Chris Nichols
December 15th, 2019

Commander Bryce Benson was asleep at 1:30 am when the Philippine freighter, the ACX Crystal, rammed the USS Fitzgerald on June 17th off the coast of Japan (Figures 1 and 2).  Within seconds the Commander’s stateroom flooded with cold seawater along with Berthing Room 2 that held 35 sailors. Four sailors grabbed sledgehammers, and one sailor grabbed the only thing he could, a kettlebell, as they started bashing in the door to the cabin enough to crawl through. According to the accident report, “The rescue team tied themselves together with a belt in order to create a makeshift harness as they retrieved (Benson), who was hanging from the side of the ship.”

Thanks to the swift and brave actions of the crew, Benson was rescued and immediately flown to land for hospitalization. After the crash, the report notes, the bridge changed the lights on the destroyer’s mast to one red light over another.  “Red over red,” is “the international lighting scheme that indicates a ship that is not under command.”

Weeks later, Benson, despite being asleep, his ship being run into by a much larger vessel and being the Captain of a crew that heroically saved the ship and all but seven sailors, was relieved of command for “losing situational awareness.”

4 picture graphic - battleship, damaged battleship, Leif Babin, Admiral Nimitz

The Ownership of Leadership

Every day, there is some 26-year-old Lieutenant that is the “officer on deck” and has command of a $2B warship. Should they have a collision, run the ship aground or have any number of other infractions occur under their watch, the Captain gets relieved of duty despite not being directly responsible, on watch, awake, or even on the ship.

“That is the Navy Way, it has always been that way, and I think it is 100% correct,” says Leif Babin (Figure 3), a former decorated Navy SEAL, young Lieutenant that drove ships and co-author of NY Times bestseller Extreme Ownership. The fact is, “There are no bad teams, just bad leaders,” says Babin, and the most important job a Captain has is to staff and train his or her crew.

Running a ship aground or colliding with another ship should never happen. There are multiple safeguards in place, and an event such as the one that occurred on the Fitzgerald is a result of many failures from many different areas.

Like most companies, a ship runs on a decentralized command where the Captain can’t be everywhere. If a Captain can’t create a team that can function under pressure, make good decisions and handles the basics, then they are not much use to the Navy.

Ranking Your Priorities

Few managers have stopped their day-to-day work and ranked their priorities by task. Generating revenue, developing new products/services, bringing in customers, keeping existing customers happy, meeting compliance needs, raising capital, finding talent or hundreds of other responsibilities fall on managers and business owners daily.  A leader needs to divide their time and focus on a variety of tasks. However, finding new talent and training existing staff may not be the number one priority, and we contend that it should be.

We hear it and say it hundreds of times a year in banking –“People are our most valuable asset.” If true, then our effort and actions should reflect that.

Since responsibility rolls up and the Captain is ultimately accountable for their team, any team member making one of the many defined critical errors, regardless of the outcome, is usually relieved of their command. You can debate if that is fair or not, but it is hard to argue that despite all the high-risk activities that the Navy does on a day-to-day basis, critical errors are rare.

Developing Leaders

To be clear, a bad leader also isn’t an excuse for the leaders below them. Leadership occurs at every level in a company. If you are a department head or product leader it is your primary responsibility to make sure your team is ready and to compensate for any deficiencies in the chain above, below or laterally.

Further, when we talk about “Flawless Execution” from some of the leadership lessons we are learning from Afterburner that is not to say that it is “flawless” all the time. Flawless Execution is aspirational, a state to achieve over time. The path isn’t always straight, and critical errors occasionally occur. The connecting action is accountability and ownership of the deficiency so you can improve and be “more flawless.”

The U.S.’s most decorated Fleet Admiral, Chester Nimitz, ran his destroyer aground as a junior officer in the Philippines after failing to check the tide charts in the harbor. He was relieved of his command, and court marshaled.  He was allowed to remain as it was noted that he immediately reported the incident, gave full detail and took 100% responsibility. Fleet Admiral Nimitz went on to help us win World War II and was the founding father of modern submarine warfare.

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