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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.

Please, don’t think we’re going overboard. But we just have to continue with the sports theme of this eNewsletter. We’ll keep it short. Amidst the passing of Muhammad Ali and the surging performance of the Cleveland Cavaliers, slightly out of the spotlight could be the Stanly Cup Champions—the Pittsburgh Penguins. Forget that almost every, if not every, prognosticator counted the Penguins out in every round of the playoffs.

Three leadership themes emerge. One is more conceptual, and the other two are more actionable. To begin, we have empirical evidence in the power of alignment to a vision and, just maybe, the power of belief. No matter that almost everyone counted the Penguins down and out back in December up through June of this year. They’ve shown that it doesn’t matter what others think, it matters what the team believes. Thirty hockey players believed what the world didn’t. The lesson here is that buying into a collective vision is important, and regardless of what external stakeholders and so-called “experts” say, the belief of the team is central, is critical.

On to the other two lessons here. In this very eNewsletter several months ago, we put forth the leadership mantra of man, equip, train. And, we mean ‘man’ in a gender neutral way. To be successful, you need to staff the team, equip them with the resources to be successful, and train them on what good looks like. Do you have a staffing change that you need to make? That you must make? Let’s look to Pittsburgh Penguins. In mid-December, team leadership fired coach Mike Johnston for poor performance with four months before playoff hockey was to start. In came Mike Sullivan, and the rest is history. Again, the lesson here is simple and straightforward and worthy of application—it is impossible to be successful without the right people on the right bus sitting in the right seats.

Our final LEADERSHIP IN ACTION lesson here is to give young talent a chance. They may surprise. Mike Sullivan, himself youthful, was given a chance. He was hungry, and he thought differently. And most experts agree that Sullivan did what was done to him—he gave young hockey players a chance to shine. Specifically, he pulled a celebrated, and much experienced goalie, in favor of Matt Murray—a guy barely of drinking age! He responded. Sullivan gave youth another chance by bringing up Bryan Rust from the farm system. At 23, Rust delivered an exceptional performance throughout the playoffs. Of course, there’s an element of courage and risk here. Mike Sullivan put inexperienced, but hungry and aggressive, players into the game during the biggest of stages—the Stanly Cup playoffs. So ask yourself—are you giving young talent a chance to stretch, to spread their wings, and to grow? What’s holding you back? If you can tolerate some stumbles along the way that go hand-in-hand with learning, giving some young supervisors or engineers a chance to shine may deliver some surprising and promising results.

To recap—get your team to hit the ‘believe’ button as that’s the only opinion that truly matters. Second, don’t be afraid to make coaching changes. Third, demonstrate even more courage by giving new, young talent a chance to impress!

We invite you to email ELP Principal and Co-Founder Robin Bichy for a professional consultation at robin@elpadvantage.com.

Much of our time seems split between railroads, railyards, shipyards, and power stations. Within the nuclear arena, much energy is spent towards learning from OE (Operating Experience). Much more than a luxury, within nuclear, it is considered a necessity to raise OE, or historical knowledge, prior to performing a task or engaging in a critical evolution. We do so now, and look to a recent event.

Just a touch over a year ago, the Amtrak 188 train barreled towards Philadelphia. This train and its leadership approached a bend that required a slowdown to 55 MPH. This didn’t happen. Instead, the train hurled toward this bend-in-the-track at speeds double that—approaching 106 MPH. After eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured, the FBI as well as the National Transportation Safety Board also got involved—heavily.

Just this past month, both the FBI and the NTSB levied their key finding that the conductor/chief engineer had become distracted, and that was the root cause of the catastrophe. More to the point, the conductor lost his situational awareness.

We’ve called on prospective clients before who suggest that safety errors can be corrected almost exclusively through technology. Technology fails and on this particular day, it sure did. The Amtrak technology—the positive control systems was down and out. This is where, by and large, nuclear gets it right. Even with nuclear’s ‘special and unique’ technology, there is converging belief that most safety events or errors are hardly ever technological. Rather, they are behavioral such as the lack of situational awareness mentioned above. That isn’t to say that technology should not be part of the ‘defense in depth’ approach to protecting our workforce. That’s not what we are saying. Instead, we strongly suggest that investing in behavioral and cultural influences to improving safety will yield considerable and sustainable results over time. To rely solely on, even as a dominant safeguard, technology will disappoint. Instead, invest in your people.

To improve your safety culture, you can never do better than calling ELP. Reach out to Robin Bichy at robin@elpadvantage.comto learn more about our cultural approach to staying and remaining safe.