3 leadership lessons I learned on board the USS Midway

In mid-January of this year my son and I spent the better part of a day touring the USS Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier berthed in San Diego harbor. I’ve been on naval vessels before but none as large as the Midway.

As awe inspiring as the Midway’s war making capabilities were, both Nathaniel and I were particularly interested to learn about the systems for housing the crew and maintaining morale. Accommodations for seamen was Spartan and crowded necessitated by the large number, about 5000, and the crowded confines of the ship.

There were three things that struck me.

First, there were two officers directly in charge of human relations. Those officers’ sole duty was to listen to the crew, answer questions when they could, and be an understanding and reassuring face when they could not. They had to be sensitive enough know when silence was a better response. They spent their days and nights roaming the ship talking to people. There were other officers whose duty it was to make sure the jobs were taken care of. It was their duty to make sure the people were taken care of.

Second, there were chaplains in charge of the spiritual condition of the crew. Their job was not merely a traditional obligation for religious ritual. The long tradition of handling stress in confined duty has proven that people are more than flesh and sinew. There is a spiritual dimension to everyone, even if some are less sensitive to it than others. The chaplain’s role is not conversion but conservation, to preserve the well-being of people whose hard work and difficult circumstances are more than physically draining.

Space is at a premium on board so cabin space is not handed out willy-nilly. The size, location, and amenities of one’s cabin was an indicator of importance and value. Both sets of officers, the morale officers and the chaplains, were granted larger accommodations indicating their significance.

The third thing was procedural. The Captain of the ship had free reign of the ship from bow to stern, above and below. But there was one place he never ventured into without asking permission…and he asked permission of someone below his rank. It was the dining room for the CPO’s, the Chief Petty Officers. Judged by everyone in the know to actually run the Navy, CPO’s had their own dining room into which the Captain never entered without permission. He always waited outside, asked to speak to the ranking chief, and sought permission before entering.

Why do I find this significant? Because more than anything else, this demonstrates a powerful principle – that you never violate the autonomy and sovereignty of people in their appointed role.

When I worked at Lowe’s, the manager of the flooring department showed up in my department, millwork, and began rifling through our file cabinet. With no explanation whatsoever he began removing files. Since I was not in charge, I had no authority to inquire as to what he was doing or to prohibit him from doing it. But it surely did annoy my department manager when she found out.

Why? What he was doing was preparing for a store audit by regional auditors, something that had to be done every year. I checked around and in every department where he went in and rifled the cabinets he was met with the same antagonistic response by the managers of those other departments.

What should have been done? After all, the store manager did have to make sure the store was ready for the audit. Sending a guy in to remove outdated files of dead sales was an efficient way to handle the job.

But it was highly ineffective. And it damaged his standing with the many other managers inside the building. What he should have done was get on the phone and call each one (there are only 5), inform them of the up-coming audit, explain that he was sending a person around to handle the job, and ask for both their assistance and cooperation.

When he did not do that, he proved that he had little respect for the autonomy and sovereignty of those other managers, a stupid mistake. The Captain of the Midway made no such error. He knew the significance of making sure other leaders knew that he knew their role was significant and took the actions necessary to reinforce it.

  • Appreciate the influence morale plays on overall performance. People are not machines.
  • Acknowledge the spiritual dimension of those who work for you, even when they are not religious. It’s part of the set of values that influence how people make decisions.
  • Never violate the autonomy and sovereignty of those you’ve placed in positions of responsibility.

You get 5000 sailors to do their jobs and do them well by paying the price. It is an off-budget expense but it pays unbelievably huge dividends.

NOTE: This article first appeared several weeks ago in The Practical Leader newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, it’s sent out free of charge at least twice a month. And, you will receive articles normally never included on this blog. Special content, personally delivered, no charge, what could be better? Simply use the subscription form at the top right of this page and in a few clicks your free subscription will be set up.

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