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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.

Like last eNewsletter, we begin with a nod to the world of sports. We promise that this won’t be a pattern. But how can we not highlight some of the unforgettable leadership lessons from the world of sports over the last month? In this month’s eNewsletter, we call attention to leadership lessons from examining some iconic sports figures along with some recent memorable events from the world of sports.

We begin with the icon of all icons—Muhammad Ali. Few public figures, sports or otherwise, can command more media attention than the Brexit vote. Ali was one such figure. Bombastic and controversial, Muhammad Ali shocked the world when, on religious grounds, he refused entry into the Armed Services and a possible rotation to Vietnam. At ELP, we aren’t going to debate whether this was or wasn’t appropriate. With that said, we can all agree that Muhammad Ali was unafraid both within and outside the ring. More than one commentator noted that Ali spoke truth to power regardless of the consequences. And here’s our first lesson. Especially in high-hazard/high-risk organizations, every individual—from the proverbial wrench turner to the custodial staff—must be willing to raise or confront leadership when they see something that just isn’t right or that’s possibly unsafe. In high-hazard/high-risk organizations, we must all speak truth to power, regardless of rank differences, to protect the safety and health of the workforce and surrounding public. So, we’re not sure Muhammad Ali was right or wrong in his refusal to go to Vietnam; we would lean to the position that he was wrong. However, we can all agree that Muhammad Ali was a man of courage—physically, politically, spiritually, and morally.

And then there’s the story of LeBron James. We’re convinced that there’s a group at Harvard right now working on the next Case Study of which LeBron James is the focus. What LeBron James pulled off in the summer of 2016 may go down as the single most memorable performance in modern sports history. There really is no comparable experience; in other words, it is an event without equal. Much of the leadership world celebrates the notion of collaborative leadership—getting everyone involved. While it is tough to discount the importance of collaboration and teamwork, there’s a time, especially when the organization’s back is against the wall, that decisive leadership in necessary—if not essential. There’s a time when the leader must take over, make strong decisions, and act with authority. And that’s exactly what LeBron did. He, literally, put the team on his back in the face of elimination to win it all.

His Cleveland Cavaliers are the only team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship. To get there, LeBron had back-to-back 41 point games and led the team in EVERY major category (points, rebounds, steals, blocks, and assists!)—standing alone in NBA history! In a preponderance of organizational life, collaborative and deliberative leadership should rule the day. But not all the time. Sometimes, leaders should ‘demand the ball’ and lead. That’s what LeBron did—and, to be sure, when he ‘took over the game’, his team didn’t suffer. Just the opposite. They responded, and it is clear that they wanted LeBron to take charge. Collaborative leadership was not going to carry the day, and the team knew that. Especially in times of crisis—strong, forceful, command leadership is needed. Do you have the confidence and the cred to pull that off?

Let’s wrap it up here. We’ve argued that speaking truth to power is part and parcel of a safe operating environment, especially in high-hazard/high-risk organizations. We can all model the courage of Muhammad Ali. Lastly, we can debunk the myth that collaborative leadership styles should ALWAYS be used. Just not true. Especially in times of organizational distress, a strong leader must emerge and take charge. Want evidence? Look to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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

Do you know who Randy Moss is? He was an incredible football player. Bursting on to the scene in 1998, he’s best known for his performance with the Minnesota Vikings and also the New England Patriots. With 14 seasons under his belt, he owns the NFL single-season touchdown reception record (23 in 2007) along with the NFL regular season touchdown reception list of 156. He was good—very good—very, very, good. But, he was never great. Randy Moss could never win the Super Bowl. And the reason is: he took plays off. On occasion, he didn’t give it his all. He’d catch. But, he didn’t like to block much. And, every now and then, he just wouldn’t even try. So much so, that the best receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice, called him out arguing to the media that he, unlike Randy Moss, never, ever took a play off.

We apologize in advance for bringing in football at a time when baseball, the Belmont, and, even, Dancing with the Stars is at play. But, the truth of the matter is that some players, some people, some employees don’t give it their all. Or, in football parlance, they take plays off. This is consistent with the research on Human Capital. Employees own their own Human Capital and can choose to deploy it on behalf of the team or not. Strong leaders, those known as people developers, tend to get the most out of their people. They get close to 100% of effort and ability. Those leaders that aren’t people developers tend to get a zombie bunch—an employee sample that works to 60 or 70% of their ability.

Some leading sports psychologists suggest Moss’s inability to reach the pinnacle has less to do with him and more to do with fact that he never had a great leader to develop him (Bill Belichick got him late in his career). Reflect for a second—do you get the most out of your people? 100%, 90%, or 50%? Do people ‘play’ hard for you? Or, do subordinate leaders and employees take plays off under you? Do people want to work for you because you’ll challenge them and make them better? Or do they want to work for you knowing that they can skate by? If good people are scrambling to volunteer to work for you, then you probably earned a reputation as a people developer. If good people, on the contrary, are wishing to leave or are voting with their feet and jumping ship, then, chances are, you might not be developing people as much as you could.

Here are six specifics that we’d ask that you reflect on, and we borrow—or shamelessly steal from—the iconic Jeff Foxworthy.

  • You may not be a people developer if you think that development is sending your subordinate leaders to a course and thinking that development just magically occurs.
  • You may be a people developer if you provide challenging and stretch tasks and assignments to your team and mentor them through it.
  • You may not be a people developer if you are so results-driven that you embrace a tactical mindset of, “What can this person provide me now?”
  • You may be a people developer if you develop compelling, long-range career and personal development plans to make your team better.
  • You may not be a people developer if your employees or subordinate leaders see their time with you as a just a job to do.
  • You may be a people developer if your employees see their time with you as a profession or calling.

These are just some leadership dos and don’ts that we toss your way. At ELP, we firmly put a stake in the ground here—we are people developers. To learn more about our process and to help ensure you get 100% out of your subordinate leaders or your anyone on your team, we strongly suggest that you reach out to one of ELP’s principals and co-founders and a renowned expert on leader development, Robin Bichy. Email her at robin@elpadvantage.com.