On this Veteran’s Day I am reminded that my first exposure to a really good leader was in the U.S. Navy. I accepted an officer commission to the Navy while still in college, which committed me to spending four years teaching at Naval Nuclear Power School (NPS). The commanding officer of NPS was always a Captain in rank and had previously commanded a nuclear submarine. These were senior officers who had risen through the ranks and proven themselves to be highly capable. After all, it goes without saying that the Navy doesn’t give the command of a nuclear submarine to just anyone!
That said, I experienced three different commanding officers while at NPS with vastly different leadership abilities. My favorite by far was Captain Gary Jensen. He was the kind of boss you would have followed anywhere. He was really smart: a top graduate from both the Naval Academy and Nuclear Power School with a graduate degree in mathematics. But as I am often reminded, being really smart doesn’t always translate to great leadership. What made him special was that he fundamentally understood what made a great leader. He mastered the three Cs of credibility, competence and caring and probably some other things about leadership that I haven’t yet learned.
One particular incident sticks in my mind. Most of the students on the officer side of Nuclear Power School were fresh out of college with engineering or related degrees. The biggest challenge for students was the pace of the material. There were six or seven hours of lecture each day that consisted largely of instructors writing notes on the board about as fast as they could, and the students copying everything down. We weren’t allowed to hand out any printed material. If you were familiar with the material as many of the new grads with technical degrees were, it was manageable. But we had some students at NPS who weren’t so lucky: These special students were senior officers who had been selected for a command slot aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier.
The commanding officer of an aircraft carrier is always a pilot, since flight operations are the primary mission, but they are required by the Navy to attend Nuclear Power School first. For these pilots who had been out of school for 20 years and often did not have technical degrees to start with, this was a major challenge. Also, since they significantly outranked all the instructors and everyone else at the school other than the commanding officer, it was a little uncomfortable when they had problems. All the staff understood that if one of these senior officers wanted help, you provided whatever you could. The only question that arose involved grading their exams.
Our normal procedure was to grade the exams blind, not knowing the name of the student. I noticed though that some of the time our division director pulled out the exams of the senior officers and adjusted their grades where possible to give them more credit. I wasn’t really comfortable with this. It seemed to me if they were supposed to pass NPS to get their command, we should make sure they passed fair and square. Extra help on their homework was fine, but changing test scores seemed to cross the line.
When I was put in command of our teaching group, I tried to get clarification on the policy. When I asked my immediate boss, I got a very wishy-washy answer that basically said to me that he didn’t want to deal with the issue. Not being happy with that, I went to Captain Jensen, the commanding officer. He said in unambiguous terms that test grading was sacred and should never be compromised based on the student. He further said that I could send anyone who had a problem with this directly to him.
I had total confidence that he had my back if some senior officer had complained. When you practice the three Cs, you empower your people to perform without fear and reach their full potential. Do your people know you have their back?
On this Veteran’s Day as we reflect on all of those who have honorably served our country, I want to send a special shout out to Captain (Retired) Gary Jensen.