A Case of an Admiral's Humble Leadership by Ed and Peter Schein
Luckily, the hammer approach to leadership has been changing, albeit slowly, over the years. Leaders are becoming more personal, understanding, learning to be servant leaders, and humble. The new book The Future of Leadership by Edgar and Peter Schein offers insight into how leaders need to work smart and be humble. They tackle issues like the power of relationships, openness, and trust. Here is a story of humbleness from a place you wouldn't expect - the military.
We were recently told a memorable story by a retired US Navy admiral that illustrated how “collapsing” the hierarchy and opening the door to Level 2 relationships can sometimes be done quickly and decisively. The admiral, at the time, was in command of a nuclear-powered US Navy aircraft carrier. Effectively, he was the CEO of a 5000-person co-located organization for whom safety and high-quality performance would be top priorities. As a nuclear scientist and naval aviator, his background, experience, and hands-on knowledge suited him exceptionally well for the technical aspects of his mission, yet his instincts as a leader are what this story is about.
There was an incident on the flight deck in which an error in chocks and chains handling, a critical part of aircraft operations, could have endangered lives or caused the loss of very valuable naval aircraft. The error resulted from mishandling by one of the flight deck handlers (a “blue jersey” in aircraft carrier parlance) who reported up to an aircraft handling
officer (a “yellow jersey”).
Given normal Naval hierarchy and protocol, this error would have been recorded, post-mortem debriefed and corrected, and there would have been some degree of reprimand and disciplinary consequences for the blue jersey. The admiral told us that this was not outside of the normal course of aircraft carrier flight deck operations. Complicated things happen, and the US Navy has a few hundred years of organizational knowledge to deal with such incidents. That is, the commanding officer could have let the hierarchy work the problem and the solution, but that is not what happened.
Instead, he invited the blue jersey to the bridge to discuss the incident, just the two of them. One can hardly imagine how that junior chocks and chains handler must have felt, getting called up to the bridge, presumably to get reprimanded directly by the commanding officer. Knowing how critical these intricate details of deck and aircraft handling are to the safety and to the mission of an aircraft carrier, the commanding officer, a pilot himself, wanted to hear directly from the deck what had happened, perhaps why, and certainly how and why it would not happen again. At a deeper level, he cared more about the truth and the process, and far less about the discipline to be applied. The system would take care of that.
What must that meeting have been like? Was the blue jersey terrified, mortified, contrite, and reconciled? If all of those feelings were present, how would the commanding officer get to the truth of what happened? The admiral told us how he managed to quickly create what we would describe as psychological safety for the deckhand by focusing the conversation on his own curiosity of what had happened and why, making it clear that this meeting was not about punishment but about exploration. The shared goal was for that junior seaman to walk away from the meeting with a dedication to doing it better, not a reprimand for doing it wrong.
A reprimand would certainly reinforce a commitment to the hierarchy. As commanding officer the admiral wanted commitment to the task, to safety, and to quality performance. With the gesture of calling this meeting, and focusing the dialogue on the person and the truth, he reinforced his commitment to improving the processes that save (or could cost) lives on an aircraft carrier. The visible, personal two-way dialogue demonstrated a commitment to a process that the most senior leaders and the most junior sailors could identify with and learn from.
Stepping back from this case, small acts of Humble Leadership by the admiral may well have been a matter of course in his organization, a culture set by a senior leader that existed before and after this incident. This does not change the story except to amplify the truth that this admiral had a clear sense for the importance of personization, establishing openness and trust, even in a 5000-person hierarchical organization.
What is most striking to us about this story is that the existence of a steep and formal hierarchy does not require the persons at the top of that hierarchy to behave in a transactional Level 1 manner. They can choose to personize at any time and at any level, thereby very visibly reinforcing some of the central values that they wish to highlight.
Edgar H. Schein is Professor Emeritus from the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. He’s a pioneer in organizational studies, organizational culture and leadership, process consulting, career development. Ed’s contributions to the practice of O.D. date back to the early 1960s and continue with the recent publication of Organizational Culture and Leadership 5th edition and now Humble Leadership, co-authored with Peter A. Schein, co-founder of OCLI.org who brings 30 years of hands-on experience in large and small companies leading growth initiatives in Silicon Valley.