The Ultimate Test of Leadership


Blog by Bill Sturgeon
Retired Division Chief of Training for Orange County Fire Rescue Department in Florida

At the age of 38, Scott Waddle was selected to become the commanding officer of USS Greeneville, an improved Los Angeles Class Fast Attack submarine stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Commander Waddle was selected from a highly competitive field of specially trained and exceptionally skilled naval officers. On board his new submarine, the challenges Waddle faced were staggering. Extremely low morale and an unacceptable turnover rate were two of the most pressing issues.

Few thought his ship could improve, but Waddle only became more resolved to prove the critics wrong. The solution was a system of beliefs that Waddle calls Deck Plate Leadership. Its a process of replacing command and control with commitment and cohesion by engaging the hearts, minds and loyalties of workers. By every measure, Waddles principles led to breakthrough results. Personnel turnover decreased to an unprecedented three percent. The rate of military promotions tripled and operating expenses were slashed by 25 percent. As a result, the USS Greeneville became regarded as the finest boat in the Pacific Fleet.

The ultimate test for Waddle and his shipmates followed a tragic accident when the Greeneville — while at sea for a distinguished visitors day cruise — performed an emergency surface maneuver and collided with the Japanese fishing training vessel Ehime Maru, sinking the vessel in three minutes and killing nine aboard.

The story of the collision made global headlines and was the subject of heated discussion and debate. What followed, however, was even more unprecedented. Waddle, as the former commanding officer, took sole responsibility for his and his crews’ actions. He took the stand during the Navy’s Court of Inquiry and testified without immunity knowing his words could be used against him in a court martial. In a time when corporate executives have been quick to blame others within their organizations for their failures, Waddle demonstrated an uncommon strength of character, integrity and uncompromising ethical conduct by accepting responsibility for himself and the actions of his crew.

In the aftermath of the ordeal, Waddle shows us failure is not final and tells us there are no failures in life only mistakes, and from these mistakes, lessons.

What is deck plate leadership?

Let us start with a working definition of leadership.

Leadership is spoken of in various contexts. Sometimes it’s meant to describe the person in a position of authority and other times it is describing an ability to influence. Either way, a good definition of leadership would be to inspire a group of people to work together as a team and accomplish the impossible.

This is exactly what you are being asked to do every day as a fire officer. Our basic mission is to make a very bad day for someone better. But what are the characteristics of a good leader? Here are 20 characteristics of a leader:

1. Confident, but humble.

2. Demands excellence from himself and his crew.

3. Firm, but can relax and have fun doing the job.

4. Calm under pressure. Maintains focus.

5. Executes The 5 Best Principles. Be Positive. Be Specific. Be Consistent. Be Certain. Be Immediate.

6. Gives credit to teammates publicly.

7. Does not blame teammates or points fingers.

8. Knows the mission and the strengths and weakness of personnel and allows them to apply their skills.

9. Involves the entire team.

10. Sacrifices personal glory for the good of the crew.

11. Accepts that no one is perfect and that we all make mistakes. But also recognizes when a mistake has been made and learns from it.

12. Visible for everyone to see.

13. Leads by example, from the front.

14. Displays the values of honor, courage, and commitment.

15. Multi-tasks effectively.

16. Manages time efficiently.

17. Has excellent instincts and vision.

18. Makes sound, educated decisions and only takes calculated risks.

19. Vocal and points out where things aren’t happening correctly, but is not openly negative or pessimistic.

20. Inspires the crew to accomplish the impossible.

If you do not possess all of these attributes do not fret. They are all obtainable with a willingness to learn and a willingness to change. Let me sum up what Waddle would say your action plan should be every shift:

1. Get up, out of the chair!

2. Get down, on the floor to see whats going on!

3. Get dirty, do the job!

By applying lessons learned and developing your attributes as a leader, you will soon develop deck plate leadership.

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