leader is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on their watch.

The leader is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on their watch. Click To Tweet

It’s a refreshing view of leadership.

Too often, we hear stories of politicians and corporate bosses ducking their responsibilities. They try to point the finger of blame on others in their organizations when things go wrong.

President Truman had it right when he famously said, “the buck stops here.” He had a no-nonsense approach to accepting responsibility for any decisions he made as President. He knew that he was ultimately responsible for everything that happened on his watch.

Accepting responsibility is a sign of a mature leader. People want to work for a leader who stands up for their team and doesn’t try to pass the blame when things go wrong.

People want to work for a leader who stands up for their team and doesn’t try to pass the blame when things go wrong. Click To Tweet

Leadership is more than just the title, the perks, and the paycheck. It’s about being responsible for the mission and the people under our care.

Leadership is difficult.

As leaders, we cannot pass the blame.

We must always be responsible and accountable, especially when things go wrong.

If you want to learn what it’s like living and leading on a nuclear submarine at sea, check out my new book, All in the Same Boat.

[Photo: The USS San Francisco in drydock after the collision. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Mark Allen Leonesio]

The Difference between a Great Team and an Elite Team

Something happened at my company three weeks ago that confirmed we are moving in the right direction. And it has nothing to do with our financial performance.

In our daily morning standup meeting, a founding employee announced she was pregnant with her first baby.

The reaction from the rest of the employees told me everything I needed to know. There were smiles, shouts of congratulations, clapping, and something even more powerful, tears.

I looked around and saw many of my employees crying for joy over this exciting news.

The response confirmed something I had been feeling for a long time; we were becoming more like family than a company. There was a bond developing that was special, and it was something I hadn’t sensed since I left the military.

We were becoming more like family than a company. Click To Tweet

Building a business for the past five years has felt a little like us against the world, but lately, I feel like the world doesn’t stand a chance.

My recent podcast guest, Dr. Larry Widman, confirmed what I suspected. My employees were displaying one of the essential characteristics of an elite team – love.

Let me explain.

Larry is a high-performance psychiatrist and an elite mindset coach. He works with CEOs, professional athletes, Olympians, and NCAA teams to develop the mental skills and mindset to push performance boundaries.

He said something on the podcast that stood out.

He explained that love plays a vital role in building an elite team. And this is consistent across every type of organization, from Navy Seals to NCAA National Champions.

It’s all about relationships, connections, and love.

The best teams move at the speed of trust. Click To Tweet

The best teams move at the speed of trust. They are willing to fight for the person on their right and their left because they care deeply about them.

Love is the one consistent ingredient that helps propel a team from great to elite.

So the question I would have for you today is, where are you in your organization?

Are your employees in it for just a paycheck or do they have deep relationships at work? Are you moving at the speed of trust?

If you’re not exploring how love can boost your performance, you’re missing out. You’re never going to have an elite team without the power of relationships, trust, and love.

The elite teams, the best of the best, the national champions, and those dominating their markets are the ones who demonstrate love for each other. They are the ones fighting shoulder-to-shoulder for each other every day.

If you want to look inside an elite team’s culture, listen to my podcast interview with Dr. Larry Widman.

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[Photo credit Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos/Getty Images]