Earn your Oxygen: A Sea Story

Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat. They establish a culture of competency where new employees feel positive peer pressure to work hard to earn their spot in the team.

Saturday at Sea

It was Saturday night on my second patrol on the USS Tennessee and I headed up to the wardroom for supper. Saturday night was always special on a deployed nuclear submarine at sea. It was pizza night. It was a time to shake up the normal meal rotation and enjoy some tastes of home. The crew cherished pizza night. It meant another week had passed and we were one more week closer to home. I loved the tradition of pizza night, although if I’m honest, the pizza was never all that good. Still, it was nice to kick back and enjoy a casual meal with my fellow officers.

For the officers in the wardroom, Saturday night almost always included a movie and a poker game as well. It was a chance to relax and burn off some steam after a long week. Everyone enjoyed Saturday nights on patrol. That is, of course, if you were qualified and I wasn’t there yet. It takes about a year to complete the submarine qualification process and earn your Dolphins as a new officer and I was almost finished. But, almost doesn’t mean anything to a qualified submariner.

When the meal was over, I quietly listened as the officers with embroidered Dolphins on their chest debated which movie they would watch. I listened enviously to their discussion. There were great movies on board and I would have loved the chance to escape submarine life for a few hours. But, that wasn’t going to happen. Not now.

“Life is Simple: You’re Either Qualified or You’re Not” Anonymous Submariner

It’s not Easy Being a NUB

“What are you looking at NUB? Go get some signatures on your ‘qual card’ if you want to watch a movie.” There it was. I wasn’t qualified and they let me know it. It was clear I wasn’t yet a contributing member of the crew. I was a NUB. A NUB is a Non-Useful Body, a colorful term used on a submarine to denote a new officer or sailor recently out of school and not yet qualified. It’s used to keep positive peer pressure on unqualified crew members so they will work hard on their qualifications. On a submarine, life was simple, you were either qualified or you weren’t. And, without Dolphins, I was just a NUB. I wasn’t yet carrying my load which meant I was taking food and oxygen from other qualified crew members who had earned it.

To a qualified submariner, a NUB is an annoyance at best and a liability at worst. It wasn’t a lot of fun being a NUB.

The truth is, peer pressure on the boat worked. It was effective on me and everyone else who had ever been in my shoes. We all wanted to belong. We all wanted to carry our load and we certainly didn’t want to be a liability. So, despite being tired, annoyed, and sometimes overwhelmed with the process, we trudged on. We worked hard to finish our qualifications. We worked hard to join the ranks of the qualified.

Earning my Oxygen

With my notebook, a cup of black coffee, and my dog-eared qualification card, I headed down to the torpedo room to work on my torpedo systems qualifications. That night I spent close to six hours in the torpedo room and got all the signatures needed to complete my torpedo systems qualification. The sailors there were quick to teach me everything I needed to know. They showed me the location of key valves, how the torpedo display worked, and we reviewed all the various torpedo casualties. It was a long night but, while the other officers watched movies and played cards, I got one more step closer to getting qualified and earning my oxygen. And, all in all, it was a pretty good night.

“Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat.” Jon Rennie

Enduring Lessons

The Navy taught me valuable lessons about getting qualified. I learned how uncomfortable it was to be unqualified, how I felt like an outcast, not yet part of the family. I felt the shame of not being able to stand watch and pull my own weight. But, I also saw how that pressure drove me to work hard to get qualified, to gain the knowledge and experience to become an effective submariner.

While the Navy took positive peer pressure to an extreme, there are some important lessons that can be applied to any organization. First, the goal of any leader is to build a team of experienced and competent employees. A team of qualified employees is hard to beat. Second, new employees should be given a path to “qualification.” They need to clearly understand what is expected of them to become part of the team. Finally, like the submarine Dolphins, there should be a symbol that shows an employee is qualified. Companies like Lowe’s Home Improvement, for example, make new employees complete all their training before they “earn” their red vest. The red vest is worn with pride symbolizing a qualified member of the team.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think. Does your organization have a qualification process? Is it effective?

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber

Learn more in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

Stop Reading and Start Doing

Reading and research are great but they can also keep you from achieving your goals. Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is to just do it.

A Man of Action

Last week I had the chance to meet an amazing leader, Mike Erwin. If you don’t know Mike, you should. He’s the guy who started one of the most significant and impactful military veteran organization in history, Team RWB. That would be a life’s work for most leaders but not Mike. He used what he learned in creating Team RWB to launch another non-profit organization, The Positivity Project, which trains school children across the country in the importance of positive relationships and character traits. Both of these organizations have impacted the lives of thousands of people in significant ways.

Mike is a man of action. He’s not afraid to turn what he is learning into real, concrete results. He is willing to take the leap and get started knowing he doesn’t have all the answers. Mike understands that, at some point, you need to stop reading and start doing. He recognizes the best way to learn something is by actually doing it.

