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 Crushing Weight of Bureaucracy

When I started my corporate career, I worked for a global company led by the hard-charging CEO, Percy Barnevik.

He believed in pushing decision-making to the lowest level. His corporate mantra was, “think global, act local.” He empowered his local managers to take charge and make things happen.

As a young general manager of a manufacturing business in that company, I was thankful to be working for a CEO who understood the power of delegating authority. I had the autonomy to run my business as I saw fit so long as I got results.

I was not burdened with extraneous paperwork or monthly reporting. Instead, Barnevik kept his headquarters small and focused his senior management team on ensuring local managers had everything they needed to succeed.

As a result, we were free to do what was needed locally to get the best results – and the results were outstanding. We moved fast and, every year, we grew sales and profits.

We also had a lot of fun doing it.

In many ways, I felt like I was running my own business – except I had a large corporation backing me up. It was the most fun I ever had working as a leader in a global company.

Unfortunately, good things never last.

Barnevik eventually retired, and his replacements believed that the company had too many maverick business leaders around the world.

They felt the company needed to have a more uniform approach, so they hired more and more people on staff to coordinate this standardization. Eventually, what was once a small team at headquarters focused on supporting local businesses, became an army of bureaucrats working to control every aspect of the company.

Over the years, the company eventually stripped most of the authority from local business managers. Instead, most decisions went through the bureaucrats.

As a result of the weight of this bureaucracy, decision-making slowed down, and our growth stalled as well.

Under the weight of bureaucracy, decision-making slows down, and growth stalls as well. Click To Tweet

Faceless bureaucrats without any responsibility for the financial performance of local businesses were now in charge. They had all the authority and no accountability. The company still held local managers responsible for the financial results, but they had little power to implement the ideas to make it happen.

What was once fun became a futile battle of rules and red tape.

Frustrated, I eventually moved to another global business only to discover that the situation was even worse. There, local managers had no authority.

Frustration and apathy sat like a dark cloud over employees. Most local managers had given up trying to make things better. The faceless bureaucrats were in charge, and local managers could do nothing to change the situation. Most managers felt like they were strapped into a car with no steering wheel – they had no control.

It was the most depressing place I had ever worked.

That experience caused me to leave corporate life to start my own business.

As an entrepreneur, I once again attained the right balance of authority and responsibility. I had complete control of my business, made quick decisions, and my sales multiplied.

I also learned to have fun again.

How does this relate to your leadership journey?

It should be a reminder of your role as a leader. It’s not your job to create a bureaucracy to control every aspect of your employees’ lives. Your job is to empower your people to take action to accomplish the goals of the company.

A leader's job is to empower people to take action to accomplish the goals of the company. Click To Tweet

People enjoy freedom, and they will thrive when not faced with the crushing weight of bureaucratic processes.

Our job as leaders is to communicate the goal, establish the ground rules, and ensure our people have everything they need to succeed.

When you remove the weight of bureaucracy, your team will move faster, resulting in quicker results.

When faced with the decision to add layers of red tape, ask yourself, what would Percy do?

In my bestselling leadership book, All in the Same Boat, I tell more stories of what it was like working for a leader like Percy Barnevik.

[Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash]

What Happens When Leaders throw People Under the Bus?

The American public witnessed two colossal leadership failures in the past month – a botched withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan and an uncontrolled migration of more than 12,000 immigrants into Del Rio, Texas.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these events were a failure of the government to provide the essential function of protecting its citizens.

In both situations, however, the senior leaders who failed to do their jobs were not punished. The only people who faced any consequences were low-level people.

In the case of Afghanistan, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller was relieved of command shortly after he posted a video criticizing senior U.S. officials for the failures in Afghanistan. He was punished because he asked for accountability of senior leaders due to the “clear, obvious mistakes that were made.”

For the crime of asking for accountability, he lost his job

The senior military leaders who botched the withdrawal, which led to the deaths of 13 service members and the stranding of hundreds of Americans, have not faced any punishment.

In Del Rio, Texas, several Border Patrol agents were placed on administrative duties after videos emerged showing them “aggressively” trying to stop illegal immigrants while on horseback.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, the man responsible for securing the border, said the images of the agents “horrified” him. He is pushing for “swift and strong” punishment for the agents. Even President Biden said, “I promise you those people will pay. There will be consequences.”

For the crime of trying to do their job to enforce the law, these agents will likely be fired, publicly shamed, and even prosecuted.

The senior leaders whose decisions caused this wave of migrants to come and cross our border have not faced any punishment.

In both cases, senior leaders sidestepped accountability while their junior people were thrown under the bus.

Sadly, this practice is far too common in business leadership today. When problems occur, corporate bosses almost always look for the closest scapegoat to blame.

The bosses remain unharmed while the junior employees suffer the wrath.

What’s often missed, however, is the overall effect on the organization. When people know they can’t trust their bosses, they begin to operate differently. Employees don’t want to be the next victim, so they change their actions to protect their careers.

When people know they can’t trust their bosses, they begin to operate differently. Click To Tweet

Military officers stop questioning the poor planning of superior officers.

Border agents stop enforcing the law.

When employees are controlled by fear, the entire organization becomes less effective in carrying out its mission.

When employees are controlled by fear, the entire organization becomes less effective in carrying out its mission. Click To Tweet

Leaders who throw people under the bus to duck their responsibility ultimately destroy the overall culture of an organization and replace it with fear.

Contrast this with President Harry S. Truman, who famously kept a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that said, “the buck stops here.” Truman understood that senior leaders are ultimately responsible for the decisions they make. He knew that he could never delegate responsibility.

So, how do these stories relate to your leadership journey?

It’s simple. It’s important to remember the difference between authority and responsibility.

Authority can and should be delegated. We need to push decision-making down to the lowest levels of our organizations and empowered our teams to be decisive.

But, we also need to embrace the fact that the leader is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the business – good or bad.

Leaders can never delegate responsibility – They must always own it.

Leaders can never delegate responsibility – They must always own it. Click To Tweet

Delegating authority but never responsibility is the cornerstone of creating and maintaining a high-performing organization.

In my first book, I talk about a boss who had my back when I made a major mistake as a young design engineer. Instead of throwing me under the bus, he stood up for me and coached me through a difficult time in my career. My trust and loyalty to him grew because I knew I had a great boss.

This is what leadership looks like.


If you liked this post, you’ll love my new book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner.

You can find it HERE or on Amazon.


[Photo Daily Press/James Quigg]