Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ice cream and individualism: Leadership lessons from a U.S. Navy attack submarine

Rodd Wagner/Forbes
9 June 2015
The crew of the attack submarine USS California is still talking about the ice cream they had to leave on the dock in Haakonsvern, Norway. In restocking for their next voyage across and under the Atlantic Ocean, they had no space left to store the frozen dessert.
That was more than six months ago. It still bothers them.
Perhaps because so many of the basics such as sunlight, space and being with family must be subordinated to the boat’s mission, some smaller indulgences become obsessions. On the California, one of them is ice cream.“Sometimes it’s the little things,” said Senior Chief Electronics Technician John Glamm. “You’ve been going for 20 hours and just to sit down with a bowl of ice cream…” His voice trailed off as it became reverential.U.S. Navy Commander Eric Sager, captain of the USS California, on the bridge of the submarine off the coast of Florida (Photo by Rodd Wagner)
U.S. Navy Commander Eric Sager, captain of the USS California, on the bridge of the submarine off the coast of Florida (Photo by Rodd Wagner)

“Food is absolutely a motivator for the crew,” said Commander Eric Sager, captain of the California. “Ice cream is a big deal, not just the ice cream we make on board, but ice cream made on shore.”
To understand why ice cream could become so important on one of the U.S. Navy’s newest class of nuclear-powered attack submarines, one must appreciate – as much as someone who is not a submariner can – all the differences between the crew’s lives and everyone else’s. There is no better example of what it takes to get a large group of people to perform under extreme conditions than inside a submarine.
At any time, roughly 1,100 officers and 9,100 enlisted men and women are serving aboard U.S. Navy submarines. The California is one of 71 vessels spread around the globe, patrolling, spying, following other adversaries’ subs and ships, protecting American aircraft carriers and sneaking Navy SEALs to hostile coastlines. Fourteen are solely dedicated to carrying nuclear ballistic missiles to deter North Korea, Russia or China from using their nukes. Their locations are highly classified.
What’s often obscured in the seriousness, the secrecy and the technology is that each submarine is a submerged workplace. Each officer is a manager. Each torpedoman, nuclear machinist, cook and electrical technician is an employee. Human nature is human nature; it’s just under more pressure.
“Among the challenges presented by a submarine deployment are a paucity of personal space, long periods with no sunlight, an unusual day/night schedule and extended periods of separation from friends and loved ones with minimal communication,” states a 2009 report on psychological assessments of submariners. “When we combine these with a very cognitively demanding workload, a requirement for extremely high levels of job/task proficiency, a rigid military hierarchy and no psychiatric support underway, it becomes evident that the psychological resilience of the crew needs to be greater than that required for most jobs.”
Few environments create a more challenging environment for a leader to motivate his team. Depending on the abilities of the commander and his subordinate officers, the time under way sequestered with his team can create camaraderie or hostility, safety or injury, missions accomplished or missions botched. Because of these pressures, submarines have proved a unique lab for leadership, human psychology and physiology and workplace safety. When those who plan space expeditions want to understand the stresses astronauts will have during long periods in orbit, they look to subs.
Commanding a submarine requires a thorough working knowledge of nuclear power, sonar, naval battle tactics, potential enemy capabilities and dozens of other specialties. Effectively leading the crew requires a thorough working knowledge of each officer’s and sailor’s personality and family circumstances, how he takes coaching and recognition, how he learns best, and when to request the six cooks aboard make pizza to give the crew a shot in the arm.
The California is the eighth of 11 Virginia-class attack subs currently in service. Four more are under construction. The boat (it’s frowned on to call a U.S. Navy ship a boat, but it’s considered a correct term for a submarine) is 377-feet-long and can travel at speeds over 25 knots when submerged. It can remain below the surface for three months at a time.
Most of what it’s done and all of what it will do is classified. “My wife sends me these long emails. I don’t have much news; I can’t really talk about the job,” said Lt. Robert Block. “I just respond to what she writes.”
The Virginia-class attack submarine USS California (U.S. Navy photo by Chris Oxley)
The Virginia-class attack submarine USS California (U.S. Navy photo by Chris Oxley)

