Somebody Has to Set the Standards

Because that’s what leaders do

Somebody Has to Set the Standards

Because that’s what leaders do

United States Naval Academy

Someone Has To Set the Standards

There’s a lot of phrases that bubble into my head at odd times. This is one I learned early on at the Academy. I didn’t really understand it’s significance until I was fully engaged in my first job on the submarine.

Some midshipmen make a big deal about how difficult life is at Annapolis. They’re full of crap — it’s not all that hard. Sure, you have to wear a uniform, get your BS degree in four years, take extra classes on leadership, and put up with extra military activities. All that can be dealt with. What’s challenging is working to lead experienced enlisted men on a submarine who have seen junior officers come and go over the years. Now that’s tough!

Working on a submarine can be scary. Everything is metal, it’s cramped, the unshielded radiation from the reactor can kill you with a few minutes of exposure, there are tens of thousand of pounds of high explosive, and if you walk by a steam leak in the engine room it can cut your head off. Add to that the danger of fire, flooding, and the potential of running into a sea mountain or bumping into another submarine underwater, you can say it’s a stressful situation.

When I reported aboard the boat, the captain put me in charge of the Electrical division, and told me to do a good job. I relished the opportunity to put my years of leadership training to work! With an electrical engineering degree, and essentially a masters in nuclear engineering, I figured I was hot stuff. I micromanaged the shit out of those guys for three months.

It sucked. I never knew what was going on, made promises to the captain I couldn’t keep, and in general made myself look like an idiot frequently. I was unhappy. Thankfully the head of the Electrical division, Chief Majors, took pity on me and we had a talk. I guess he had been through this before. He told me the enlisted guys were really good at their job, and if we worked together, everyone would be happy. I was a bit suspicious about this, but listened.

He was a straight shooter, and what he told me was the golden truth. After that talk, I stopped micromanaging the guys, and started trusting them to do their job. They kept me informed about what was going on, I looked out for them, and we worked together. When there was a problem, I shielded them from the senior officers, took the heat myself, and didn’t throw them under the bus. When they needed help from me, they asked for it, and I used what skills I had in persuasion and writing to get it done.

But there was one thing I would not bend on. See, when you observe the same things day after day, you get used to them. Everything different and scary about the submarine power plant became normal, and nothing ever changed. It was tempting to cut corners and not check everything fully all the time. Did we really need to check the specific gravity of every single battery every single time? Did the full routine maintenance really need to be fully done on the motor generator brushes or the high amp circuit breakers every time?

Routine maintenance was a lot of work, and we worked a lot of hours. It was years of non-stop shiftwork, weekend work, months of deployment away from family and homeport. Couldn’t I cut my guys some slack?

That’s where my training from the Academy kicked in. Even though I was friendly with the guys that worked for me, I still maintained the separation necessary for perspective. I was the one that set the standard for how things needed to be done, and I made sure it was done right, every time.

The Electrical division guys, deep down, knew it was the right thing to do as well. They bitched, but did the work. The rest of the guys on the submarine knew we were doing our part to make sure everything was running properly when we were steaming hundreds of feet underwater all over the Pacific Ocean for months at a time.

This experience helped a lot when I was running my company, and my techs were deploying complex data networks for hospitals, cities, counties, and universities. Customers were happy because our shit worked.

Somebody has to set the standards. That’s what leaders do.

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If you like this article please press the Heart Button, then follow me at Priority Queue on Medium.

I write articles on business, technology, and life, and have a different perspective than many…

Was a nuclear trained officer in the Navy on a submarine based out of Pearl Harbor from 90–94, after graduating from Annapolis. Started an IT business in 2002, grew it to $52 million in sales, and sold it in 2015. My wife and I have 3 girls who are competitive gymnasts, and a son who plays soccer.

You Know What You Should Do…

Yes I do, it’s my company. Now either help or STFU.

You Know What You Should Do…

Yes I do, it’s my company. Now either help or STFU.

You Know What You Should Do…

When I first started my company it was stressful. I knew what I needed to do, and was working through it. It was a new business, in a new geography, so I had to develop a customer base, get credit from suppliers, get purchase orders, install gear, and support customers. All with a one year old and pregnant wife. There was a lot of shit I need to do.

But almost all the time, when I was talking with people, they’d utter a phrase that really started to piss me off. I’d be talking with someone, and they’d say, “You know what you should do…”

Right at that point I’d want to throat punch them.

It may seem odd that such a simple phrase, which the person saying it probably meant in a positive and helpful manner, should provoke such a violent reaction. But that just illustrates the disconnect between business owners and the rest of society.

If the extent of your business experience is working for somebody and getting a paycheck, then you have no clue, and I probably seem mentally unbalanced to you. But believe me, I take that phrase as a direct personal insult.

Before I started my business I gained a lot of experience, studied and thought about things, did financial modeling, then risked my family’s life savings to start my company. After I started I kept learning and refining and making things better. Every waking hour was spent thinking about how to make my business the best it could be.

We were on a defined growth path. I was building a Cisco VAR. I knew exactly what I needed to do and I didn’t need some jerk telling me what they thought I should be doing. Just about everyone who told me what I should do was talking out their ass because they had never been where I was, starting a business, trying to get purchase orders in, watching my cash burn rate, or anything else that was actually important to making money and growing revenue.

There were people that I would take advice from. In fact, I wanted them to tell me what to do. I listened to customers. I listened to employees. Professionals like lawyers and accountants whom I paid advice for got my full attention. Experienced people who had been through it, I loved listening to them. There were a few people that offered to help, and some of them even did. I listened to them.

But most people thought they were being helpful by telling me what to do. I’ve checked with other business owners and asked them if they had the same experience. They knew exactly what I was talking about.

I was talking to the barber to cut my son’s hair. She has a bunch of empty chairs in her shop. I asked her why, and she said she’s tired of having loser employees to deal with and can stay in business just fine working by herself. So she works in her barbershop all alone with seven empty chairs. She’s happy.

I asked her if anybody ever tells her what she should do. She laughed, “All the time!” She said she used to try to be nice when people told her what to do but said it’s hard to keep the sarcasm out of her voice when she attempts to good-naturedly reply to them as they spout off their nonsense about how she should run her business.

A business owner friend of mine is going through an expansion. I told him if he ever wants to talk business, I have some experience and I’d be happy to talk. I offered to prepay for the services he provides me to help fund his expansion. I went over to his new place to help clean it up before he moves. I know what it’s like. I don’t tell him what he should do.

If you’re talking to a small business owner, or someone who’s starting a new company, keep this in mind. They don’t want to hear your bullshit advice on what to do. They want help. They want paying customers. If you have some kind of professional expertise and you willing to offer it to them at a reduced cost while they’re getting started, that’d be great. If you can make an introduction to a good prospect or potential employee, bring it on. If you can pitch in to set up their office or IT, then do it.

But unless you have skin in the game in their business, don’t tell them what they should do. They already know.

If you like this article please press the Heart Button, then follow me at Priority Queue on Medium.

I write articles on business, technology, and life, and have a different perspective than many…

Was a nuclear trained officer in the Navy on a submarine based out of Pearl Harbor from 90–94, after graduating from Annapolis. Started an IT business in 2002, grew it to $52 million in sales, and sold it in 2015. My wife and I have 3 girls who are competitive gymnasts, and a son who plays soccer.

We live in a world of professional spectating.

We’re taught that other people make the rules that we have to follow. It takes a long time to break out of that passive mold, and some…

We live in a world of professional spectating.

We’re taught that other people make the rules that we have to follow. It takes a long time to break out of that passive mold, and some…

We live in a world of professional spectating. We watch the teachers as they teach. We watch our sports teams and cheer for them. We watch the celebrities in the news media. We watch the political circus and get all invested in it.

We’re taught that other people make the rules that we have to follow. It takes a long time to break out of that passive mold, and some people never do it.

It’s so much easier to watch than to do anything. It’s too much work to be inspired. And independent action, which might have consequences? Ridiculous!

Teaching Kids How and Why to Break the Rules

Knowing when to break the submarine nuclear reactor

A few years ago I changed the way I taught my kids rules. I started teaching them how to break rules. It’s wonderful, refreshing, and feels a bit subversive.

From an early age, I had been taught to follow the rules. We live in a world full of rules. And that’s probably good for when a person is starting out. Everyone needs to develop their own internal operations manual for life, and following the rules is a good starting point.

The problem is, there are too many rules. I learned this as a nuclear submarine officer in the Navy. The Navy has lots of rules, being a big bureaucratic organization, and not having fought in a war for many decades. It’s also important to not break the nuclear power plant.

But as a junior officer, I was trained to learn the theory, all the standard operations, and then everything else about the submarine, so I could choose which rules to break!

See, we trained often. We trained for big, deadly problems. Fire, flooding, close aboard explosion, nuclear contamination. There were processes and procedures and manuals for how to combat all types of problems. We were good at responding to them, and knew exactly what to do. But that was for a single problem.

For multiple problem situations, the rules were in conflict with each other. And that’s where the captain wanted us to break the rules. For example, normally if the reactor was scrammed — a rapid shutdown by the control rods dropping in their holes-the engine room should be shut down and no more steam drawn out. The nuclear reactor operating procedures were very clear on how to maintain reactor safety.

But if there was a close aboard explosion that shut down the reactor, started flooding the boat, and we started going deeper underwater, we should do whatever necessary to get to the surface and not die. If that meant delivering tens of thousand of shaft horsepower to the screw while sucking the last bit of steam out of the steam generators and rapidly cooling down the reactor and breaking it, that’s ok.

It’s better to be on the surface with a broken nuclear reactor than at the bottom of the ocean, dead, but having followed the reactor operations manual to the letter. It’s obvious that’s the right answer when you can discuss it calmly. But unless you’ve thought about it ahead of time, you may not know what to do when it actually happens.

We all agreed it would be much better to have to explain our actions at a court martial, than to not have the ability to tell our story to anyone ever again.

I’ve boiled this down to a saying that I teach my kids:

Know the rules, the reasons for the rules, the chance of getting caught if you break them, the consequences of getting caught, and if you can deal with the consequences.

So I have an answer I can use for them when I roll a stop sign. It also lets me teach them to think more for themselves.

There’s a second element to the conflict of rules submarine example, and it’s a little trickier. The breaking of the rules in a multiple casualty situation was not written down anywhere that I could find, even in the many classified documents comprising the reactor operations manual. There were rumors that submarine captain training had a whole different set of books, but I wouldn’t know about that.

These were unwritten rules, passed down from officer to officer. They came from organizational history and experience, and embodied the results oriented real world operations done daily for decades in the submarine force.

Unwritten rules are hard to defend under the scrutiny of people not involved in the situation. Imagine a headline in the newspaper, “Navy submarine Captain teaches crew to violate nuclear safety procedures!” The complexity of the potential life or death situation would be lost in the simplified headline.

So some of the most useful guidelines and rules on how to act and think about different situations get passed down verbally. That’s why I talk through these things with my kids, and I tell them:

When you are part of a group, learn the unwritten rules for how to succeed. Ask experienced people for advice, and listen. You have to have the ability to recognize the right answer when told.

Unfortunately, there is the danger that unwritten rules can teach the wrong thing as well, and since they are unwritten, they are not open to scrutiny by others outside the group. Questioning and critical thinking are necessary before putting those into one’s internal operations manual.

Furthermore, I explain to them there are different sets of rules, and they have to know the priority when they conflict. It has to do with their loyalty.

I want them to be loyal to themselves first. They’re children, and I don’t want anyone to use rules to take advantage of or abuse them. So I teach them to think for themselves first. Next comes our family, then everyone else. This is what I tell them to do when different rules conflict:

Your own personal rules come first, family rules next, then community, state, and country. After that comes group rules for companies and organizations.

This is a complex and fast changing world. I want my children to have every possible chance to succeed in life. A big part of my responsibility is to help them develop their own internal life operations manual. Teaching them how to learn rules and how to decide which ones to follow are important.

But even more importantly, to get what they want, I teach them how and why to break the rules.

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I write articles on business, technology, and life, and have a different perspective than many…

Was a nuclear trained officer in the Navy on a submarine based out of Pearl Harbor from 90–94, after graduating from Annapolis. Started an IT business in 2002, grew it to $52 million in sales, and sold it in 2015. My wife and I have 3 girls who are competitive gymnasts, and a son who plays soccer.