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Some Thoughts from a Seasoned Submariner

by CAPT Steven I. Struble, USN

I’m still enrolled in the school of hard knocks. And I expect that, like most of us, my graduation certificate will be issued concurrently with my death certificate. While I do not yet consider myself to be a “gray beard” either literally or figuratively, I think I have been a submariner at least long enough to believe that the lessons I’ve learned in this school are worth sharing. For as the old adage goes: Wisdom comes from reflecting on the compilation of life’s many mistakes. So here for your consideration are seven of the more important lessons I’ve learned in the “school of life.” They’re geared toward the officer who aspires to command at sea, but they should have applicability to any submariner in a leadership position.

First, be cautiously optimistic. Optimism is contagious and contributes to morale, enthusiasm, and ultimate success. However, excessive and undue optimism clouds one’s vision and obscures the pitfalls. A healthy dose of caution can provide an effective counterbalance. There are usually snakes out there in that beautiful meadow somewhere, and they must be found and eliminated before they bite.

Next, all of us together are smarter than any one of us alone. Like most people, I consider myself to be pretty smart. But I can’t think of any significant problem where my idea for the best solution wasn’t improved with help from my shipmates. If you chose to go it alone, you may succeed. But only through teamwork will you truly excel.

This next thought is tied tightly to the previous one. If you want confident backup, keep your mouth shut. This realization gradually entered my mind as I rose through the ranks. When a senior officer speaks – presumably with superior wisdom – subordinates accept his words, have confidence that a solution is at hand, and move on to the next problem. They tend not to question or challenge the appropriateness of the “professional” answer. So to get effective backup – and greater teamwork – the senior is well advised to resist the urge to pontificate to his utmost.

Illustration of a School HouseDon’t just ask “what?” Go on to assess “so what?” and “now what?” We seem to have this cultural fixation with status reports. They come in many forms – after-watch reports, duty-officer calls, department-head meetings, training records, audit and surveillance reports, and so forth. But a common shortfall is that the “what” is all we tend to focus on. While factual situational awareness is a good and necessary thing, we also ought to be asking “so what?” to put the current status into context, and then asking “now what?” to make better decisions and improve our procedures. I often draw a fire control analogy when explaining this concept. Plotting dots answers the “what.” But not much happens if that’s all we do. Measuring and assessing bearing rate from the dots gets us to “so what,” and then maneuvering the ship responsively is taking action on the “now what.”

These first four ideas generally speak to leadership. Now, here are three more geared toward operations. We modern submariners can tend to “nuke things out” to a fault. Hence, we need to fully understand the assumptions behind any thumb rule. We use thumb rules in many areas of our profession. But they are all based on assumptions and have pluses or minuses associated with them. So, if we do not fully understand the latter, they can get us into trouble. As a simple example: do you really appreciate the difference between t and t* in calculating Ekelund ranges? If not, stand by to get run over!

Innovation is good. Standardization is good. Find the balance. Operationally, this is related to my claim above that all of us together are smarter than any one of us alone. We must innovate in order to transform – had to get that T-word in here somewhere! Without innovation, we stagnate, and the world passes us by. But can we possibly think that a successful new way of doing business is good only for our ship, only for our crew? I think we do a great disservice if we come up with a brilliant idea and don’t share it with the rest of the force. Or more dangerously, come up with a “brilliant” idea that unknowingly puts our crews at risk. So think great thoughts, then share them!

Finally, procedural compliance is good, but only when the procedure applies. The unfortunate alternative is “blind procedural compliance.” To put this in perspective, we must understand that – like thumb rules – our procedures have myriad assumptions and initial conditions behind them. In reverse engineering any given procedure, you can probably devise a credible situation where that procedure, as written, is not the optimum course of action. The challenge is to know the basis of each one well enough to recognize the assumptions before you follow it blindly, right into trouble.

These thoughts have been developing in my mind over many years, and I routinely try to put them to use. I hope that my committing them to paper stimulates your own thoughts and contributes constructively to the Submarine Force. As I’ve stated above several times, all of us together are really smarter than any one of us alone!

CAPT Struble is currently posted as Commander, Submarine Squadron 20, in Kings Bay, Georgia. He has served in a number of assignments within the Submarine Force, including command of USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) and as Senior Member of the Atlantic Fleet Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board.

Fall 2004 Cover