The best hints of what the California has done, will do or could do come from the published capabilities of the sub and its sister boats. A Virginia-class submarine has four forward-facing tubes to fire torpedoes at enemy ships or subs. It has 12 vertical launch tubes to fire Tomahawk missiles at targets on land. It can get Navy SEALs onto shore either by a mini-sub attached to the hull or through a nine-man compartment within the hull that can be filled with water, opened to the ocean and then closed and refilled with air.
The California does a lot of listening. Sonar arrays are mounted on the sail, at several points along the hull, below the bow and aimed in nearly every direction from a sphere inside the sound-permeable bow. These feed a wall of green-on-black computer screens on the port side of the control room manned by five sonar specialists trained to hear slight differences in what anyone else would perceive as hiss and static. “Yep, there’s a dolphin in there,” said Sonar Chief Michael Lasater at the sound of a click off the port side of the bow during recent operations off the coast of Florida. Male or female? a visitor asked. “Well, we’re not that good.”
The California is one of the Navy’s best spies. Rather than a traditional periscope, the boat is topped with masts packed with cameras, antennas, and electronics that capture visible and infrared light, detect radar from ships and planes, and pick up signals from many miles away when it patrols just under the surface near the shore of a hostile country.
The unavoidable soft spot in a Navy sub is its people. The boat never shuts down, but sailors have to sleep. The nuclear reactor that powers the California has enough fuel to power the boat for its full life, roughly 33 years. But fresh fruit and milk for the crew that last only about a week. Special wax-coated fresh eggs can last a month. And given how much 130 men eat (no women serve yet on the California) the boat runs out of dried, frozen and canned food somewhere between 80 and 120 days, even when provisions are packed so tightly there’s no room for the Norwegian ice cream.
The sonar, digital imaging, weaponry and navigation systems are designed to never fail. But how can the captain ensure a man who had to interrupt sleep for his assigned time with the one washing machine and dryer on board will be alert enough to spot a threat late in his shift and months into the voyage?
“The most fascinating part of this job is the human interaction,” said Commander Sager. “The components of the submarine are predictable, because they’re technology. When there’s a problem with a person, you don’t know how they’ll react because you don’t know what’s inside that person. Most of my conversations with my officers are about the men, not the submarine.”
What submarine officers learn is a concentrated form of what every effective leader comes to know – that the most important things they accomplish are through the support of their crews. “I came into the Navy because I wanted to be war hero. I wanted to sink Russian submarines. I wanted to have medals on my chest, to have movies made about me,” said Brad McDonald, a retired Navy captain who is the second of three generations of submariners in his family. “Once I’d been here, what I found out was that I’m sheriff and judge to these men. I’m their mother and their father, their brother, their priest, their marriage counselor, their financial advisor, their doctor. You have to take care of these guys. I learned that if I take care of these sailors, they’ll take care of the ship.”
Taking care of the sailors is no small accomplishment. Assuming there are no SEALs and their gear or extra torpedoes on board, there’s a little room to work out in the torpedo room. Otherwise, the exercise bike gets pushed into a cramped space and the pull-up bar is a pipe strapped among the overhead conduits. “It helps with your form, because you have to be careful not to hit your head,” said Lt. Block.
Bunks are stacked three high in the enlisteds’ quarters, two high in some officers’ areas. The captain’s quarters are the size of a small walk-in closet. Thirty of the crew must “hot-bunk” – three men, two bunks – the awakening sailor pulling his sheets off the mattress to make way for the next guy.
The showers are hot, but two minutes short. (Any longer and the sailor is scorned for going “Hollywood.”) Taking longer than 10 minutes to eat is considered “camping out.” The only time a submariner gets to be upright and inhabiting the same spot for long is when he’s at his station on duty.
Sleep is often in shifts of a few hours, particularly for the “non-quals” yet to earn the respected dolphin insignia. Among them is Lt. Junior Grade Robert Murphy, who when not on duty can often be found with a computer at his right hand and with the periscope training manual in his left. What does he like best about his job? “It’s a short commute, and they feed me” he said, smiling, then adds more seriously, “I am always learning something new every day.”
There’s a lot of improvising. “We have a guy who’s kind of been trained in how to cut hair, but if you think about it, 130 guys and we’re a couple days from port? That’s a lot of hair,” said Lt. Block. “So we end up cutting each other’s hair. In here, we have to trust each other with a lot – including our hair.”
Because of the close quarters and everyone touching the same surfaces, if one man brings the flu on board, almost everyone gets sick. “We call him ‘Patient Zero,’” said the lieutenant.
Being almost entirely cut off from the United States, it really matters what’s in the box of new DVDs when they leave port. Submarine movies are out, because the audience nitpicks the details and they see enough submarine already. When they surface, the men find they are culturally out of touch. “What do you mean Robin Williams died? There’s a Taken 3?” said Senior Chief Glamm. “The only NFL game we saw last year was the Super Bowl.”
