There may be no better training ground for being a good leader than the armed forces. This Ivey professor served in the Canadian Navy and the lessons he learned more than 20 years ago have guided his own life and his approach to teaching leadership. Readers will learn what those valuable lessons are in this article.

Before I became an academic, I spent 21 years in the Canadian Navy. During that period I had the opportunity to serve as the navigating officer on four ships – each with very different roles and characteristics. As a navigating officer, I served with six different commanding officers. In addition, I served as the executive officer of three, different minor war vessels, working for three other commanding officers. Finally, I had the opportunity and honour to serve as the commanding officer of three minor war vessels during the last three years of my naval career. To say I learned a lot about leadership in these various roles, and from the commanding officers (CO) with whom I worked, would be an understatement. In this paper, I describe some of the leadership principles I learned and illustrate them with examples from my naval career.

From my first CO, I learned about compassion and to not let a worse-than-best performance go unnoticed. He had a standing rule that if someone missed the ship on sailing, this person would be charged, found guilty and fined $100. This was 1974 dollars. One of our senior engineers missed the ship one morning and was fined the $100. My CO stuck by his rule and let the rest of the ship’s company know that he would not tolerate this behaviour. A few days later he called the person into his office and let the person know that as well as fining him $100 he could quash the sentence imposed, making the fine go away. He then said that we needed $25 to fulfill our ship’s United Way quota. The person immediately wrote a check for the twenty-five dollars. The findings were quashed and the fine was rescinded.

I asked my CO why he quashed the findings. He told me that this person and his wife could not have children, so they had adopted five over the years and could afford $25 much more than they could afford $100. I got the point – compassion, while letting everyone in our organization know not to allow our performance to be worse than our best.

I also remember an incident where I was not at my best as his navigator. He did not embarrass me but he did quietly take me aside to let me know that he considered my performance less than he expected it to be. I got the point again. Suffice it to say that I wanted to do my very best for him. In addition, I learned to exercise compassion and to expect the best when I became an executive officer and a commanding officer.

From another CO I learned to trust my subordinates and the system that trained them. I learned this because I was the one he trusted when he followed my recommendation without questioning and our ship was kept from going aground. That same CO taught me to take the blame when I became a commanding officer and my Divisional Commander was upset with my ship’s performance, which was actually caused by a junior officer’s mistake. My CO taught me this principle by not standing up for one of my colleagues when my CO’s Squadron Commander was giving my colleague a hard time. In my view, my CO should have asked the Squadron Commander to pass his comments to my colleague through my CO. Consequently, many years later, I took the blame when my Divisional Commander was asking me why my ship had just done something wrong due to the mistake made by my young officer. I still remember the look of embarrassment on his face when I took the blame for his mistake. That look then turned into one of determination that I would never have to take the blame for him again. He served with me on two other ships after that incident and was one of my best junior officers.

My fifth CO was a cowboy, and I enjoyed being his navigator as I knew that I could take calculated risks to get the job done. From him I learned to always be completely honest. He was very comfortable with subordinates who admitted their mistakes but he fired subordinates who violated his trust, as two of my colleagues found out, much to their chagrin.

From the sixth CO, I learned two things. First, do not force a subordinate to have to work for two bosses – especially when the two bosses have diametrically opposed leadership styles. Our executive officer on that ship was a cowboy. Our CO was a very cautious, risk averse leader. I was put into a position where I had to navigate in a way that would please both. While I lasted the longest of 3 navigators who worked with that CO I eventually had to tell him that I was not performing as well as I should. I had basically lost my confidence working for two very different people. He agreed and told me he already had asked my career manager for a replacement. Secondly, I learned that I was a bit of a cowboy myself and that I had found it difficult to conform to his risk-averse nature. Basically, it meant that I needed to be more adaptable, a realization that helped me in my role as an executive officer.

From the first CO I worked with as an executive officer, I learned that there are different ways to get the job done, and that this would be okay. He was a meticulous planner while I was a “Let’s take a look and see what is happening and respond in the moment” type of person. He and I respected each other, and when called upon to serve our ship, he gave me the freedom to execute my responsibilities very differently than he would have done. I learned to allow my executive officers the same freedom.

The second CO I worked with as an executive officer taught me a valuable lesson in humility. I had been the executive officer for one year when he joined as the CO. It was his first ship as a commanding officer and he had never served on a ship of this class before. The navigator had been in his role for eighteen months. The navigator and I were very experienced and knew our jobs well. During the first trip after the CO joined, the navigator was conducting our ship through a challenging passage with strong currents and eddies, and was about to give a very appropriate helm order. The CO, not being fully aware of the consequences of a wrong helm order in this situation, took control. He gave a helm order that was the opposite of what the navigator had intended to give, putting on even more helm than the navigator had planned. The consequence was almost disastrous. But the CO was a quick learner and he kept the ship from grounding through a judicious use of helm and engine orders. He got the ship back onto her correct course, kept control and gave the correct orders to eventually exit the tight navigational passage. Once in open water, he turned to the navigator and me and very quietly said, “I blew that didn’t I.” We both answered “Yes” – also very quietly – and thus began a very tight, respectful relationship among the three of us that allowed our ship to perform at a very high level.

