What an Aircraft Carrier Can Teach Corporate Leaders

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,

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Military Veterans and Employment: Four Hidden Issues and Potential Solutions

Military Veterans and Employment: Four Hidden Issues and Potential Solutions

Making the leap from active-duty military service to successful civilian employment is hard. 

I know. I did it in 2005. 

Despite my best efforts, I ended up in a dead-end outside sales job for which I was unprepared and in which my employer left me to sink or swim. 

After about two months, I sank. 

I got a better job, one that better fit my skills and abilities. But I was still underemployed. Thus began years of clawing with my fingernails for something better, pushing my way through graduate school and into what has become a fabulous career. 

Things worked out. But it was unexpectedly hard—for five reasons. One of those reasons is commonly discussed. Four of those reasons are hidden, or at least in my experience, they’re less frequently discussed. 

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Take the High Road in Office Politics

Take the High Road in Office Politics

If you haven’t worked in the military or alongside the military as part of a larger operation, you may think that the danger of being in a warzone or the importance of the overall mission may supersede the political games people often play in organizations.

I wish that were true. 

I was part of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) from December 2012 to December 2013. I quickly learned upon my arrival was that NTM-A comprised myriad types of people

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Destroy Your Credibility in One Easy Step

Destroy Your Credibility in One Easy Step

“This is ****ing bull****,” Dave said. 

“What’s going on, guys?” I said. 

“They kicked us out of our office.” 

“What? Who?” I knew that Dave and Chris, along with a Turkish lieutenant colonel, shared an office around the corner from me. They had occupied that space for quite some time, and it made sense given that they all advised the Afghans on the same topic. 

Let’s back up.

During the year I spent working in Afghanistan, 

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Never Give Up, Never Stop Learning

Never Give Up, Never Stop Learning

Although I teach courses on various topics related to leadership, I’m quick to admit it: Learning a lot about leadership won’t necessarily make you a great leader. 

Similarly, just because someone has 20 years of experience doing something doesn’t necessarily make him or her an expert. It’s quite possible—and common—for people to have the same experience, 20 years in a row. 

What oftentimes elevates truly great leaders above the rest is their tenacity, their commitment to never give up—and to never stop learning. It’s their ability to persevere through adversity with an open mind, applying the lessons they acquire along the way. 

One such leader whom I’ve always enjoyed listening to and reading about is United States Marine Corps General James Mattis (ret.). Among recent military leaders, Mattis is a legend, particularly if you talk with other U.S. Marines. 

Stories about his selfless, direct style of leadership abound. 

Additionally,

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Agile Organizational Design: The Case of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force

Agile Organizational Design: The Case of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force

One of my colleagues—a super-smart scholar and all-around wonderful person—once asked me for my ideas about topics to cover in an upcoming class about organizational structure. He recognized the importance of the topic in general, but he wasn’t finding anything particularly exciting to cover. The typical areas of formalization, span of control, centralization and the chain of command simply weren’t doing it for him.

I can’t remember what I may have suggested for that class. Whatever I said, it probably wasn’t very helpful.

But my thinking about organizational structure has changed in recent years, 

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