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The Nuclear Way: Submarine Leadership Challenges

The Nuclear Way: Submarine Leadership Challenges
09/17/2018, Paul Colwell , in Operational Transformation

How would you adjust to transferring from a self contained organization with a command and control leadership style to one with a distributed leadership style? How would you adapt? How would you prepare? And how would you be received?

This is exactly what happened to me when I reported to be the Chief Engineer onboard the USS Santa Fe, a fast-attack, nuclear submarine based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

At this point in my career, I had been in the Navy for over 8 years, passed numerous training schools, exams and interviews on submarining and nuclear power, but had not stepped foot on a submarine in over 3 years. In between submarine assignments, the Navy sends officers to a wide variety of shore assignments where we are able to recharge and experience other areas of the military before heading back to an operational submarine. In my previous submarine assignment, I was a division officer in charge of 15 sailors. Now, I was going back as a department head and would be the third highest-ranking officer onboard. It was going to be a tremendous responsibility and by far the most challenging, rewarding, and educational job I have had. While the Navy had done a lot to ensure I was ready for this assignment, a lot had changed since the last time I was onboard a submarine and one of the biggest differences was leadership style.

A submarine’s organizational structure is similar to many other organizations. The diagram below outlines our organizational structure and common business equivalents.
Submarine org chart

In addition to running a division or department, officers are responsible for standing watch. This consists of various watch stations across the boat where each officer or sailor is responsible for specific operations for 8 hours a day while the ship is underway. For me, standing watch meant being the Officer of the Decks (OOD). As OOD I was the Captain’s direct representative –responsible to drive and fight the ship while on mission with the support of nearly 30 watch standers across the submarine. While learning to implement submarine tactics as OOD is challenging, learning to consistently lead a team of 30 sailors and keep them engaged and proficient was far more difficult. This is where the shift in leadership style from command and control to distributive pays off.

During my 3 years away from submarining the leadership philosophy had changed significantly. In late 2012 through early 2013 the submarine force dealt with a series of significant mishaps, a few of which resulted in collisions, millions of dollars in repairs and multiple years in lost operational time. Extensive investigations revealed cultural problems, among other issues, as leading contributors for these mishaps. Many of these leadership styles were command-and-control oriented where complete trust was placed in the senior officers with little room for backup or recommendations from lower level sailors. This led to poor team dynamics and organization throughout the submarine. As a result of these investigations, the submarine force shifted its leadership training to teach officers a more distributive leadership style.

The education level of sailors entering the Navy was also a contributing factor. Many of the sailors I worked with had college degrees and most had at least some college experience. This, in addition to the nearly 18 months of training that all nuclear operators receive prior to assignment, meant that sailors needed and desired to be engaged and contribute to the overall mission of the submarine. Most were motivated by feeling that they contributed to the team and affected positive change rather than by money or awards. Ensuring that leaders harnessed this energy and prevented stagnation within the team was a large driver for the Navy’s shift in leadership style.

Under the previous command-and-control leadership style, officers are taught to take charge – “You are in charge, people look to you for the expertise and direction.” In the old style, for example, an officer may have received a course change recommendation from a junior sailor and, rather than following the recommendation exactly, the officer would demonstrate proper decision-making ability by coming up with a better course. This was thought to show proper command-and-control to ensure everyone respected the officer’s decision. However, it had the unintended consequence of undermining recommendations from the crew, which led to many crewmembers shutting down—knowing their recommendations would not be utilized.

The same went for managing a department of over 70 sailors. In my job as Chief Engineer, I was responsible for the creation of the training schedules, maintenance plans and operational plans implemented by the engineering department. In my previous tour, the Chief Engineer personally developed all these plans and the junior officers and sailors carried out his direction. While it was less work for the mid-level managers, it also reduced our buy-in with decisions and led to decreased creative thinking for solving issues. In addition, it undermined the ability and morale of other sailors and officers onboard who felt that they had a lot to contribute and could have provided many good ideas about how to run the ship.

