Submarine BroachingOctober 13th is the official birthday of the United States Navy. 239 years old as of today, the US Navy is the crucible that many persons have learned important lessons in leadership and life. While I rarely make a point of being a retired naval officer, today I want to review a few of the important lessons learned while serving:

Lesson 1: Forget logic. Assume nothing.

I have written about this rule (or rules) before (5 Simple Rules to Stay Sane in Business), but it was literally the first lesson I received on my very first day on active duty. And it applies to everything.

Lesson 2: Learn the rules.

Most people think that rules are constraints that keep them from doing what they want. But I found that by learning the rules and the reasons for the rules, I didn’t waste time asking for or complaining about what couldn’t be done. Instead, I was able to work on how to do what I needed to do.

For example, in my first assignment at the Naval Nuclear Power School, one of my duties was to keep the division supplied with chalk. My processor had simply waited until someone pointed out that there was no chalk and he would drop whatever he was doing and run get another box. I calculated how much chalk the division used each quarter and prepared an order for the same amount. But I also calculated that if everyone used a chalk holder (we called them chalk chocks) then we used about 25% less chalk. So I included a request for enough chalk chocks for everyone. The result was I only had to deal with chalk four times a year and I was everyone’s hero because chalk chocks meant they didn’t get dirty hands from handling chalk.

This lesson paid off big time when I was supervising contracted ship repair in Hawaii – knowing the rules meant that I could get work contracted faster and therefore completed faster.

Lesson 3: Always add a buffer to your schedule.

I have never met anyone that appreciated a late delivery. And if I was responsible for the delivery, I always wanted to deliver early or exactly when promised. So I would usually add as much as 50% to a schedule just so that the unexpected wouldn’t make me look bad. This was also explained to me by my superior when I was temporarily assigned to the nuclear ship superintendent of the USS Long Beach overhaul at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. He stated the rule as “Always be waiting on the other guy.”

Lesson 4: “I don’t know” must be followed by “But I’ll find out.”

Have you noticed that recent college graduates don’t like to admit that they don’t know something? I realized very early that not knowing wasn’t a crime but assuming that someone else was going to provide me an answer was – because I was expected to find the answer myself. Coupled with this must be the willingness to accept advice and instruction – usually displayed by asking honest questions and listening to the answers.

Lesson 5: Family should come first.

This lesson is usually misconstrued to mean that no matter what happens you need to take care of your family before anything else. But that doesn’t work when you’re in the Navy. I once said that I had convinced my wife that she was my first priority and, therefore, I could treat her like my last priority. She was the woman I left in a three bedroom student apartment in Logan, Utah with three young children (two in diapers), a car with a dead battery, six feet of snow against the back door and no clothes dryer while I was attending schools, visiting commands and spending 3 months on a submarine. In the Navy, the mission comes first and she understood that, but she also knew that I did everything I could to support her and to keep in touch wherever I was (including writing postcards that my sister-in-law mailed for me every week while I was underway on the submarine).

Another aspect is that every association you have in this world comes with an automatic bill of divorce except your personal relationships. The Navy told me on day one that they didn’t expect me to stay more than four years, although I could possibly stay as long as 30 years, but there would come a day when they didn’t want me around anymore. I worked hard to make sure that my wife didn’t have the same attitude toward me.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.