InsightsPersonal Essays

Lessons in Leadership I Learned as a Naval Officer

Unites States Navy

Arthur D. Collins, Jr.
Managing Partner, Acorn Advisors LLC

It has been exactly two months since John McCain was laid to rest at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis. Like countless others who watched the memorial service held at the Washington National Cathedral the day before his burial, I was moved by the tributes to the extraordinary life of this true American hero, warrior, and statesman. Many of the leadership traits that helped define Senator McCain’s character were first learned while he was a midshipman at the U. S. Naval Academy and then put to the test as an officer honorably serving his country under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.

Today also is only four days before the midterm elections in the United States. Senator McCain believed that voting was every citizen’s right and duty. If he were alive today, I’m sure the senator would encourage all Americans to go to the polls next week and cast their votes for the best available leaders, perhaps even putting aside party affiliation if an opposition candidate clearly was better qualified and more committed to uniting our country.

This all prompted me to reflect on what skills define a good leader—in the military, government, business, or any other walk of life. In doing so, I excerpted from an interview I recently did with Professor Mike Useem from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania on the subject of why some former military officers go on to have successful business careers. Since I added some additional content to the answers given in that interview, what follows is an updated version of some of my own learnings about leadership from the time I spent as an officer in the United States Navy.

The year I graduated from college, the Viet Nam War was raging. The military draft had yet to be replaced by a lottery system, and the all-volunteer Army was still more than four years in the future. As a result, unless you had a medical or teaching deferment, the question was not if you were going serve in the military, it was what branch you would end up joining. I chose the Navy.

From that early morning in August of 1969 when I reported to Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, to the day about four and a half years later when I was honorably discharged from military service as a full lieutenant, I learned a great deal about leadership. I also made my share of mistakes along the way. That experience and the associated lessons learned were invaluable and helped to guide me personally and professionally as my business career progressed during the five decades that followed.

I have come to believe that there is no single mold, personality, or physical characteristic that defines a successful leader. If you need proof of that, compare Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi. And even though there are many nuances to effective leadership, it has been my experience that all great leaders display one enduring trait: integrity. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible.” Great leaders understand this critical tenet, as well as the importance of character, courage, and leading by example.

Some lessons in leadership I learned the hard way through personal trial and error; others came from observing the actions of respected and not-so-respected officers; and several were reinforced when I read about many great leaders in the past. With all that as a backdrop, here are ten additional leadership traits I came to understand and respect during my time in the Navy:

Loyalty:  All military officers take a solemn oath of loyalty to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true allegiance to the country. While officers understand the importance of following orders, their allegiance is first and foremost to country and not to any one person, no matter how senior that individual is. I learned early on that leaders who demand blind loyalty and who put their own personal interests ahead of the best interests of the organizations and people they represent have their priorities backward. A Machiavellian leader of this type ultimately is doomed to failure. It is interesting to note that Richard Nixon, the president and commander in chief during the time I served in the military, demanded personal loyalty above all else. Nixon finally resigned in 1974 rather than face impeachment, and many of those staff members who blindly followed him had their careers destroyed in the process.

Honesty: Telling the truth is a basic cornerstone of integrity. As a new officer candidate, I learned that the appropriate response to any question for which I didn’t know the answer was never to wing it, but to answer, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Having personally witnessed the expulsion of one officer candidate for lying, I knew that if I later failed to tell the truth as an officer, I immediately would been relieved of duty.  Even though honesty is currently not a hallmark at some of the most senior levels in our government, its importance cannot be underestimated in gaining the respect and allegiance required to lead. Dishonest leaders may survive for a while, but they too are doomed to fail, as witnessed by the once-successful but ultimately broken and scandalous careers of politicians like Senator Joseph McCarthy or businessmen like investor Bernie Madoff, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco, Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, and Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth.