When I walked onboard to relieve as Chief Engineer in my new role, I noticed a stark change in the leadership styles onboard and saw an increased level of responsibility at lower levels. While it was ultimately my responsibility to run the Engineering department or drive the ship while standing watch, I received many more recommendations from junior sailors who were not afraid to give their opinion. No longer was the OOD alone trying to make decisions with minimal input from the team. Frequently, I did not have the best answer, but generally knew someone on my team who did. I started to brief my watch team about what I was planning, what information I needed and possible decisions I would have to make. Sometimes, these briefs would be long and stream-of-consciousness like, but it kept everyone on the same page and all of the watch standers knew what I was thinking and the decisions of the team. Over time, informed recommendations were starting to pour in to me from all members of the team. Watch team members were sharing recommendations backed up by a thought process, known information and a timeline for action. These decision-making loops would range in length from a few seconds in highly stressful missions to hours, or even days, as we sought to best position the submarine for long-term missions. The active participation of the watch team led to increased commitment and engagement from sailors at every level.

Paul ColwellWhen entering my job as Chief Engineer, I was accustomed to a command-and-control leadership style where the person in charge came up with training plans, attempted to deconflict maintenance items and developed process improvement with little to no input from others. While some of the actions done in this manner were effective, I would frequently get push back from team members who had other, often better ideas. Top down driven plans received more opposition and many team members quickly voiced their frustration with their lack of input into the overall direction of the department. In order to incorporate and synthesize different ideas across the department, I quickly adapted and changed to a distributed leadership style. In meetings, I started by posing a question such as “how can we get better at this maintenance process”. Many had different and better ideas than I would have come up with on my own and we attempted to utilize these ideas—leading to a sense of ownership and responsibility to fix problems from the bottom up. The key here was to quickly show everyone on the team that the organization was utilizing recommendations based on their quality rather than the position of the individual who recommended it.

Overall, the shift within the submarine force from directive to distributed leadership has led to greater engagement from crew members who feel their ideas could be implemented organization-wide. This led to better team dynamics and has allowed a very complex, high paced and highly technical environment to move more smoothly. Having a shift of this magnitude within the Navy is a daunting task, since it can takes years to institute a change in leadership training and practice. Unlike the corporate world, new middle and upper level managers are not brought in from the outside. The Navy must work with the leaders they have in the pipeline to institute this change. Sometimes, changes receive strong pushback from those who have spent their careers in a command-and-control environment. Utilizing strong champions for a policy change at different levels of the organization is key to initiating the policy and maintaining the new, distributed leadership style.

Using the distributed leadership mentality within a small team or large organizations can greatly increase the morale, contribution and engagement from all members—ultimately leading to better results from the entire team. The key takeaways that I gained from my change in leadership style in my job as Chief Engineer are:

  1. Don’t give your opinion or decision about a certain issue or problem initially. This may cause some to simply fall in line behind your decision due to your seniority within the organization, or automatically oppose the idea because of the same reason. Instead, pose the question or problem and let the team have an open discussion without your initial influence.
  2. Help frame the reference of the problem and define different directions the team could take based on the conversations. It is ok to have “stream of consciousness” discussions with the team—letting them know what information you have, what information you need and different possible directions the team could take while allowing leeway for alternative solutions.
  3. If someone expresses passion about solving a problem, it is generally better to let them implement it with supervision. While it is tempting to try and put your mark on it or tweak it based on your ideas, it helps to let them solve it. Even if it may not be as effective as one of your ideas, it will show the team you are willing to listen and implement their ideas fully. This will increase engagement and contribution from all team members, now that they know they will be heard.
  4. Give small corrections early, if necessary. Do not wait until the very end to sit down with a team member and provide any corrections that may be required. Nothing will frustrate them more than putting a lot of effort into solving a problem than having to go back and rework something that could have been solved earlier in the process and prevented a lot of rework.

If implemented correctly within your organization, this can free up a lot of your time as a manager and increase the productivity of the team.

Paul Colwell

Former Nuclear Submarine Officer

Paul is a dynamic and collaborative leader with over 10 years of work experience in high stress and highly technical environments. His background as a Naval Nuclear Submarine Officer and Future Satellite Communications Manager has given him the opportunity to work variety of areas including quality assurance, project/program management, operations management, process improvement, root cause analysis, defense acquisitions, strategy and change management.  Connect with Paul

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