This oped of mine first appeared in the National Board Bulletin, here.
Alongside a dock in Groton, Connecticut, is a floating museum piece: Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. It entered service more than a half century ago. Are there any useful lessons from something so far back into the Eisenhower era?
Visitors passing through the galley will see, prominently displayed, a list of the “Ten Commandments of Damage Control.” These are principles such as keeping cool and doing one’s duty in an emergency.
The quarters are tight, but there’s space for at least ten more commandments about how to avoid catastrophic accidents from high-energy technology. Here’s one I’d recommend for that list of bonus commandments: “Have a written, legal form that the inspector signs at the bottom: I hereby certify by my signature that I have actually observed or performed the step that I have checked off or initialed.”
That commandment is from The Man himself, Admiral Hyman Rickover, the man the nation knew as the Father of the Nuclear Navy.
Across the entire history of technology, Rickover set the standard for quality: not just for equipment but for people. Who else could have climbed out from a dead-end postwar job, to marshal the power, money, and talent to create a nuclear powered submarine in six years? And more than that: to create a durable, quality-driven organization that persists long after his retirement. Naval Reactors has built more than 200 power plants and operated them with zero meltdowns: no small achievement considering the ugly string of meltdowns and lesser radiation incidents in the Russian Navy.
In every talk I’ve given about my book Inviting Disaster since 2001, I’ve closed with a reference to Rickover and what he called the “Discipline of Technology.” Over those years, dozens of veterans have come up to share stories about their interviews with Rickover. In his 63 years of active service in the Navy (a record), Rickover interviewed more than 5,000 midshipmen for officer positions.
Those brief encounters were famous for the tricks he used to throw job applicants off their game: like the slippery, off-kilter chair for candidates, and the broom closet to which he banished middies he felt weren’t responsive enough to his barked and often unfair questions. Drawn from Ted Rockwell’s study of Naval Reactors, Rickover once explained it to an associate this way: “What I'm trying to find out is how they will behave under pressure. Will they lie, or bluff, or panic, or wilt? Or will they continue to function with some modicum of competence and integrity? I can't find that out with routine questions. I've only got a few minutes with each one, half an hour at most. I've got to shake 'em up.”
While stressing out the candidates was clearly part of his method, there was more at work. Recently I took a new look at submariners’ recollections about their “Rakeover” ordeals. He looked for what might be called breadth and depth of character. He favored those who had made their way in the world without family wealth or political connections. He favored those who won their grades at the US Naval Academy through persistence and hard work, rather than breezing through on natural talent. Having arrived as a young immigrant from Poland, and having spent his adolescence in near-poverty, he knew nothing but hard work.
Rickover didn’t ignore paper achievements. Before each interview he had a full folder showing the candidate’s class rank, grades by major and minor, and the results of screening interviews. In today’s human resources lexicon, that manila folder captured a good picture of what today we call the applicant’s KSA– his knowledge, skills, and abilities. Such info can be scored and weighted quickly by HR people or their trusty computers, and that’s important now that so many jobs need to be filled, and any one jobseeker can post hundreds of applications via the internet.
So it’s not that Rickover was oblivious to the importance of “KSA” strengths. Rather, he was adding another letter to that acronym: “I” for inclination.
Admittedly, inclination can be a hard thing to detect. But it’s worth the effort when people in leadership positions have the power to make catastrophic mistakes. Rickover wanted to know, for example, if a stressed applicant was going to blame others for his own shortcomings.
I believe that three questions, drawn from the content of quality-driven leaders like Rickover, can shine light into an applicant’s inclinations:
What are your goals, and what are you doing to get there?
What do you fear the most? In other words, what risks do you avoid?
Who are your peers, the people whose opinion you value?
Goals, fears, and peers are best indicated by actions and choices, not words. People in public view often claim to value a set of high-minded goals, while pursuing a very different set of selfish goals.
To get at peer connections, we have to go beyond the résumé listing of membership and professional groups. Is the applicant most drawn to like-minded people, or to those who challenge his opinions with critical thinking and skeptical questions?
Rickover’s early years in Naval Reactors show how a look at goals, fears, and peers can reveal inclination.
Rickover’s goal, which certainly seemed like a long shot in 1947, when his office was a remodeled bathroom and he lacked any staff or a budget, was to build a highly compact, safe, and efficient reactor for submarines. He’d served on diesel-electric subs during World War II and came away convinced that such boats, slow and short of range when submerged, couldn't survive anti-submarine attacks.
But just how much did he value success in hitting the nuclear power goal? What risks would he undertake on behalf of the program? That’s where a look at the fear angle tells the story. Rickover’s fear was that reactor accidents and leaks would shut down this promising technology.
Testing was one way he coped with that fear. In 1953, he prepared to test an exact duplicate of the reactor planned for Nautilus. Rickover wanted realism, so he had it mounted inside a section of submarine hull, complete with a propulsion system, to simulate the load on the steam plant. The location was a test facility in Idaho. The “Submarine Thermal Reactor, Mark I” (STR-1) ran fine in the first few hours: so well, in fact, that he could have stopped and called the test a success. Instead, he told the test crew he wanted to keep the reactor running long enough to simulate a voyage from North America to Ireland. Halfway through that span, the plant was making loud and worrisome noises.
Against much opposition from his team, he insisted on completing the four-day test, because it was better to learn fatal flaws on land than at sea. A teardown showed that the reactor did everything it was supposed to; it was the drive train that needed work.
Bureaucratically speaking, continuing with the full test was foolish, since Rickover’s file happened to be in front of an admirals’ review board that was strongly inclined to kick him into retirement. It would have been smarter to turn off STR-1 early and hush up any problems.
Instead, this story shows that Rickover’s fear was not about career or even his own hide. It was fear of releasing a flawed and dangerous technology into the world. Throughout the Nautilus project he not only sought out bad news, he demanded it.
When leaders are being picked to develop risky but promising technology, in which the margin of safety will be very slim, we will need more Rickovers.
Will the selection process find these needles in the haystack? If I had to think of a single trait that distinguishes Rickover of Naval Reactors from the much larger crowd of narcissistic, self-glorifying leaders, I'd suggest looking at risk tolerance. What risks have the candidates taken up to now, and why?
Rickover repeatedly took on big risks. But his life and times show that the goal he pursued by taking such risks wasn’t to stave off boredom, to ingratiate himself, or to pave the way for a cushy contractor job after retirement. His goal was nothing less than excellence: “No disasters on my watch – not on anybody’s watch.”