Want to be a Leader? Start Learning Now!!
My learning about leadership started the moment I realized I didn’t understand leadership.
I had thought leadership was about giving good orders and making decisions; the better the orders, the better the leadership. I call it “know all – tell all” leadership. The leader knows all the answers so naturally gives all the orders.
I now think that great leaders don’t give orders. They practice “know all – tell not” leadership. In other words, they know their jobs but allow the team the discretion, the time, and respect to come up with their own solutions to problems.
I had set my sights on becoming a submarine commander and was very excited when I was selected to be the captain of the USS Olympia, a nuclear powered attack submarine. For the next 12 months I attended a series of schools to learn every detail of that submarine. Not only did I know the fundamentals of nuclear power and the tactics of submarine warfare, but I knew the technical details of the USS Olympia intimately. I was ready to be a know all-tell leader.
The plan changed just a week prior to my scheduled take-over of the Olympia. The captain of another submarine, the USS Santa Fe, had resigned abruptly, without having a scheduled and trained relief. I was assigned to take command of the USS Santa Fe on 2 weeks notice.
This was terribly scary. Not only was the Santa Fe the worst performing submarine in the fleet, with low morale and the lowest retention, but the Santa Fe was one of the newest submarines and all the technical details that I’d learned for Olympia were now irrelevant.
I walked aboard Santa Fe for the first time in a fog, and deeply unsettled. This caused 2 unexpected results.
First, I started asking questions so that I could learn the answer. In the past, because of my training and technical ability, I would ask questions to ensure that my team knew their jobs, not for my own curiosity. Now, I had to ask questions because I was truly trying to find out the answer. If a crewmember said they didn’t know something, they’d look to me for the answer but now I would have to admit that I didn’t know either!
I now think that “I don’t know” are 3 of the most powerful words any leader can say because saying “I don’t know” makes it safe for the team to say “I don’t know” and makes it safe to ask the leader hard questions.
The second thing that happened was that I have an order that couldn’t be performed on the USS Santa Fe. It was the equivalent of asking the crew to shift into 5th gear on a car that only had 4 gears. It was embarrassing when I came out that I’d made a mistake but what was truly scary was that the officer of the deck repeated the order knowing it was wrong. I was trained for the wrong submarine and my crew was trained to do what they were told.
I was tempted to believe that I needed to give better orders but realizing that I could not learn the ship in any time period to make us safe soon, I realized that the problem was that I was the one giving orders. I realized what I’d been taught about leadership was not going to help me here.
My next reaction was that the problem was “out there” and that my guys needed to be “more empowered, more proactive, take more initiative.” Eventually I realized that the problem was with me – I could only control myself and the thing for me to do was to be quiet.
I gathered the officers and we struck a deal whereby I would resist giving orders and they, in turn, would state their intentions to me. They would say “I intend to …” not what they had been trained to say, things like “I recommend…” or “I request permission.…”
This change in language was tremendously powerful because it shifted ownership to the officers and crew and resulted in them learning to think like the captain.
While I served as captain of the Santa Fe, the crew received numerous awards for being the most improved ship in the fleet, set records for morale and retention and for how well they operated the submarine. What was more impressive, however, was that over the next 10 years, 10 of the officers of the Santa Fe were selected to be captains of submarines, a record as far as I know.
Eventually, I learned the submarine intimately and I could have reverted back to the “know all, tell all” leadership but I had seen the power of not telling my guys what to do and the leaders that developed at every level. Instead, I adopted a “know all, tell not” approach.
I don’t want people to think that not knowing your job is good, but that’s what it took for me to realize the power of staying quiet and letting those around me grow into leaders.
I am now careful not to say I’m an expert in leadership. Instead, I believe I am a student of leadership, and will be forever.