Reliability and Accountability: Being “present and accounted for” and fulfilling one’s responsibilities is expected of every officer; to do otherwise would constitute dereliction of duty. Every officer also understands that it’s not enough to simply show up. A leader needs to be present and to act in a consistent and ethical manner, not just some of the time, but all of the time. A good leader also should be a good follower whenever that is required. Along these lines, I was taught that an essential part of leading by example is never asking those in your command to do something that you aren’t prepared to do. General Colin Powell had it right when he said, “The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.” While the business world is replete with examples of CEOs who successfully led by example, there also are sad stories where CEOs facing adversity, like Larry Rawl of Exxon and Tony Hayward of BP, never showed up or showed up too late without acknowledging and taking full responsibility for mistakes made on their watch.

Teamwork: No leader, regardless of how capable or competent he or she may be, can complete every important task alone. As a newly commissioned Ensign with responsibility for the Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) Division on the destroyer USS Vogelgesang (DD862), it immediately became clear to me that in order to carry out my division’s mission, I needed to earn the respect and then rely on my Chief Warrant Officer, my Chief Petty Officer, and all the other enlisted men under my command. Each member of the team had a job to do, and I recognized that we were only as strong as our weakest link, and that we were stronger when we worked together rather than simply as a group of individual contributors. Whether in the Navy or later in my business career, I found time and again that whenever I assembled a team, the better and more motivated the team members were, the easier my job became. Vince Lombardi, who coached at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point prior to assuming the head coach job for the Green Bay Packers, said it well: “Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

Preparedness: While good leaders need to be nimble and able to react as events unfold, nothing improves the odds of successful execution more than effective planning and training, including the development of contingency plans for what might go wrong. In addition to my assignment as the destroyer’s ASW Officer with responsibility for launching conventional and nuclear torpedoes, I served as the Gunnery Liaison Officer (GLO). Stationed in the ship’s Combat Information Center, the GLO provided coordinates when the ship’s three twin 5” guns were fired. Considering the dire consequences if mistakes were made, long hours of repetitive training were required. That arduous and meticulous training ultimately paid huge dividends when live combat exercises were carried out. As a young officer, I also recognized that an important part of being prepared is learning from previous mistakes. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” and a living legend during my time in the military, once said, “It is necessary for us to learn from others’ mistakes. You will not live long enough to make them all yourself.” The value of being prepared that I learned as an officer played out time and again during my business career—in negotiations, new product launches, competitive responses, manufacturing start-ups, legal proceedings, and many other critical activities.

Communication: Former presidential speechwriter James Humes was spot on when he said, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” To be perfectly honest, public speaking used to scare me to death while I was growing up, and I initially wasn’t very good at it. During college and later in the Navy, I recognized that if I couldn’t communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, my ability to lead would be hindered significantly. During my OCS training, I heard repeatedly that an officer was expected to communicate clearly so orders were understood; confidently so those following orders would believe in the wisdom of what was being asked; and passionately so others would find the emotion and inspiration to achieve their best. I also learned the importance of the sometimes-lost art of communication—listening. As in other endeavors, I came to realize that practice and preparedness certainly increased the probability of effective communication.

Decisiveness: Successful leaders don’t always make decisions before they are required to, but those leaders always act decisively when they need to. I learned an important lesson in this regard during a deployment in the Mediterranean. It was a few minutes after midnight and the captain was sleeping in his quarters. I had just relieved the previous officer of the deck and had assumed the “con” on the bridge of the destroyer. We were participating in a dangerous nighttime exercise with an aircraft carrier group. Our assignment was to assume the role of an Iranian Osa-class missile attack boat trying to covertly penetrate a shield of other U. S. destroyers protecting the carrier. We were running at about 20 knots in silent mode without the radar or sonar activated, and visibility was very poor since there was little moonlight that night. I suddenly was terrified to see the carrier appear out of the darkness about 45 degrees off the port bow, heading directly into the vector of our current course—this is referred to as being in “extremis” in naval parlance. Previous training instinctively overcame fear and I immediately shouted out the commands, “Left full rudder. Port engine back full. Starboard engine ahead full.” Our bow slowly started to drift to the left moments later, and then the port turn began to pick up momentum. By the time a sleepy and distraught captain ran onto the bridge, we had already passed by the starboard stern of the carrier with about 150 yards to spare, which was well inside the margin of safety. After a collision at sea had been averted and my heartbeat returned to normal, I had time to reflect on benefits of being present, being prepared, and acting decisively to avert a calamity—as would be the case many more times in my future.

