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Petty Officer 1st Class Gery Poppleton, center, trains Petty Officer 2nd Class Dan Firestone, left, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Anthony Roman on how to properly maintain a torpedo control cable.
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Gretchen Albrecht.

by Force Master Chief David C. Lynch

Working in the Submarine Force is an incredible experience and has been my passion for over 23 years. I have had the opportunity to serve on six different submarines and also to serve as a Recruit Division Commander in boot camp and the command master chief at Naval Submarine School. This experience has exposed me to hundreds of different leadership styles and their results.

Throughout my time in the Submarine Force, leadership has made assumptions about the generation currently before them and attempted to adjust tactics to better motivate each new group of Sailors. What I find to be true is that there are certain leadership traits that, if leveraged effectively, will produce solid results every time, regardless of any generational gap that may exist.

The first and foremost trait of a leader is treating people with dignity and respect. I believe people will never reach their full potential if they are treated in a negative way. People often confuse this aspect of leadership with being too soft, when in reality the preserving of someone’s dignity can be one of the most powerful motivators that I have ever seen.

Capt. Ken Swan, the commanding officer of Naval Submarine School, once told me, “We must maintain the moral high ground when dealing with dysfunctional Sailors going through disciplinary processes. Although these Sailors are difficult to deal with, they deserve our full attention as their leaders to hold them fully accountable for their actions and then find a path for them to be successful in life.”

Taking the time to hold individuals accountable appropriately not only preserves the dignity of the offending Sailor but also the Sailor who never gets in trouble. Caring about a person and their well-being is being able to be upfront and honest about their behavior and demanding change when it is appropriate. This approach is direct and blunt but produces behavior change in a positive direction.

The cost to the leader is personal time. In order to be effective, a leader has to spend a lot of time monitoring, researching and finding different ways to motivate the individual. There is no substitute for this work. No assumptions that people may have about the current generation of Sailors can substitute for getting down and getting first-hand knowledge of each person. A lot can be gained from this process of discovery.

The chaplains of the Pacific Fleet Submarine Force, led by Cmdr. David Bynum, have produced a direct and upfront shipboard training program called “SEA POWER.” The program is led and facilitated by the senior enlisted community, working with the Chaplain Corps. It addresses different characteristics of positive leadership that successful submarines utilize daily. Its goal is to assist waterfront leadership in identifying and utilizing positive leadership tactics within their own command. The foundation of this effort is the concept that dignity and respect should underlie all leadership techniques.

The “SEA POWER” program employs seven principles, with each one building on the previous ones. For years I have heard many of my peers in the senior enlisted community condemn principles like these as too “soft”—meaning too likely to lead to slack discipline and lack of accountability. A term I have often heard used to dismiss the whole approach is “kinder and gentler.”

This could not be further from the truth. Individuals can be disciplined and held accountable without being treated with an abusive or dismissive attitude. Successful submarine crews with good morale and retention employ the seven principles daily, with improved quality of life for the entire command.

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Sailors assigned to the guided-missile submarine USS Florida
(SSGN-728) practice skills controlling the submarine in the Ship
Control Team Trainer at the Trident Training Facility in Kings Bay, Ga.
Photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Davies.

The seven principles of good leadership are:

No. 1: Good leaders treat people with dignity and respect.
Respect is an attitude. To help develop that attitude, the SEA POWER program shows leaders what doesn’t work, giving them examples of poor command climates and adverse leadership tactics. Discussing lessons learned from these situations helps participants understand why respect for the dignity of others is not just an ideal, but also a practical leadership tool.

No. 2: Good leaders affirm the value of every person.

All people want to feel they are making a difference, that what they are doing contributes to the mission. Ignoring people or failing to respond to their concerns devalues them and strikes at the most fundamental level of human dignity.

No. 3: Good leaders take a personal interest in their Sailors.
Good leaders know their Sailors. It is much easier to lead someone you know at a personal level. This does not mean the leader breaks down the professional boundary that exists between supervisor and subordinate. It means that the leader takes the time to observe and get involved in the subordinate’s life.

No. 4: Good leaders lead with a calm mental attitude.
Many situations are stressful enough in themselves; adding stress does not help. It is important to realize that stressful situations can be managed best by calm, confident leadership.

No. 5: Good leaders find creative ways to motivate.
We don’t serve in a Navy with expendable Sailors. Saving even one Sailor makes a difference in day-to-day operations, especially in the Submarine Force. Leaders must take the extra time to seek out inventive ways to keep people motivated and fresh.

No. 6: Good leaders accomplish the mission in spite of poor performers.
Not all of the people that we have coming into the Navy today are exactly how we would like them to be. The good news is that they never have been exactly what we would have liked. Great leaders throughout history have taken the cards dealt to them and molded incredible teams utilizing the knowledge gained from principle #3, getting to know their subordinates.

No. 7: Good leaders improve the process.

Just because things are the way they have always been does not make it right. Knowing the standard and enforcing the standard is the key to maintaining and improving human performance.

I have seen all seven principles at work in every successful command I have observed. I have also seen the problems that can appear where these principles are not evident. Sometimes, leaders ignore them because of the old idea that the best way to train subordinates is to take away their dignity, reduce them to zero and start with a clean slate.

This old approach never worked very well in submarines, which require an incredible amount of teamwork and cooperation between subordinates and superiors. Submariners don’t just follow orders, they follow them intelligently, helping their leaders understand and deal with very complex situations. This requires respect all around. Breaking down subordinates to zero and building them up again also wastes a lot of time, which is a leader’s most valuable resource. Why go to all that trouble when it is so much quicker and better to build on the 50 percent the subordinates already have?

Time is the essential resource that makes all seven elements of effective leadership work. It is the most valuable thing we can invest in another human being. There is no way to get around it. Leaders need to spend as much time as they can mentoring their subordinates, and spend it wisely.

Time invested in subordinates pays dividends. Take the example of a Sailor who is overweight and does not meet physical fitness standards. A small investment of time would be to write a counseling sheet and direct the Sailor to do increased levels of physical activity. However, you may get a better result by taking the time to get the Sailor an appointment with a nutritionist and to personally work out with the Sailor. Taking an active role in the process makes a difference in achieving a lasting positive outcome.

This is not babysitting, or softness, or “kinder and gentler.” It is simply caring about your people and ensuring that they have every chance for success. It is the spirit of the Submarine Force that never quits.

Master Chief David Lynch is force master chief, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

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