Is Good Management Sufficient?

Posted on by Dave Oliver

At the invitation of Fred Rainbow, I gave a presentation to the Leadership Forum of The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association last night. At the conclusion, Linda and I took questions for an hour before we went to dinner with old friends Chris and Stephanie Johnson.

Since I hate reading from notes, the conversation went nothing like the following, but this is what I intended to say until the moment I walked up to the podium —

I think my friend Chris Johnson would like for me to tell you tonight that each of us in this room can grow to be a great leader if only we work a little harder at learning a particular skill or have a stronger backbone, but of course the truth is much more nuanced.

Since it is almost the opening day of a new baseball season and this is Washington, I want you to consider the National’s Bryce Harper. Everyone thinks he will be one of the next baseball superstars – essentially the baseball equivalent of a military-industrial leader. As even my wife knows, Bryce was born with an a very unusual and unique physical and emotional skill set and he has spent years focusing on applying that skill set to the limited challenges that baseball presents.

Why is this relevant? All of us in our profession can and should practice our leadership and management skills, but don’t you think that those who would become leaders, dealing with the intricacies of human interactions, and the non-rule-bound complexities of business, warfare and life, might need to have been gifted with special skill sets? I mean I am from a great basketball state, had good coaches, went to the same schools as the current coach of the Wizards and I practiced eight to ten hours a day, but was never promoted higher than the end of the bench.

And despite my father’s frequent admonitions that I was standing behind the door when God was handing our brains, I don’t find it appropriate for grown men and women to stand around whining about skills they believe they might or might not possess.

I have instead long believed that rather than spending time worrying about how much or little one might have of the mysterious concept of “leadership,” the much better approach is to understand that everyone in this room has it within him or herself to be a manager, and good management is going to be sufficient most days in every job.

When it isn’t there is always prayer.

I have a great deal of experience in working for people. I have worked in the military for literally hundreds of bosses, in industry for half that number, in politics for half that again and I have been married nearly fifty years to an exacting woman. I have worked for many people known to be extraordinary – both Senators John Warner (and Elizabeth Taylor, who was even more beautiful than she appeared on screen), Rickover, Zumwalt and hundreds more admirals, nearly every major defense company chairman, two Secretaries of Defense and a like number of Presidents of the United States. However, to be candid, not all were true leaders and only Zumwalt and Rickover introduced culture change into organizations and make it stick. Theoreticians often list accomplishing culture change as the definition of leadership.

I have written a book about Admiral Rickover which Naval Press Institute will publish this November. In my book I address the circumstances of the changes Rickover forced on the submarine force, the permanency of the culture he established and the leadership lessons his stewardship has for American Industry. I do this through a set of case studies as well as a set of questions intended to show how these examples apply to industry experiences such as group work, responsibilities, start-ups and pilot programs, etc.

As you will discover if you read this book, I am less than detached. I knew the admiral from the time I was twenty until I was promoted to flag officer. I argued with him; we swore at each other, and I learned from him. When I was twenty-seven, he selected me to be the head engineer officer to fix his first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, after it had been ridden hard and put away wet, and he gave me his home telephone number so I could bypass (if I dared) the seven layers of navy command between him and me. I used that number. He used mine when President Nixon personally called Rickover and reported a problem aboard my ship, which is one of the stories in my book.

But what I would like to discuss today is that Rickover, who was so successful, he:
Introduced nuclear submarines and nuclear power to the Navy, and
Established a culture which has outlasted him by decades. and
Impacted the US education and industrial system, and
Significantly affected the outcome of the Cold War.

Was an indifferent leader, as we normally think of such a person. No one questions that he was an extraordinary manager, but a leader – not so much — for example:

1.    After two tours in submarines, he failed to screen for command of submarines, and was transferred to surface ships;
2.    Where he only had command of a minesweeper, the smallest surface ship, for three months, before he was relieved of that responsibility. At that time a more normal surface ship tour was twelve to eighteen months, usually followed by a command tour in a larger ship. Instead Rickover transferred to Engineering Duty Only.
3.    During the five years of World War II, Rickover was never in the fighting theater (he was in charge of Guam after the Marines had pressed forward).
4.    At the age of 46, Captain Rickover was assigned to Oak Ridge, in charge of no one.
Yet, eight years later Rickover’s visage occupied the cover of the 14 January issue of Time Magazine and three years later, rather than engaging in a space race, President Eisenhower made nuclear submarines the United States asymmetric answer to Sputnik and President Khrushchev.

Now the conclusion some might draw, and you will have to read my book in November to see where I come down, is that, in what was probably the most important culture change of the Twentieth Century, as well as the most successful industrial and military program, good management was enough.


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One Response to Is Good Management Sufficient?

  1. Marv Langston says:

    While schools often teach that leadership and management differ, there is a thin line between both. Although Admiral Rickover may have used strong management to change the Navy, his actions were strong leadership – IMHO

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