Very few people have the opportunity to experience life on a nuclear aircraft carrier up close and personal. Recently, I had the extraordinary experience of spending a day and a night at sea in the Pacific on board the USS Nimitz. I was part of a Navy outreach program to give ordinary landlubbers like me a perspective on the mission and operations of a naval strike group.
I was excited. Who would turn down a chance to get on top of a nuclear power plant driving 100,000 tons of steel through the ocean, with 5,000 men and women handling scores of aircraft, carrying thousands of pounds of bombs and missiles, burning thousands of gallons of jet fuel a day, with margins measured in inches, and tolerances of seconds? What could possibly go wrong?
As a Prius-driving, granola-eating, anti-gun, Left-Coast Californian, I do not fit the stereotype of the typical armed forces booster. I am inclined to favor green technology over weapons of mass destruction. But I discovered during my visit that many of us who are working in non-military organizations, and who may not have given a second thought to the Navy as a model, would do well to understand how a small city floating on the ocean works. From startup entrepreneurs to seasoned executives, we can learn a lot from the U.S. Navy, from the enlisted men and women as well as from the commanding officers.
When we got to the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island in San Diego, we received a quick slide presentation before we flew off to the Nimitz, a hundred miles or so off the coast. Then again, when we met with the admiral on the ship that evening, we got another slide presentation. There were five or six dot points on the powerpoint slides outlining the mission of the Navy, but frankly I can’t remember them all. All I can remember is the impression that, fundamentally, the mission of the U.S. Navy is to make the world safe. It’s a pretty ambitious objective. You may approve or disapprove of this as the best use of taxpayer money, but if you spend any time on a nuclear aircraft carrier, you have to admit they do a pretty impressive job.
During about thirty hours of immersion with sailors and pilots (and public affairs officers), I realized that were several principles at work that make the Navy so successful—principles that are not at all unique to running an aircraft carrier—representing important lessons for everyone interested in entrepreneurship, innovation, teamwork, and management:
- Inspiration: Having a big, meaningful goal is a tremendous force for inspiration, motivation, and cohesion. The Navy’s mission is not some vague, abstract, feel-good paragraph in a business plan; it is very concrete, and very easy to understand and internalize. In addition to defending America, fighting terrorists, and rescuing victims of piracy, the Navy takes enormous pride in their role in helping the tsunami victims in 2004, and in helping the Katrina victims in 2005. While everyone I talked with had his or her own particular story, everyone had a distinct and powerful pride in what they had accomplished and in the people around them. It was frankly astounding. Even in the best organizations, in my experience, such a core consistency of pride is extremely rare. Of course, most organizations don’t have a mission as inspirational as the U.S. Navy.
- Perspiration: If everyone buys into the goal, you can get an amazing amount of work done, including regular sixteen hour days with very low pay. The Nimitz does not offer a 9-to-5 workday. Some days, crews are on the flight deck for fourteen or sixteen hours, into the wee hours of the morning, inhaling noxious fumes and making sure every plane gets back safely. And then after the planes get back at midnight, the maintenance crew is still at work making sure the planes are ready for the next day. A maintenance chief told me that, given the age of the planes and the stress of carrier flying, it is typical that a plane requires twenty-five hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time. That seems inefficient, but the alternative is unacceptable. You don’t want to fly a plane that is anything less than 100 percent maintained.
- Teamwork: As much as the movie Top Gun created the impression that it’s about competing to be Number 1, the ethic in an actual operating situation is intensely about team performance. Watching the crews maintain, fuel, setup, and pilot F-18s for flight, it’s clear it’s not about who’s the hottest dog on the deck. Every single person counts on other members of the team to enable them to get their part of the job done, and no one person can take credit for success, or benefit from another’s failure.
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