What I Learned on an Aircraft Carrier

Posted 01.25.2010

Uss-truman1 Last October, I had the opportunity to speak on leadership to newly promoted admirals and senior executives of the US Navy in their annual symposium. That led to an invitation to join a group of civilians to visit the aircraft carrier, USS Harry S Truman, on a training cruise off the coast of North Carolina last week. As you can see from the photo to the left, I made the trip. (That’s your faithful correspondent, front row, fifth from the left.)

I’m not going to lie to you. I was pretty excited to go on the trip since we’d be making an arrested landing on arrival (in a C-2 Greyhound transport plane) and leaving the ship a day later via a catapult assisted launch. As much as I love Disneyworld, they’ve got a ways to go before they come up with a ride that’s as exciting as going from 150 knots to 0 in three seconds on landing or from 0 to 150 when you take off. It was a very cool experience, but I have to say was not even close to being the best part of the trip. The best part was the opportunity to see several thousand men and women of an average age of 24 working together to do amazing things on a round the clock basis. Over the years, I’ve watched hours and  hours of film on the Navy and thought I had some appreciation for what they do. Last week I learned that there is no substitute for seeing it in real life.

I shot about three hours of video on the Truman and have a lot of great interviews from the sailors about what they look for in a leader that I’ll share with you on Thursdays over the next several weeks. In the meantime, I’ve put together this 3:00 minute highlight video to give you a taste of life on the ship.

Also,  I wanted to share some of the big leadership lessons I learned while aboard the Truman.

People Can Handle More Than You Think:  If you ever have the opportunity to hire someone who worked in an operations role on a carrier, hire them. They probably had more responsibility for life and death situations at age 19 or 20 than most of us will ever have in our lives. In spite of great systems design, an aircraft carrier is an extremely dangerous operating environment. What makes it safe are the people working there.  Most of them are really young. In talking with them and watching them, I was consistently impressed with their knowledge, pride and capability in their work. I kept asking myself, “How does someone learn and take on this much by the time they're 20?”  I would hire anyone I met on the Truman.

Systems and Processes Matter:  It takes a synchronized effort among hundreds of people on at least four different decks and eight locations to land or launch a jet or plane every 45 seconds in a 4.5 acre space for hours at a time. The only way it can work is if the roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and the systems and processes are set up for the different components to work seamlessly together. Watching the crew of the Truman in action really brought home the value of clear operating protocols for me. Just about any organization could benefit from investing time in defining roles and processes and making the effort to follow through on them.

Motivation is Adrenaline: The people on the Truman work long hours (12 to 18 hour shifts) in arduous conditions (noisy, confined and sometimes smelly spaces that require a constant focus on safety). And yet everyone we met or encountered (which was well into the hundreds of people) was motivated, energetic, courteous and, for the most part, seemed to be having fun. I think the leadership and the systems on the ship encourage motivation in much the way that Dan Pink outlines in his new book, Drive. Each crew member of the Truman has varying degrees of three factors that add up to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more from my trip to the Truman. There are some great leadership lessons coming up.