What an Aircraft Carrier Can Teach Corporate Leaders
The modern U.S. Navy aircraft carrier is both an engineering marvel and a triumph of human organization. Its 3,000-member crew—plus up to a few thousand more staff personnel and aviators when fully outfitted—run a massive, nuclear-powered machine that simultaneously functions as a busy airport for fighter jets and a floating city.
It can seem like a maze of passageways and a blur of activity, but everything and everyone has a purpose—a role that aligns with the overall mission. They routinely engage in dangerous work, yet they experience far fewer than their fair share of accidents.
It’s fitting, therefore, that scholars often cite naval aircraft carriers as prototypical examples of “high-reliability” organizations. Such organizations, they suggest, are able to engage daily with risky technologies in a remarkably safe manner because of the ways in which people interact, communicate, and adhere to common principles. These “hallmarks of high reliability” are (1) preoccupation with failure, (2) sensitivity to operations, (3) reluctance to simplify explanations, (4) commitment to resilience, and (5) deference of decision-making authority to those with the most expertise.
Such principles are worthy of exploration and hold numerous lessons for leaders in non-military contexts.
Here, however, I’d like to share a number of other key insights that emerged during a recent tour of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) that I had the privilege to accompany. I was helping with a two-day session for high-potential leaders at a Fortune 50 company, and the goal of the tour was to spark new thinking and conversation within the group about matters related to strategy, leadership, management, and teamwork.
After our tour—which featured top-notch tour guides who explained the carrier’s operations and organization as they led us through the ship’s hangars, around the flight deck, and inside the bridge, among other areas—we headed back to the company’s office for lunch and conversation. We asked the participants to think about what they saw and how they thought it applied to what they do, or how what they experienced aboard the ship made them think differently about leadership within their own roles.
Their answers were insightful and compelling. Some of the bigger themes included: (1) the importance of clear roles and responsibilities, (2) shared language as a critical component of high-performing teams, (3) how timely feedback prevents disasters, and (4) how leaders must maintain situational awareness about both the short- and long-term.
One of the more dangerous areas on a carrier is the flight deck. Sailors frequently need to shift aircraft from one area to another, move and load explosive ordnance as needed, and assist pilots as needed during flight operations. These flight operations often involve numerous aircraft launching or landing in a short time period, assisted by steam-powered catapults and thick arrestor wires on the deck.
The opportunities for people to be in the wrong place at the wrong time abound.
One way in which they maintain order and teamwork, however, is through explicitly defined roles and responsibilities. Every person is trained in his or her role, and they each know how that role fits into the bigger picture of the operations. Additionally, everyone on the flight deck wears a specific color shirt that’s aligned with his or her role. That way, everyone can know immediately the nature of everyone else’s job. (Check out this video on the ship’s Facebook page.)
In the debrief session after the tour, a number of the participants discussed these observations, noting several key lessons, including:
Role ambiguity is common—and it can slow down a team. Leaders must continually work to clarify who is responsible for what and who they will hold accountable for specific results.
It’s not enough to clarify expectations with team members individually. Remember the flight deck? Not only does every person know his or her own role—they all know everyone else’s role too. Great teams have members who not only know what they must do as individuals, but also what everyone else is doing and how that fits together overall.
Training is critical. Assigning people specific roles and responsibilities is important, but delegation without development is frustrating and doesn’t work. If a team must complete tasks in which its people aren’t prepared, leaders should upskill their people accordingly or consider bringing new team members aboard with the needed skills, knowledge, or abilities.
On an aircraft carrier—as well as other U.S. Navy ships, from my personal experience—people talk to each other in some rather prescribed ways. For example, when giving commands to drive the ship in a specific direction and speed, officers and crew members use a specific format for how they say each command. Then—and this is critical—the person receiving the command repeats it back. This provides immediate feedback to know whether the person received the message correctly.
Additionally, several of the program participants mentioned how they heard some unfamiliar phrases, words, and acronyms during their time aboard. This is common within the Navy—but it’s also common within any specific industry or organization, if you think about it. And while it may be somewhat confusing to outsiders, such jargon can be a helpful way for people to share information and attempt to reach a shared understanding about what’s going on.
These matters of shared language are important because they allow the team to organize quickly and effectively. Additionally, the program participants highlighted a few additional thoughts:
Is your language shared? In our own technical fields, it’s easy for us to start speaking in jargon. That can be helpful when we’re with others who understand us, but what about when trying to work across teams? Not so much. One program participant discussed how he thought about how important it was for him and his team to adjust their way of communicating when working with others in the organization. What I liked in particular about this comment was that it wasn’t about making the other party or person learn his language—it was about adjusting his language to help the other person.