“We have a world of information at our fingertips. What we need is the wisdom to discern what to do with that information.” Mike Erwin

Taking Action on What you are Learning

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I love to read. I believe that leaders should be life-long learners. I also prefer to listen to leadership books on Audible or business podcasts instead of music when I’m traveling. I’m constantly being exposed to new ways of thinking. But what you may not know is that I keep a commonplace notebook, a simple place where I keep all the things I’m learning and the various ideas I have. And, I love turning those ideas into action. Let me give you an example.

I’m currently reading Stadium Status: Taking Your Business to the Big Time by John Brubaker. This is an amazing book about the mindset it takes to grow your ideas into a movement. In one chapter, John talks about a successful approach he used during his time as a college lacrosse coach. He knew the importance of building a great team and the significance of recruiting, so he coined the phrase “Recruit Daily or Perish” or RDOP. John wrote these letters everywhere in his office and even had them printed on the back of his phone. He knew he had to reach out to at least 20 people every day to recruit players, boosters, and supporters of his program. I loved this concept so I wrote it down in my commonplace notebook but then I did something else, I took action.

Quick Wins

I adopted and adapted John’s approach to fit my needs. As a small business leader, the most important thing I need right now is growth and orders. So, I took RDOP and changed it to SDOP, “Sell Daily or Perish.” I added contacting 20 customers a day to my daily routine. In the past two weeks, I have connected with more than 200 people in my industry, looking for a way I can help them. As a result, I have become more sales-focused and my company gained more than $40,000 in new orders. Taking an idea it and turning into action yielded significant results.

“It takes more than coming up with some great ideas to succeed in life. The land of success is only full of doers.” – Edmond Mbiaka

Too often I see leaders who read and research but they never take action. They are overcome with the paralysis of analysis and the fear of the unknown. They think that, if they study an idea long enough, they will know exactly how to do it. The truth is, you will never know until you try. I prefer to take the Mike Erwin approach, to take what I am learning and create real, concrete results. I know I don’t have all the answers but I’m going to learn along the way.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Take the Leap

So, what are you studying right now? What is preventing you from turning that into action? Maybe it’s time take to the leap and get started even though you don’t have all the answers.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what projects you’re working on.


P.S. In his spare time, Mike Erwin also co-authored a book with Raymond Kethledge called Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude which is one of my favorite leadership books. It inspired me to write an article about leadership and solitude.

Too Busy to Lead?

“The managers of this company just don’t care.” That was the feedback I received from one of the production workers and I was trying to process it. I had worked hard with my leadership team to get them to engage with employees. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t seeing better results.

The feedback had come during my monthly roundtable meeting. Each month, I met with a different group of employees to get their thoughts on how the business was going. They were called “birthday meetings.” Employees who had a birthday in that month were invited. I was the plant manager of a small manufacturing operation with 130 employees.  Each meeting had about 10-15 employees. This month’s feedback was hard to swallow.

I pushed for more details. I wanted to understand why this employee thought our managers didn’t care. He talked specifically about one of the managers, “every time I see him, his head is down or he is rushing to another meeting.” The person he was talking about was my best manager. He cared deeply for his team and the factory overall. He was a good leader. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Often he who does too much does too little.” – Italian Proverb

Later that day, I spoke to that manager. I wanted to get his perspective and what he said was equally eye-opening. He told me that he is very busy. So busy, in fact, that he keeps his head down when walking through the plant. He told me, “I don’t want to get distracted or get pulled into a long conversation. I have a lot to do and I want to get it all done.” To my surprise, I realized that my leadership team was so busy, they didn’t have time to lead.

“I’m busy, busy, dreadfully busy. You’ve no idea what I have to do. Busy, busy, shockingly busy. Much, much too busy for you.” – Veggie Tales

This happens far too often in organizations. Leaders with good intentions take on far too many activities. They fail to properly delegate tasks and, in the end, they fail to lead their teams properly. They are too busy and employees feel like they don’t care.

If you feel like you are too busy to lead, step back and conduct this simple exercise:

Track what you do each day. Keep a notebook of your daily activities for a week and see where you are spending your time. In most cases, you will be surprised by the results.

Identify those things that only you can do as a leader. Look through your daily activities and mark those that only you can do. These are critical tasks like planning, directing, evaluating and interacting with employees.

Identify activities that you can delegate. Determine which activities can be delegated. These are actions that can be done by others. They are time-consuming tasks that others are more suited to complete.

Often times we confuse busyness with usefulness or effectiveness. In the case of leaders, being busy can actually be detrimental to our most important role. Leadership is the act of influencing a group of people to accomplish a goal. If we spend all our time completing tasks, we miss out on the important job of influencing. While you are rushing to a meeting or spending all day on e-mails, you are missing out on the opportunity to interact with your team. And worse yet, they think you don’t care.

The simple truth is, when you find ways to stop being so busy, you will become a better leader.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.

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