The third CO I served with as executive officer allowed me the latitude and freedom to perform my duties that I still appreciate today. He treated me as a professional, in a manner that made me always want to do my best for our ship, our ship’s company and him. From him I learned to trust my subordinates in a manner that I still use decades later. Do not get me wrong. He was not a pushover. He was a very experienced CO, but he had a way of giving you the utmost freedom, appropriate to your level of responsibility and competence.

While I learned much from my different COs, I also learned a lot from my own experiences in that role. As mentioned earlier, I served as the CO on three minor war vessels. This was in addition to being the officer-in-charge of a smaller patrol vessel. From these command experiences I learned several other lessons and had several of those mentioned above reinforced.

First, learn from your mistakes! The first day in charge of the smaller patrol vessel – my first command – we went aground. There are many reasons we went aground but the bottom line is that it was my fault. I publicly acknowledged that it was my fault and gained the respect of those who subsequently served with me on many trips on that ship. What amazed me is that while I was extricating our patrol vessel I realized that I had what it took to be the CO of a larger class of ship. I subsequently became command qualified and served as the CO of three different minor war vessels over the next four years.

One lesson I learned while commanding those larger ships was to find the most junior person on the ship and let them know how important they were in keeping our ship safe and, more importantly, our shipmates, safe. The most junior people on a naval vessel serve on a rotating basis as lookouts on the forepart of the ship, as well as a lookout/sentry on the after part of the ship that is called the quarterdeck. I made it a practice early in each deployment (usually in the first week) to visit this quarterdeck post two or three times in that first week and always during a night-time watch, sometime around 0300 to 0500. These junior sailors were experiencing their first sea voyage and had two responsibilities: to warn the bridge if another ship was overtaking us and getting to close, and to raise the alarm if one of our shipmates fell overboard. I would ask questions to ensure each sailor knew these responsibilities and how to contact the bridge and raise the alarm in an overboard situation.

I would then ask each one who they considered to be the most important person on the ship. Roughly 50 percent of the time the answer would be “Well, you are sir” and implicitly I could hear them saying “You are the CO.” I loved this answer because it gave me the opportunity to say “No, you are because if one of our shipmates falls overboard we are all counting on you to raise the alarm so we can recover that person as soon as possible.” You could see these very young 18 to 19 year olds develop a very different perspective on how important they were on our ship. Interestingly, I did not have to do this with every person who served in this role. I only had to do it with 2 or 3 out of seven or so.

A second lesson learned was to be patient with those who were doing their job in a way that was ‘different’ or innovative. When I exercised patience in these situations, I was more often than not pleased with the new ways we learned of doing many things.

A third, simple, but very powerful lesson was to use the pronoun ‘we’ most of the time and the pronoun ‘I’ very occasionally – generally when we were not performing well. A corollary of this rule is a principle I still use – give your appropriate subordinates the credit when things go well and take the responsibility yourself when things go wrong.

I find it very interesting when I discuss this principle with MBAs in my current role as a business professor. Their main concern – how will my boss know that I did/am doing a good job? Of course, this generates a great class discussion as those who get it tell the others that high performance by ‘your unit’ will reflect very well on ‘you’, that ‘it is not necessary to blow your own horn’ to get ahead and that giving credit where credit is due will build a great team of leaders who will want to achieve even more.

Fourth, have fun and do not be afraid to occasionally do fun things that are not in the plan of the day! In my last command we left port one Monday morning, with a pretty tight schedule and a plan to arrive at our next port on Friday afternoon. It was a gorgeous summer day in August. The ocean looked particularly inviting. My navigating officer came to me and recommended that we break from our plan of the day for an hour or so and allow the crew to swim off the ship. We did and crew morale was very positively impacted.

Fifth, develop principles that define how you will lead. Four principles that I used for guidance were: lead by example; set a high standard for performance; foster teamwork; and build a learning organization. To me, leading by example means that you do your job to the best of your ability and others in your organization will be encouraged to do their best. It also means that if your best is not good enough to get the job done – to achieve high performance – be prepared to turn the organization over to someone else and move into a different job more suited to your capabilities. Setting a high standard means setting one that is a stretch, though achievable with the right leadership and teamwork. Fostering teamwork means taking the time to train your organization so that people are trained to perform in multiple roles and know how to interact with each other to achieve a common goal – a high-performing organization that has a higher purpose.

While I was still in the navy I read an interview by the then CEO of General Motors. He said that GM was not in the business of making cars but in the business of making money. I believe this philosophy permeated GM and is one of the reasons GM’s performance deteriorated slowly from the early 80s to its recent bankruptcy. They did not have a higher purpose – making the best possible cars for their customers at the best price possible, consistent with making a reasonable return for its shareholders.

Building a learning organization is critical to long-term performance. Continuous improvement and quantum improvements are the hallmark of a learning organization. Learning continues to strengthen the foundation needed for the future.

Did I learn other leadership principles? Absolutely! But to summarize those discussed in this paper, they are:

  • Be compassionate and encourage best performance
  • Trust your subordinates, take the blame and stand up for your subordinates
  • If your subordinates are professionally trained and socialized treat them as professionals
  • Do not put your subordinates in the position of serving two masters – especially if the two have diametrically opposed leadership styles
  • Humility, honesty and integrity
  • Make the most junior people aware of their importance
  • Be patient with innovative people
  • Have fun
  • Lead by example, set a high standard, foster teamwork and build a learning organization.

There were a few COs from whom I learned what not to do, but I worked mostly with COs who were a very positive influence on the leadership principles I use even today. May your leadership journey be as fortunate!