Misunderstanding wastes time. It can be easy to assume other people understand what we tell them in the exact same way that we have it in our heads. That’s a dubious—and often time-wasting—assumption. Think about those times in which you told someone exactly what you wanted, and then received something that missed the mark by a long shot. Sometimes this is the case of you not really knowing what you want—and in some situations, it’s understandable—but other times it comes from not investing the time beforehand to get a better shared understanding between you and the other party. And that leads to the next point.
Achieving shared understanding takes time—and it’s a two-way street. To do a better job of moving toward a shared understanding between two or more people, you must invest time. That time, however, is an investment that will save time that comes from misunderstanding later. One way to do this is similar to what we discussed during our tour—make it a two-way street. That is, when you describe a task to someone, ask the other person to repeat back to you what he or she thinks you meant. Often, you’ll find that there might be some areas of misunderstanding. But now that you know that, you can easily clear it up. Conversely, when someone comes to you and describes a situation, try paraphrasing what you heard back to them. Then, they can make corrections to your version of what’s going on accordingly.
One fascinating example of teamwork that happens on an aircraft carrier involves the interactions among the Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) and the pilots during a landing. LSOs are also aviators, but they’ve accrued a level of experience and additional training to prepare them for a special role. That role involves them continually communicating with the pilots as they’re approaching the carrier to land, providing them with highly specific, ongoing feedback to help them adjust and land safely. One of our program participants, after the tour, made a number of excellent observations about the universal lessons within this dynamic interaction.
Make ongoing course corrections. The LSO, during the pilot’s approach to the carrier, talks to him or her as needed, providing critical information about the aircraft’s position and other corrective feedback. The pilot can then adjust and safely land—or try again. The key insight here is that these corrections are happening in an ongoing fashion. Imagine if we all did that with our direct reports. In many organizations, unfortunately, course corrections happen far too infrequently. Providing such feedback only in formal performance review situations is only slightly better than providing no feedback at all.
Feedback must be specific. The LSO doesn’t just say, “Nice job!” or “Keep it up” or “Try harder!” That, of course, would be absurd. Yet that’s what many managers do when providing feedback to their people. Instead, be highly specific in your feedback, both positive and negative. Tell the person about identifiable events—the situation, what he or she did, and the outcomes of his or her actions.
We accept feedback more readily from those we trust. LSOs are also aviators themselves. They’ve been there, done that. They know their fellow aviators. As such, a pilot on approach to the carrier has every reason to trust them and do what they say. As managers, we must remember that we earn trust through our own competence, performance, and reliability.
Aboard the carrier, numerous events are going on at any one time—some are immediate in nature, others are about planning for what’s happening tomorrow, next week, next month, and beyond. While at sea, those driving the ship must keep both the short- and long-term in mind at all times. For example, during flight operations, a ship must maintain a specific course and speed. At the same time, they need to know what’s ahead of them and how where they’re headed aligns with what’s safe, where they want to be in the next few days, and monitor for any potential threats. This requires numerous people with specific roles monitoring different situations, but it’s the leader’s job to maintain situational awareness of all of those pieces of information. Too much focus on the long-term or short-term alone can result in catastrophe. One of the program participants had several excellent related observations.
Don’t work with your head down too much. As a leader, you must maintain awareness of both urgent and long-term situational awareness. In my experience, it’s often the tendency to focus too much on the short-term, the “putting out fires” part of management. Certainly, things arise that demand your immediate attention. But you must pick your head up, so to speak, to keep a keen awareness of where your team or organization is heading. In other words, are you just doing things right, or are you also doing the right things?
Use your organization’s “radar.” With the rise of big data and predictive analytics, many organizations are beginning to have a capability to cut through some of the fog of the future. But those leaders outside of the data analytics function must remember to use such internal tools. Such resources can help you maintain critical long-term situational awareness.
You must do both. Often, the conversation about the short- and long-term seems like an either/or proposition. It’s not. Successful leaders do both. I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s a critical part of being a strategic leader while also being an effective manager.
I’m sure we can draw many other observations and insights about corporate leadership from aircraft carrier operations, but these were some of the main ones that emerged during my conversations with about 40 high-potential leaders at a major corporation. And I think that regardless of the size or nature of one’s organization, we can all benefit from these reminders.
About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a military uniform, or in a corporate boardroom advising top management teams. A co-founder and principal at the consulting firm Indigo Anchor, he's also an award-winning business professor and published scholar at Cleveland State University and a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He regularly consults leaders and organizations across a wide range of sectors and industries. Visit: www.indigoanchor.com and www.benbaran.com.