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Submarines, sailors, and excellence: What we can learn from the Navy



Image Credit: “Red October” by Alan Lam, used under CC BY.

Commentary from underneath the Arctic ice cap might not be the usual forum for reflections on business and talent development.  However, Thomas Friedman’s article, “Parallel Parking in the Arctic Circle,” has a number of inspiring observations that are useful to consider.  Friedman was a passenger in one of our nuclear submarines, the New Mexico, which is patrolling and investigating underneath the Arctic ice pack.  Military command anticipates, as the ice cap changes, there may be changing defense and patrol issues for the Navy in this region of the world.  This area could become a shipping corridor, and there are already competing claims on underwater mineral and resource rights by the countries that surround this area.

What was striking to me was Friedman’s description of the work environment in this nuclear submarine.  It is a completely self-contained environment that repairs its own broken parts, desalinates its own drinking water, generates its own power, and makes its own air by separating water into its hydrogen and oxygen components (remember H2O from your chemistry class?).  As he observed the inner workings of this submarine, he said the strongest impression he had was excellence.  Any small mistakes, missteps, or breaking of protocol could endanger the whole crew.

One officer explained it as, “You become addicted to integrity.”  This has created an atmosphere where there is zero tolerance for hiding mistakes, and there is a very strong sense of ownership and mutual accountability.

It struck me that this is a work environment that most companies want to create:

  • • A sense of shared ownership and accountability;
  • • Team members speak up quickly if there are pressing concerns or errors;
  • • There are quick responses to take care of any problematic issues;
  • • And, all this is driven not by fear and intimidation, but by shared ownership, cooperation, and looking out for each other.

When we are coaching managers and working with teams, there is a similar message that we encourage them to consider, own and then apply every day:

There are mutually beneficial outcomes for teams and colleagues who collaborate, who challenge each other to achieve excellence, who create and sustain an atmosphere of transparency and integrity, and who address mistakes as learning opportunities for improvement.

I am curious, though, how readers have attempted to create these standards in their own work environments.  What can we apply from the undersea sailors?  Please share with us within our LinkedIn group.

By: Henry J. Hummert, Ph.D.

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