It’s Good to be Liked but Even Better to be Respected

My first commanding officer in the Navy was a hard ass and it was one of the best learning experiences of my career.

Trial by Fire

When I first arrived on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee, I was a lowly Ensign, the lowest ranking officer in the Navy. Ensigns are affectionately called “butter bars” because they wear one gold bar on each of their collars. As a “butter bar” fresh out of submarine school, I had zero experience in submarine operations. I was young and clueless.

My commanding officer wasn’t. He was a Captain, an O-6, five ranks ahead of me in the Navy food chain and he was commanding submarines while I was still in high school. He was a rough man of few words and the words he did use were exactly what you would expect from a sailor at sea. He walked the boat with a scowl on his face just looking for something that was out of sorts. If you left a cup of coffee on a cabinet and it wasn’t “rigged for sea,” he would knock it to the ground just to make a point. It was not uncommon to get chewed out from him while you were standing watch for the smallest infraction.

High Expectations

He expected the best out of his crew, especially his officers. We typically bore the brunt of his tirades. I once witnessed him throw a spoon across the wardroom table because the soup that was being served was cold. He had high expectations and if your performance was not up to speed, he’d let you know. In truth, he was commanding a nuclear-powered submarine with 24 nuclear missiles in the middle of the Atlantic during the Cold War. The stakes were high and he made sure his crew was ready.

“I firmly believe that respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity.” Julius Erving

As I learned my role and qualified for various watch stations on the boat, I noticed the crew had high expectations as well. They knew the Captain required the very best and they made sure to train young officers properly. It was not easy being held to such high standards but it made me work that much harder. When I finally qualified as Officer of the Deck, the officer in charge of the entire boat, I knew my stuff. I was tried and tested. I was good and I was surrounded by officers and sailors who were good as well.

The Results

The Tennessee proved its readiness time after time. Because of our commanding officer, we were able to effectively conduct all the missions we were assigned. We also became the best boat in the fleet. We received two Battle Efficiency Awards “Battle E’s,” a Navy Unit Commendation, and in 1993, we were awarded the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Ballistic Submarine of the Year.

I went from a young and clueless Ensign to an experienced and knowledgeable Lieutenant, qualified to stand every watch station on the boat. I learned the art of underwater combat from my Captain. I knew how to take the Tennessee to sea and to prepare her to launch missiles. I learned how to avoid detection and to hide in ocean currents and eddies. I learned navigation, engineering, and the full capabilities of our weapons. I also learned to love working for him.

“Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, [or] difficulty.” Theodore Roosevelt

Was my commanding officer warm and fuzzy? No. Was he overtly friendly? No. Did we all respect and admire him? Absolutely! Would we go to war with him? In a second.

To be fair, when the boat was in port and we were on R&R, the Captain was fun to be around. Once you had proven yourself to him, you became a part of his inner circle and he treated you with respect. We enjoyed many good times together when the boat wasn’t at sea.

The Lesson

The lesson for leaders is this, it’s good to be liked but it’s even better to be respected. Too often I see leaders trying to please everyone. They spend more time trying to be liked than focusing on the mission of the organization. If you read my articles, you know that I’m a big proponent of treating employees with respect but that never should be at the expense of the mission. If an employee is not performing to expectations, a leader needs to take action. Leadership is about motivating a group of people to complete a mission. If the mission is in jeopardy because of the actions of an employee, the leader needs to step in.

“It’s good to be liked but even better to be respected.”

We all had tremendous respect for our commanding officer. He was mission-focused and he pushed us all to be our best. My Captain taught me to keep my standards high and expect more from my team. He showed me that there is pride in completing difficult tasks and there is confidence when you are surrounded by competent peers. He pushed us hard but we each grew because of his direct leadership.

Ask yourself, are you trying to please your employees or are you focused on the mission? Are you pushing your team to be their best or are you accepting subpar performance?

Remember, it’s good to be liked as a leader but it’s even better to be respected.

Learn more about the leadership skills I learned in the Navy in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

[Photo credit – U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom]

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.

Deployed for Christmas

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” – Bing Crosby

I never liked eggnog. As a young man, I hadn’t really developed the taste for it. Even though it was always around during the holidays in my family, it just wasn’t my thing.

That is until I spent my first Christmas deployed.

I was a junior officer stationed aboard the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee near the end of the Cold War. When we left port, we were gone for months at a time with very little personal contact with the outside world. On this particular patrol, our deployment included both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Strategic deterrence was a 24/7 business and these holidays were just another day for us to “keep the peace.”

I knew our Supply Officer had planned a special meal for Christmas and I understood our families had packed us small gifts to open but I remember thinking how strange it would be to be so far away from my family at this time of the year. I wondered what it would be like to spend Christmas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on one of the most powerful warships in the world.

About two weeks before Christmas, one of the officers put up Christmas lights around the wardroom. I was surprised by my emotional response to the multicolored lights. I was both excited and depressed at the thought of being deployed for Christmas. Excited to celebrate the holiday with all my shipmates and sad that I would not be with my family.

I had another emotion as well. I felt proud. I felt honored to be a part of something bigger than myself. I knew our boat’s mission was important and necessary. I also knew I wanted to be here with my shipmates. Since our country’s founding, men and women of the military have stepped forward to protect America’s interests around the world. I was just another sailor in a long line of mariners who had come before me. It was my turn. I had the watch.

Christmas day was just like every other day at sea. I stood my six-hour watch in the engine room and then went to the mess decks to see what was going on. I was surprised to see the meal that was prepared for us. We had been at sea for well over a month and the meals had become somewhat routine and predictable but today was special. There was a variety of food and desserts being served which had been carefully stowed away and prepared for this occasion. The cooks even roasted an entire hog for the crew in the ship’s tiny galley. To this day, I’m still not sure how they pulled that off.

After our Christmas meal, the officers all met in the wardroom where we opened gifts from our families and talked about our Christmas traditions back home. We were a diverse group from all over the country and from every socioeconomic background. In a way, we represented all of America.

While we enjoyed apple and pumpkin pie that was almost as good as Grandma’s, the thing that really stood out was the eggnog. Our supply officer had managed to hide several cases of eggnog in our ship’s freezer for this occasion. At this point in our deployment, we had run out of fresh fruits and vegetables and the milk was long gone. We drank mostly coffee, water, “bug juice” (Kool-Aid) and an occasional soft drink that we had squirreled away in our personal lockers. The last thing we expected to see on this patrol was eggnog.

They say that the sense of smell is most closely linked to our memories. For me, the smell of eggnog was what brought me back home. When I closed my eyes and took in the spicy scent, I wasn’t in the middle of the Atlantic ocean some 500 feet below the ocean’s surface, I was home for Christmas. The aroma and flavor seemed to be the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. It tasted like home.

This Christmas, hundreds of men and women in our military will be deployed for Christmas. For most, this will be their first Christmas away from home. While each unit will do their best to make Christmas special, there is no substitute for being home for the holidays. Being deployed for Christmas is just another sacrifice our military men and women have to endure to keep our country free and safe.

I hope this Christmas, you will join me in raising a glass to our military and the sacrifices they make daily on our behalf. Our Christmas gift to them should be to never forget the importance of what they have done and what they continue to do for this country.

Photo: U.S. Navy released by Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet