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.
Author: Rolf Versluis
Published at Priority Queue