Think Like Mush

Mush? This sounds like a bad breakfast cereal, doesn’t it? Of course, I am talking about Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton, World War II Submarine Captain of USS WAHOO, not a warm bowl of cornmeal. Perhaps you have never heard of Mush but he is my favorite WWII submarine captain. He was fearless and a risk taker. He was aggressive and just what the United States Navy needed in the wake of the deadly Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. Our peacetime submarine captains were generally too risk averse to take the fight to the enemy. Mush Morton was part of the wave of risk taking Captains that turned the tide against the Japanese Navy. But his aggressiveness did not come without controversy. I will save that story for a later post on ethics, but his orders to fire upon small boats of survivors from a ship he had sunk cast a dark shadow on this great warrior.  (For further reading, check out Wahoo by Richard O’Kane – a great read.)

Dick O’Kane (left) with Mush Morten

Regardless, Mush Morton was a great wartime submarine Captain and his leadership style includes a valuable lesson that I drew upon in my career as a submarine officer and today as a business leader. Most submarine Captains want to be on the periscope during dangerous operations (back when all submarines had periscopes, not video monitors). But Mush Morton did not follow this standard. He put his Executive Officer, Dick O’Kane, on the periscope during submerged attacks. Even though he had complete responsibility and was very competent, Mush Morton trusted his Executive Officer’s judgement on the periscope when taking aim at enemy warships. Why did he do this? What if Dick O’Kane made a mistake and the ship was sunk? Shouldn’t the Captain have been on the periscope to ensure things went well?

In late 2004, I was the Executive Officer on USS ALBUQUERQUE (SSN 706). My Captain was a very intelligent and competent naval officer. He had been a Rhodes Scholar. A real genius. But, we differed in many ways and I am not just talking about the genius part! Our leadership styles and experience were also very different. I believe I was sent to be his Executive Officer (XO – second in command) to compliment his weak areas and vice versa. USS ALBUQUERQUE was deployed and conducting a joint operation with the British Navy and our own US Carrier based battle group around the Northern Irish Sea. As the “red” submarine, our role was to penetrate the escort screen and “attack” the high value unit (Aircraft Carrier).

Things were getting dicey. Shipping and fishing traffic is busy in this area and it was a dark night and thus difficult to see. The naval battle group escorts were going active on their sonar systems. We knew they couldn’t find us with all the noise in the water, but it made it that much more difficult to make out what was going on above on the surface. We were at periscope depth to use our eyes to drive through the destroyer screen. The Officer of the Deck and the team was getting overwhelmed with all the contacts. The risk, of course, was collision, not getting depth charged or sunk by an enemy. This was just an exercise after all. But the risk of collision was real and could be just as deadly. The “pucker factor” as we call it, was pegged high.

I looked at the Captain standing next to me on the Conn. Even through the dark control room, I could sense he was just as nervous as me. We had to reduce the risk level. I thought of Mush Morton and Dick O’Kane. I took over the periscope from the Officer of the Deck before the Captain could.

When Mush Morton put Dick O’Kane on the periscope during submerged attacks, he was freeing himself up to think clearly about the big picture.  He reduced the “noise” his mind had to sift through to make decisions. He reduced his own fear of failure by detaching himself ever slightly from the immediate problems. He had to trust his XO completely with his life and the lives of his crew. By employing his XO on the periscope, he was able to make better and bolder decisions while evaluating the risk without emotion.

As a leader, have you ever had to make a risky decision in the midst of noise and danger all around you? Was it hard to clearly focus on the issue when the complexity of emotions were ringing loud in your head? Do you just want to grab the periscope yourself and try to figure it out on your own? No one has more experience than you. Why would you trust anyone else with the periscope, right?

Here comes the leadership lesson that I learned: Find and put trust in your own XO and let him or her take the periscope to free you to think great thoughts and make great decisions. 

When I jumped on the periscope in the North Irish Sea in 2004, I felt the submarine control  room calm down as I read out bearings and ranges to warships and the Captain made all the right decisions in maneuvering the submarine through the escort screen. We conducted our simulated attack with great victory and most importantly we avoided some very close calls with surface ships. Through teamwork and trust, we led our organization to success in this simulated battle. We never really talked about it, but from that day forward, we tried to always employ this philosophy when the ship was in a high risk operation. I wanted to always give the Captain as much room to make good decisions by taking on roles where I could free him up to think great thoughts. He trusted me to do so. It was a good team and the ship was highly successful that year.

So, do you have an XO that you trust like Dick O’Kane? Do you have someone you can put on the periscope when things are getting dicey and you need to have a clear mind to make a good decision?  If not, I highly recommend you find your Dick O’Kane. You and your organization will benefit greatly from your better decisions. You will be able to think great thoughts even when the enemy is bearing down on you.