The crew of the California (and their families, the commander would hasten to add) make these sacrifices because they believe in the submarine’s role in protecting the United States. “We will be called upon to execute the full spectrum of both peacetime and wartime missions, ranging from intelligence collection to kinetic warfare,” states the leadership principles Commander Sager distributed to his officers.
Senior Chief Glamm puts it succinctly: “They (other nations) know we’re there. There’s a reason there hasn’t been a major naval battle in a long time.”
An organization’s mission, particularly one as crucial as the Navy’s, will motivate people to go beyond their previous limits, to deprive themselves of much of what they would otherwise need. “Once you’re underway, you’re a different person than when you’re on shore,” said Lt. Block. However, the research is clear that those deprivations will eventually take their toll, no matter how noble the mission. In such tight quarters, the morale of the crew can be sensed, said the captain. “I have to build in downtime for the crew,” he said. “No one’s going to do that for me; that’s my responsibility.”
For Commander Sager, the key to the California executing its missions, to an officer or sailor succeeding under such extreme circumstances, and to his effectiveness as a leader is understanding each crewman’s unique personality and who he’s left on land. “It’s not about him as a member of the workforce; it’s about him as an individual.”
“I’ve learned over 17 years (in the submarine service) how to read someone pretty well,” he said. Failing that, “just simply asking them will do it.” Does he keep a mental file on each member of his crew? “I have a written file! I take notes every time I meet with someone – how he and I interacted, how it went.”
Some months ago, one of his officers was directing the boat as it rose to periscope depth. The operation is deadly serious; a mistake could cause the submarine to be detected in hostile waters, take on water, or – exceptionally rarely – cause a collision with a surface ship. The “officer of the deck” must quickly assimilate information from the pilot and co-pilot at the forward end of the control room, the sonar operators to his left, weapons people to this right, and the navigators in the center of the room. He must be decisive – and right. Nearly everything happening in the submarine, including how the cooks are timing meal preparations around the angle of the kitchen as it rises or dives, is in response to that officer’s commands.
The officer of the deck was becoming unnerved. Commander Sager stood at his side. “I leaned over and whispered to him, ‘You’re shaking,’ and then I said, ‘It’s okay.’” The captain continued to quietly coach his junior officer until the operation was complete. “After we safely reached the surface, I recommended he step away and compose himself, maybe splash some water on his face. I said that because I know him. It was the right way to handle it with him. With someone else, there might have been a different way that would have worked best.”
The boat’s mission always takes priority, but if an officer or sailor really needs it and the circumstances can accommodate it, the commander’s authority allows him to rise to periscope depth and connect the submariner with home by satellite. “I’m building buy-in from the crew by investing in their families. I will leave a man in port for the birth of a child,” said the captain. “It’s not something I can promise; there’s always a cost to being one person down. But I think it’s important he be there for a birth.”
Commander Sager’s focus on each crewman is part of a broader trend in the military to appreciate that however standard the ranks, pay grades, responsibilities, training, and uniforms, each member of the services brings a unique bearing, abilities, and vulnerabilities to the mission. A parallel trend runs through civilian organizations. “Honestly,” said the commander, “I don’t think I would approach it any differently if I’d been in the corporate world.”
If the average workplace were sealed up for a few months, chances are when the doors were reopened, inside would be a circus. Assuming there hadn’t been a mutiny, no one would want to hear another word from the CEO or the rest of the leadership. Colleagues would be at each other’s throats. No one would sign on for another stint under those conditions. Little would have been accomplished.
But the Navy submarine fleet creates exceptional levels of accomplishment under trying conditions. Where they succeed, they do it not because they recruit super-humans, not ultimately through military compulsion, not because they have some trick to suspend the laws of human nature, but because a long history of failures and successes taught them how to combine the elements of leadership and support that gets non-quals their dolphins and makes serving undersea an invigorating experience, even if the Norwegian ice cream must be left behind.
Under the right conditions, it’s quite amazing what people can do, and just how much they will accomplish under leadership that is invested in their success. “I am working on empowering them,” said Commander Sager. “I want to help them reach above their seniority level. It’s my responsibility to make each of these officers a commanding officer and to help each of the sailors accomplish all they can. The mark of my leadership is how each of them succeeds.”

(Full disclosure: The author has previously conducted and analyzed research for the U.S. Navy, and worked as an outside advisor to its leaders.)

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