This lesson in leadership is a story of redemption and humility. Over the next few months this story will take you from the beginning to the end of Commander Kevin Mooney’s command of the USS San Francisco, while sharing valuable lessons in leadership along the way.
The beginning… Commander Kevin Mooney had a 20-year career as a nuclear marine sub officer for the US Navy, and in 2003 he took over as commanding officer of the USS San Francisco. Prior to Commander Mooney, the ship was struggling under its previous commanding officer. The ship was performing so poorly that the “San Francisco Standard” became a negative phrase associated with the ship because their standards were so low, they couldn’t become certified to go out on missions.
Ships in general, but in particular submarines, are worlds in themselves. Nuclear power subs don’t have to come up because they are independently creating power. While there are plenty of hazards on a ship, there are even more on a nuclear submarine because any problems you encounter you have to create the resources to solve them. This is why your ship always has to be at the highest state of readiness. You rig the sub for fire, flood, etc.; however, the USS San Francisco couldn’t even adequately rig the sub during their drills. It was going to be a tough turnaround for Commander Mooney, as the crew needed a lot of learning and a culture shift.
When Commander Mooney became commanding officer, he created a San Francisco Creed for the crew to abide by. He also created a command philosophy that he posted around the ship to hold everyone, including himself, accountable. He would run drills again and again until the ship was rigged properly and ready to go. By the end of 2004 the USS San Francisco was certified and even competed a few special missions.
So how did Commander Mooney take the “San Francisco Standard” from a joke to a certified nuclear sub? How do you get started on a new leadership role, especially when turnover isn’t optimal? When you enter a new leadership position or are taking the course to become a better leader in your current position you should do the following:
- Create a turnover checklist.
- Get to know the people who work for you.
- Make an effort to meet everyone.
- Give them a chance to know you, your vision, your thoughts, and your expectations.
- Remember you’re only going to be as good as they are.
- Continuously learn about leadership.
- Follow the blueprint in The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins.
- Other useful books are: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey; Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan;5 Levels of Leadership by John C. Maxwell; and Situational Leader by Paul Hersey.
To compete these steps, Commander Mooney recommends this two-step systematic approach. Phase 1 is internal focus. You need to get to know your people. During this phase you can conduct individual interviews or roundtable discussions with four to eight people to compile direct responses on challenges, opportunities, barriers, and key resources within the crew. You can also ask questions like, “What would you do if you were in my position?” With the information you compile you can identify patterns within the crew’s responses and analyze why some may have similar responses and others divided. You can also use this data to take immediate action and create small wins. Phase 2 is external focus. Here you turn your focus away from the crew to those you serve, their needs, and if you are meeting those needs. From there you assess your crew and identify what state your crew is in: turnaround, realignment, sustaining success, or shutdown. When Commander Mooney took over the USS San Francisco they were in a turnaround. Be careful if you think your crew is sustaining success, because you are most likely in another category. You should never be satisfied with the current state of your skills, but always working to get better. You don’t achieve excellence without constantly trying to improve.
By Alicia Iwakiri, LAFDLA presentation of Commander Kevin Mooney