Lessons in leadership from the U.S. Navy

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” 

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

Retired Naval officer Stephen Johnson tells a story about his command of the submarine USS City of Corpus Christi (SSN-705). He and his crew were at the tail end of a protracted operation and were finally headed home. The plan was interrupted by an order executing the President’s direction to provide additional submarine support to the 1986 operations against Libya.  The submarine and its crew deployed with little idea of when the mission would be over or when they would be going back home.

“The morale among the crew was like a death had occurred.” Johnson said. “They had all thought they were going home and then they weren’t. It’s the letdown of mismatched expectations.”

Johnson knew he had to address the situation before the crew could move forward. “As my officers and chief petty officers executed our pre-deployment preparations, I walked around the ship and spoke to every single member of the crew. They had to know why we were selected for this mission and why it was important to our country that we fulfill this duty.”

United along common goals

Citing author Simon Sinek’s motivational tome “Start With Why,”  Johnson  asserts one of the most important axioms he gleaned from 30 years in the United States Navy: A great leader unites his people along common goals. “If everyone knows the plan and knows why the plan is in place, they can all follow through with the plan,” he said.

In business, Johnson maintains, this is especially apropos. “The best companies know where they are going and they have everyone aligned. The hard part is getting your people to believe that they will be successful if they stick to the plan.”

The retired Rear Admiral, who completed his active duty career in 2000, posits that CEOs are not just the chief executive. “You are chief of sales, chief of culture, chief of strategy, chief of getting everyone on board with the plan,” he said. “No one intends to screw up a company, and yet companies get screwed up primarily due to planning and leadership failures. Never forget that the attitude of the Captain is reflected in his crew, and the same is true in companies. Humans are pack animals. The CEO’s job is to be a great pack leader.”

Ensign Stephen Johnson in 1969 with his sister Carrie (left) and his mother (right).
Ensign Stephen Johnson in 1969 with his sister Carrie (left) and his mother (right).

When Johnson joined the Navy, he had no idea what he was getting into. “The Navy ROTC scholarship paid my way through college. I was blessed to serve,” he said.

But upon retiring, he said, it was clear what he had gotten out of it. “I was working for a company in San Diego and an issue came up and we had to deal with it and a light went on immediately: This is not a management issue; this is a leadership issue!”

As with his experiences with leadership in the Navy, Johnson has found that there is no shortage of great leaders in Vistage. “Vistage companies outperform their peer companies,” he said. “The kinds of people in Vistage are the kind that would make great commanding officers.”

Stephen Johnson’s 30-year military career has included command of a nuclear submarine and Program Manager for a $650M Major Defense Acquisition Program. Since leaving active Naval service, he has helped the leaders of private companies, government agencies, non-profits, and educational institutions become more successful. Since 2009, Stephen has served as the Chair of a Vistage Chief Executive Board of Advisors Group and a Key Executive Group in Spartanburg, SC. Thank you for your service, Stephen.

More leadership lessons from the United States Armed Forces:

Mike Malone of the U.S. Marine Corps Marinerecalls how watching a ship get underway informed his idea of teamwork.

Bob Slate’s  personal essay coast_guardmemorializes his former U.S. Coast Guard commander in the Antarctic.

Randy Miller’s experiencesairforce with positive and negative leadership in the U.S. Air Force shaped his leadership mantra.

Richard Carr recallsarmy a three-star general whose example he has followed through his own career.

Category: Leadership

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