by Vice Adm. Al Konetzni Jr., USN (ret.)
The Design for Undersea Warfare provides a clear vision of where we are, what we are, and where we want to be tomorrow as a Submarine Force. However, the Design also points out that its own success will depend on leadership, creativity, innovation, and a heightened sense of authority, responsibility, and accountability on the part of every submarine Sailor.
During my active duty service, I was fortunate to see many examples of the values and attitudes that energize individuals and groups and enable them to overcome difficult obstacles in demanding, hazardous endeavors. I believe our young submariners need to absorb these values and attitudes so they can satisfy their desire for achievement, develop a sense of belonging, think well of themselves and their shipmates, and feel in control of their own destiny. I believe the Submarine Force as a whole must embody these values if it is to live up to the standards set by the Design for Undersea Warfare.
What are these values, and how do we instill them in tomorrow’s leaders?
First, we need to take advantage of the fact that almost all of our Sailors are self-propelled. Most people are self-motivated, and self-motivated people perform best when they focus on the prospect of success, when they think in terms like “I can” and “I will” rather than “I can’t” and “I won’t.” A successful organization encourages its members to anticipate the satisfaction and rewards of achievement, not dwell on the penalties of failure. An organization that stresses what will happen if it doesn’t succeed creates a climate of fear, which is more likely to lead to failure than success. A success-oriented organization minimizes the role of fear.
Fear of failure diminishes the integrity of the team. It encourages subordinates to filter out important but unfavorable information from reports as they make their way up the chain of command. It discourages superiors from being open with subordinates. It breeds mistrust on all sides—and mistrust is particularly harmful in the Submarine Force, where we must have complete confidence in our shipmates.
Because fear breeds distrust, it also produces the wrong kind of leader at all levels. Instead of encouraging Sailors to rely on shipmates and achieve success together, it drives them to think first of themselves, of how to realize their personal and professional ambitions regardless of how well others do. Leaders come to view subordinates as disposable conduits for their own success. They rely on coercion or manipulation, which can achieve the immediate results they are after, but only at the cost of demoralizing their subordinates over the long haul.
In contrast, positive motivation encourages honesty, productivity, and a feeling of teamwork. Positive leaders inspire subordinates by demonstrating consistent devotion to the common cause. They encourage everyone to capitalize on their strengths to maximize the effectiveness of the entire organization. This produces good results much more consistently than a calculated “carrot and stick” approach.
Of course, positive motivation only works if shipmates have confidence in whoever is doing the leading in a given situation. The key to inspiring confidence is self-control.
First, leaders need the self-control to master their profession completely so they can make sound decisions. “Management techniques” can’t substitute for technical understanding—certainly not in an organization as technically complex as the Submarine Force. A mechanic can’t be responsible for fixing a car engine unless he understands it thoroughly. A foreman can’t be responsible for leading a team of mechanics unless he understands what they do and can tell how well they do it. Everyone involved in making decisions in acquisition, design, operations, maintenance, and training has to be committed to the technical aspects of the job and determined to see that careful attention is paid to the technical details.
Second, leaders need the self-control to make the decisions that are necessary, whatever the circumstances, and to accept responsibility, whatever the outcome. Few things erode an organization’s confidence faster than avoiding responsibility. Every Submariner needs to be ready to make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions, because any Submariner may be called on to take the lead in some situation. Personal responsibility must permeate the Submarine Force.
Self-motivation and self-control may be essential for success, but often as not, the key to achieving it is self-confidence—the expectation of individuals and of groups that they are going to succeed. Winning obviously breeds optimism, but optimism breeds winners. When you expect the best, you tend to get it. When you expect the worst, you often get the worst instead.
Negative thinking makes us passive when things are going well and prevents us from seeing helpful options when things go awry. Positive thinking expands our horizons by embracing each experience as an opportunity to learn and improve. We need to cultivate Submariners’ ability to see the positive aspects of any situation, because that is the only way we can be sure to capitalize on every opportunity. Optimistic leaders help turn failure into success. I would much rather lead a group that thinks it can do more than it’s actually capable of than to lead one that doesn’t think it can do everything it can.
Self-confidence obviously depends on having a positive image of the organization we belong to, be it a department, a boat, or the entire Submarine Force. Our achievements in the present and the achievements of those who came before us give us a lot to be proud of. But what about the future? How do we build a positive image of what the Submarine Force will become as we grapple with changes and uncertainty in a new century?
Maintaining a positive self-image will require an ability to imagine ourselves taking on new roles as an organization. In other words, we need a compelling strategic vision if we are going to grow and advance. And so we must enhance our ability to develop and communicate a clear and compelling picture of where undersea warfare is headed. The Design for Undersea Warfare is a big step in that direction, but it is only the first step.