Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

We are switching it up a bit. We just wanna keep everyone on their toes. This monthly edition of the ELP Leadership eNews focuses on our U.S. Navy. We do this for two reasons. First, many of our clients—especially in the nuclear realm—have roots, deep roots, in the nuclear Navy. So, in a way, this is a call-out to them. Second, there’s been some timely news surfacing regarding the 71st anniversary of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Lurking behind the journalism aspect of this story, though, are some leadership lessons that remain relevant today regardless of organization and irrespective of industry.

What is the U.S.S. Indianapolis? The U.S.S. Indianapolis was a Navy Cruiser that was sunk just after delivering parts and a huge payload of enriched uranium that would become, for all intents and purposes, the Little Boy —the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. While that may be notable in itself, that isn’t what the U.S.S. Indianapolis is known for.

Shortly after dropping off this secret shipment on the tiny island of Tinian, two Japanese torpedoes sank the Navy Cruiser in a matter of minutes. To be precise, in less than 15 minutes, the U.S.S. Indianapolis fell below the level of the sea and, to this day, is somewhere unknown on the floor of the Pacific. 300 sailors went down with the ship. About 900 sailors were sent adrift in the Pacific, and many bobbed for about five days before rescue and assistance arrived. During those 100+ hours, 600 more sailors would lose their life—to severe dehydration, exhaustion, drinking of saltwater, heat stroke, and, most horribly, shark attacks. In fact, and while global and historical accounts are difficult to nail down, many believe this event stands as the single-deadliest shark attack on humans in world history. Sadly, of the 1200 Navy crew that manned the U.S.S. Indianapolis on July 30, 1945, just over 300 would survive. To this day, there is no close equal—it is the greatest loss of life at sea in modern U.S. Naval History. Despite this tragedy, there are a couple of poignant leadership lessons that should resonate today.

Recognizing and Mitigating Risk. Expert historical opinion converges on institutional breakdowns as a primary root cause of the disaster. Specifically, there is reason to believe that the U.S. Navy failed to appreciate the risk of both the drop-off and return of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Amazingly, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was unescorted both to and from the island of Tinian. The escort of a Navy Destroyer would’ve likely prevented the attack. Today, any U.S. Navy ship transporting more than 500 sailors or Marines must have an escort. Likely behind it all was a sense of complacency. Further communication breakdowns just before, during, and after the sinking suggest that Navy leadership was getting complacent, that they weren’t playing to the whistle. After all, the European campaign, save for some light skirmishes, was winding down fast. To avoid such a catastrophe, we suggest mimicking a client organization that we saw last month. In particular, we heard a senior leader ask the following two questions: 1) Do we know how much margin-to-risk we have? 2) Are we prepared to live with the consequences if we’re wrong? Clearly, the U.S.S. Indianapolis showcases a miscalculation or lack of appreciation of operational risk. Don’t let this mentality seep into your organization.

The Power of Individual Leadership. Over the last several years, we’ve been brainwashed a bit to believe that teamwork is everything, and, oftentimes, individuals don’t even need leadership. They can, by and large, lead themselves. Indeed, several firms in and around Silicon Valley and, even, several manufacturing organizations have employed self-managed/self-led teams (with varying results). To be sure, this approach towards organizational management is trendy, sexy, and in vogue. But it’s lacking.

We can look to Captain Edward Parke here for inspiration. Captain Parke was on-board the U.S.S. Indianapolis Navy Cruiser as a commander of a Marine detachment. Survivor accounts seem to point out that Capt. Parke is, indeed, the reason why they are labeled survivors and not victims. Specifically, Capt. Parke aimed to keep groups together. Second, he provided hope and a tomorrow-focused vision. When some sailors could not see tomorrow, Parke painted the picture of what that looked like. Third, he was calm under chaos. During crises most managers will buckle; leaders lead. Leaders like Parke. Finally, and most heroically, this Veteran of Guadalcanal and winner of a Purple Heart repeatedly gave his own life vest so that others would survive. He died after two days in the water from exhaustion. He would later win the Navy Cross posthumously. There is a level of selflessness to the very best of leaders; Parke seemed to have it.

The Power of Collective Leadership. We know. This may seem counter-intuitive given our thoughts above. We believe, though, that in truly great organizations these two forces—strong individual and collective leadership—can and should exist simultaneously. Again, turn to the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. What we know is that those that huddled in small groups enjoyed much higher survival rates. Those that broke from the pack either purposefully or by a strong wave or current put their survival at risk. For sure, the initial rescue plane went after isolated “floaters” as these sailors were deemed highest risk. All of the benefits that we’ve seen in the movies about small, cohesive, units apply here. First, those in small groups could encourage each other. As an individual would begin to lose hope, others would pull that sailor up—mentally. Second, cohesive small units share resources freely and without friction. Exchanging life vests or trading places in a lifeboat, for a time, are examples. Third, collective leadership can ward off, and even defeat threats. In survivor accounts, the sharks seemed to wait for someone to fall from the pack. When that occurred, the sharks would pounce. Even to swirling sharks, there is a power to strong teams.

We close with this thought. Every day, it is estimated that 492 World War II Veterans pass away. Besides pride, appreciation, and a sense of honor, there are lessons to be learned from this generation. The anniversary of the U.S.S. Indianapolis serves a potent reminder to the power of their leadership.