Recently, I visited the battleship USS New Jersey, which is permanently docked near Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey. The New Jersey is a magnificent ship that saw action in the Pacific during World War II and subsequently served tours in Korea, Vietnam, and finally Beirut during the early 1980s. In its heyday it was a floating city with a crew of nearly 2,000 sailors and officers. I highly recommend visiting this ship – it contains a wealth of lessons.
While many aspects of the ship caught my attention, I would like to share three of them that are especially relevant for leaders. During my tour I spoke with a 90-plus-year-old veteran of the Second World War, who was serving as a docent. He explained that on any ship, but especially one this size, the captain is responsible for everything. Although his perch is generally high up on the conning bridge, where he ensures the ship is keeping true to both its geographic and strategic course, he has to be aware of everything that is going on. If a bolt is loose on a bulkhead somewhere – it’s his headache. Although John Q., the docent, didn’t use the following words, he essentially argued that since the ship is a complex and interconnected system, any problem, no matter how seemingly small and insignificant, has the potential to undermine the smooth operation of the entire ship. This is lesson number one: A leader must be aware of and responsible for all details on the ship – big or small.
After speaking with John Q., I toured the anti-aircraft guns. What was fascinating about them is that they were perpetually adapting, based on an ongoing feedback loop. Initially, when an incoming target was identified, the gunners plotted a firing solution based on all the data they had. That information was sent down to a plotting room, which then factored in variables such as the pitch and roll of the ship. The sign posted by the guns explained that: “In a continuous looping system, the Director observed and reported corrections for off-target shell burst back to the Secondary Plotting Room, where corrections were entered into the computer and a new firing solution generated until the target was hit and destroyed.” This is lesson number two. While leaders must have a solution, i.e. a strategy, they must also take into account outside factors that may affect their strategy, and be open to feedback, so they can adjust and adapt their means of achieving their strategic goals based on real-world and real-time events.
Moving away from these guns I climbed the ladder to the ship’s bridge. In the back of the bridge was a small bedroom known as the captain’s sea cabin. What was so striking about this room was that it was barely the size of a large closet and yet this is where the captain stayed throughout the voyage. This would not mean much except that below deck was the captain’s beautiful suite, which is where is I met John Q. The captain’s suite had a living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom. John Q. explained that the captain only used the suite when the ship was docked and even then usually to entertain important visitors.
In answer to my “Why?” John Q. explained that when the ship is at sea the captain must always be near the bridge in case something happens. Even when he is resting, which is not often, he must be a mere step away from the command center. The captain gets paid not to sleep. Lesson number three is that a leader must be the worrier-in-chief. He has to be available 24/7 like a mother of children.