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Lessons from the Energy Bus

I took command of USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) after multiple failed inspections led to a dejected crew with low morale and a daunting and extremely​ ambitious work-up schedule. In short, I stepped aboard a losing organization just assessed as “Not Ready for Sea” and was given five short weeks to get Basic Phase (Tier 1+) certified in order to participate in the world’s largest fleet exercise.

Fast-forward several months -- the crew of Harpers Ferry performed amazing during RIMPAC 2018 and is now regarded as one of the “Go-To” ships on the waterfront. So, how was I able to quickly shift the ship’s rudder?

I turned Harpers Ferry into the “Energy Bus!”

My personal views regarding leadership, creating a winning culture, and developing individual greatness have always centered around love, passion, positive energy and attitude. “The Energy Bus,” written by Jon Gordon not only affirms my beliefs but parallels my leadership philosophy in​ many ways. “The Energy Bus” is a quick, simple read that takes you on a journey with George, a middle manager, who is struggling to lead his team. Through a series of events, he ends up riding a city bus for two weeks and learns 10 lessons that helped him transform his team by creating a positive vision and culture of positive energy.

Here’s how I applied selected lessons of this book to turn around the Harpers Ferry team:

• Rule #1 – “You’re the driver of your bus”  – It certainly helped that my commodore gave me the freedom to get the bus back on the right route. As the driver of Harpers Ferry, I understood that our direction would be shaped by my energy, words and actions. From day one, the crew had no doubt who was behind the wheel of the bus.

• Rule #2 – “Desire, Vision, and Focus Move Your Bus in the Right Direction” – I’ve been asked by many, how I was able to turn this ship around so fast. It is simple – I gave the ship a vision and purpose, gave clear guidance, and then got out of the way! It’s amazing what happens when you allow Sailors to do what they are trained to do.


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• Rule #3 – “Fuel Your Ride with Positive Energy” – I challenged the crew to achieve something no ship has ever done. In five weeks we would achieve full certification in Amphibious Warfare, Seamanship, Navigation, Damage Control, Communication and Engineering – a seemingly impossible task. I didn’t allow any “Energy Vampires” on the bus. We anticipated set-backs and we needed a big dose of positive energy to overcome the potential obstacles. Our biggest hurdle, Engineering Operational Certification (EOC), was achieved in large part because of our positive energy and attitude.

• Rule #4 – “Invite People on Your Bus and Share Your Vision for the Road Ahead” – After a string of small victories, the crew was fully aboard my bus. They were committed, energized and focused. Next, my goal was to invite a litany of outside entities aboard, as well. I needed my maintenance team (to include Southwest Regional Maintenance Center  and the amphibious readiness team at Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific’s N46) and assessors (Engineering Assessments Pacific/Afloat Training Group/CNBG) to get on the bus. I knew we couldn’t get to our destination alone.

• Rule #7 – “Enthusiasm Attracts More Passengers and Energizes Them During the Ride” – Our very first underway (three days after taking command) we safely conducted day into night flight operations that ran well past midnight. The following morning we safely went alongside the USNS Yukon (T-AO-202) and successfully took on more than 150,000 gallons of fuel. The last time Harpers Ferry conducted similar evolutions was before the ship and crew entered the maintenance availability more than 16 months ago. This was a huge win for the crew and if they weren’t fully committed to being on the bus before our first underway, they surely were on it now!

• Rule #8 – “Love Your Passengers” – You can’t fake this. I tell my crew every week how much I love them and care about them. I hope they know it’s genuine. When the crew feels like they have someone that supports them and has their back, there is nothing they won’t do. I have the best crew on the waterfront and because they are empowered and have a sense of value, they are unstoppable! 

• Rule #10 – “Have Fun and Enjoy the Ride” – During our first underway, as we were making our transit back towards buoy San Diego in preparations to pull back into port, the crew asked me if we could stay at sea. That was one of the proudest moments of my naval career. It made me realize that when work is fun and meaningful, the crew doesn’t get tired. In fact, they want more!

As I reflect on these past couple months, I’m reminded that this is the same ship, made up of the same Sailors and equipment, as when I first took command. The only thing that changed was the culture and attitude. “The Energy Bus” re-affirmed my approach to leadership and the lessons from this book can be implemented into almost any situation in life.

Commander Gervy Alota is the Commanding Officer of USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 45).
Cdr Alota is a San Diego native and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1998. He was a 4 year starter for the Navy Football team and was named Captain his senior year. Cdr Alota previously served as the Executive Officer and Commanding Officer of USS Comstock (LSD 45). Additionally, he earned a Master of Arts in Human Resource Management from Webster University and is a graduate of the Army Command General Staff College.Surface Warfare Magazine

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