Hard Work, Drive and Perseverance: With the exception of the limited days I spent on leave, the time I served in the Navy was on a 24/7 basis. Work days were long and the formal watches I stood continually rotated, starting and stopping at various times during the day and night. I often was operating with little sleep while under significant pressure, and there usually was little margin for error. From the moment I entered the Newport Naval Base, slacking off or giving up was not an option. You learned to do what was required and not complain, particularly as an officer who was constantly being watched by the sailors in your command. While many would argue that drive and perseverance are innate qualities, these attributes certainly were honed while I was in the Navy, and that experience definitely helped prepare me for many of challenges I faced in civilian life and in business during the years that followed. And for anyone who thinks that success comes easy, another quote from Colin Powell comes to mind: “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.

Physical and Mental Fitness: As a student-athlete, I always had been told that mental and physical fitness go hand in hand. That theory was put into practice and to the test during the four months I spent in OCS training. Reveille was at 05:00 each morning. Since a surprise barracks inspection could immediately follow, most officer candidates slept under their blankets on already-made beds. Once up, nonstop calisthenics commenced in the hallway and lasted for about 30 minutes. When a “Navy shower” and a quick shave had been finished, the uniform of the day was donned in preparation for another inspection before breakfast in the mess hall. After the morning meal, officer candidates gathered by company and marched to their first academic class. Classes concluded before dinner, and then after the evening meal it was back to the barracks for study until “lights-out” at 22:00. While life aboard the destroyer was not as regimented as at OCS, I continued with my calisthenics routine just as I now do every morning. I am convinced that my ability to endure the stressful life of travel and pressure that came along with being a senior executive and ultimately chairman & CEO of a multinational corporation was made easier by many of the skills and practices I adopted as a Naval candidate and officer.

Balance: Military service is serious business. Lives often hang in the balance, with the safety of our country sometimes at stake. Recognizing this, a valuable lesson I learned during my time as an officer was that while I should always take what I was doing very seriously, I should never take myself too seriously. On land and at sea, I witnessed firsthand the benefits of maintaining balance in one’s life and the importance of occasionally taking a little time off to have fun and to build comradery. No one can work effectively, let alone lead, if they are burned out. While I learned that judgement can become impaired if the work/life equation gets severely out of balance, I also came to recognize that individual tolerance for hard work and pressure varies widely—in other words, what is over the “red line” for one person may be just what another person requires in order to excel. Finally, I came to appreciate those leaders who are able to maintain their composure and keep a good sense of humor in the worst of times.

These are some of leadership lessons that I first learned as a Naval officer. I don’t profess that the list is profound or even complete. I also don’t want to imply that serving as a military officer guarantees success as a leader. It would be an understatement to say that there have been many great leaders who never served in the military; and it is just as true that there have been many military officers who turned out to be inept leaders. With that said, I wouldn’t trade my service in the Navy as a young man for an equal amount of time spent doing anything else at that point in my life.

Coming full circle back to John McCain, I want to close by once again recognizing his integrity, courage, and willingness to stand up and be counted. While he was one of the most senior Republican leaders, his first allegiance always was to country rather than political party. In this regard, the senator showed time and again that he was willing to reach across the aisle for the good of our nation, and he never forgot his duty to unite rather than polarize our citizens and our allies around the world. Since Senator McCain was a student of history and of Irish descent, I’m sure he was aware of the writings of another one of my favorite statesmen with Irish roots, Edmund Burke. In fact, McCain might even have echoed Burke’s wise admonition as Americans consider going to the polls next Tuesday: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

Art Collins

Art Collins

Managing Partner, Acorn Advisors LLC

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