In the spring of 2008, USS KEY WEST (SSN 722) was underway on nuclear power from Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. It was a pretty short underway from the Shipyard piers to the Submarine Base piers, but it was historic for me. I had taken command in the drydock and we were finally breaking free from the shipyard and starting our normal submarine operations.

I did not have the chance to observe this crew at sea so I really didn’t know how well my team could drive the ship. I picked the junior officer I thought was the most capable of safely driving as my Officer of the Deck (officer in charge for the safe operations of the ship). It was a beautiful day in Hawaii of course. As the boat silently sailed  past the USS MISSOURI (BB 63) and USS ARIZONA (BB 39) Memorial, I have to admit it was hard not to be distracted by the beauty and history around me. But, as I stood on the bridge next to the Officer of the Deck, I knew I had to pay attention to his orders so that I could intervene if I needed to.

When people ask what it is like driving a nuclear submarine on the surface as Commanding Officer, I tell them it’s a lot like taking your 15 year old son or daughter out for a driving lesson in a 1976 Lincoln Continental that has very unresponsive steering and no brakes. I mean here you are responsible for this 6900 ton nuclear submarine and you have to let someone else give the orders to turn it or speed up or slow down. When you are near land you have very little time to react and correct any wrong orders. It’s a bit nerve-racking.

You could take over and give the orders yourself, right? You might even have to do this from time to time in very dangerous situations. But here is the leadership lesson in this sea story: You must train your relief. You must prepare the next generation of leaders to do what you do. It’s absolutely mandatory in the military because everyone rises through the ranks. But, it’s also very important, and something that I believe is somewhat neglected, in the corporate world.

So as a leader, you must find opportunities for those working for you to take the helm and drive the ship. You must stand quietly by while you let them make decisions. Sometimes they will make a decision that is very different from the decision you would have made in that situation. If you want them to grow as a leader, you must be willing to  see how this turns out. But, and here is the hardest part, you must watch closely enough to know when the ship is headed into danger and jump in to take over if needed. It is a fine line between letting your people make leadership mistakes so they learn to be better leaders (train your relief) and making sure your organization does not suffer from bad decisions. You have to be engaged and you must be willing to take responsibility for their decisions. In the Navy, the Commanding Officer is ALWAYS responsible and is held accountable for everything that goes on in his command. You should feel the same about your role as a leader.

As USS KEY WEST (SSN 722) turned to a northeasterly course to “parallel park” along the subbase piers, I noticed the ship seemed to be going a little fast. Now we don’t do things F-18 Super Hornet fast in the Submarine Navy, but 6 knots (about 7 mph) is “fast” when you are parking a nuclear sub with no brakes. The Officer of the Deck rang up “ALL STOP” on the Engine Order Telegraph. This would do little to slow us down. I had let out just about all the rope I could. But I wanted to provide one last lesson. With all the calmness I could muster, I recommended the Officer of the Deck put on a backing bell to slow us down (these are the brakes). He rang up ALL BACK TWO THIRDS. This would not be enough.

I tried again to remain calm which is not easy for me on a normal day and I told the Officer of the Deck, ALL BACK EMERGENCY. Maybe ALL BACK FULL would have done it, but I was taking no chances at this point. I had been taught once when I was a junior officer that you should double the backing bell you think you need any time you get in a situation like this. It’s always better to slow down quicker. That advice came in very handy. USS KEY WEST (SSN 722) stopped about 8 feet from the bow of USS CHARLOTTE (SSN 766). I received a pretty nasty look from the harbor pilot who was on the tug and the Officer of the Deck was pretty wide eyed at that point. We had churned up the harbor bottom and embarrassed ourselves a little bit. But, the Officer of the Deck and the team below had learned a valuable lesson.

I went below after we tied up and changed my underwear. I vowed not to let that much rope out again. It’s important to let your junior leaders learn, but a little more guidance earlier would have left a larger margin of safety which would have been nice. I learned a valuable lesson as well.


So as a company leader, are you looking for opportunities for your people to lead and learn from their leadership mistakes? Are you willing to let out just enough rope so that they can get the maximum lessons while keeping a safe margin for your organization? It’s not easy. But, it is very important to the future of your organization. You must train your relief even if it sometimes requires you to step in and order ALL BACK EMERGENCY.