Management Lessons From The Only Ship Built To Sink 

Onboard a submarine, crewmembers must reach a delicate equilibrium of individual vs. team—and too much weight on either side can spell disaster.

You require every single member on board to be doing his job 100% of the time. It’s the most fantastic teamwork.
—Rear Admiral Niall Stuart Roderick Kilgour, CB (Order of the Bath) 

Onboard a submarine, there can be no failures. All crewmembers must be doing their job 100 percent of the time. Crewmembers rely on the least competent member for their lives; they must all be good at what they do.  

Submarines present many paradoxes. For example, they are ships designed to sink. They also provide transferrable lessons to any organizational context. Among the paradoxes of submarine leadership that can provide a competitive advantage in organizations, two paradoxes in particular address the need for alignment, accountability and performance.  

The first, “individual responsibility and teamwork,” describes where in the organization performance occurs. The second, “hierarchy and social norms,” describes how these are managed. 

Individual responsibility and teamwork 

The test of submarine qualification is a personal milestone. You may get support, you might even have a “qual buddy” to study with, but in the end, you have to know it and prove it yourself. That baseline extends to everyone onboard a submarine and provides the foundation for effective teams based on mutual respect and known achievement. The interdependency of individual and group performance is obvious on submarines — everyone relies on the team, yet everyone relies on every individual. While each person has specific jobs and tasks, no one can perform by himself. Every person has a stake in the success of the rest of the crew, from group survival to the most mundane things such as meals and cleanup duties.              

One of the greatest performance aspects of life on a submarine is the teamwork and the number of teams that any crewmember belongs to as a normal part of the everyday duties. Every single individual belongs to multiple layers of constantly changing, yet effectively stable groups. Every team has its duties and expectations and value/reward for membership. Individual performance leads to high performance teamwork that gets the work done. Belonging to a team keeps people committed and connected. 

High expectations for individual performance and accountability are more typical in business environments than are regular check-ups of team performance and behavior. This doesn’t require sophisticated measurement. Simple observation will often do. While team-building activities can provide social glue, a bit of fun and a chance to learn together, the best context for improving team performance is in the normal activities of work. Focused attention on team goals, standards, function and continuous improvement are all requisites to effective team management and require hands-on attention. 

Teams also provide a critical component of success that can be leveraged to great advantage with regard to social norms and positive peer pressure, much like the aspects of individual and teams onboard a submarine 

Hierarchy and social norms 

Military leadership is often associated with the rigor of hierarchy and chain of command. Authority is well defined in each link and, at sea, the ultimate authority is the captain. The robust hierarchy includes well-defined roles and responsibilities and authority from top to bottom. So, in a very real sense, the clear definition of hierarchy, standards and roles makes it much easier for effective social systems that are then reinforced through peer pressure and the expectations for individual and group performance. 

All organizations have social norms. Oftentimes these are described by the term “culture.” Social norms are more specific, observable and malleable. Looking through this lens, we can better understand what group agreements advance and inhibit our intentions and progress. In the submarine service, the adherence to social norms and traditions is a supporting management element that encourages positive peer pressure to perform and conform. One of the worst — and in some cases most dangerous — infractions a crewmember can commit is to let team/shipmates down.       

It’s imperative that people are trusted and capable and will do the right thing when no one is watching. Doing their part is not just an expectation — it’s a cultural foundation reinforced by standards, command hierarchy and shared values and norms. The combination of leadership structure, individual responsibility and group norms/culture are a powerful blueprint for sustained performance and safeguard against non-compliance and any potential single point of failure.          

Critical lessons for company leadership 

When team membership is valued and the prerequisite for acceptance is high performance, the system becomes self-sustaining. The need for micromanagement disappears and the positive social pressure of group norms provides a constant reinforcement of leader intent. Therein lies the paradox: we need to manage teams, but managing teams is more effective when we don’t manage them. Essentially, competitive advantage means that leaders can delegate and don’t have to worry about execution, while individuals hold themselves and others accountable. A virtuous cycle is created that sustains organization effectiveness. 

The paradoxes of submarine survival are applicable to your leadership strategy in the following ways:

1. The highly functioning teams onboard a submarine provide many lessons for business, especially today when we are living in a virtual and hybrid world. 

2. Individuals are responsible for themselves and for the team in all organizations. Teams are responsible for their efficiency, but also for every individual in an organization. It’s within this interdependence that high functioning teams thrive.

 3. While we all feel the need to actively manage teams, social norms can often do this more effectively. Hierarchy and social norms are often the key to effective leadership, both on a submarine and in business. 

 4. The equilibrium of individual versus team, hierarchy and social norms versus active intervention, and the paradox of leading without leading are all the more important today. We are leading in a virtual world, at a time where the paradoxes of team and individual and hierarchy and social norms push performance without the need for micromanaging.

Avatar
William Putsis, Jeff Flesher and Robert (“Jake”) Jacobs are university professors at top business schools, acclaimed authors, and seasoned consultants in organizational development for numerous Fortune 500 firms. Together, they offer a suite of in person sessions on Paradox and online corporate and executive development courses. Learn more at the paradoxteam.com or carrotandthestick.williamputsis.com.