Forbes on Leadership (Adm. Rickover)

I love reading articles about practical leadership in action.  Lessons learned from leaders who charted a course, stuck to their vision and motivated others to cooperatively make it a reality.

This is different than countless articles about what I call leadership theory – musings and ponderings about what might work, opinions rather than testimony, and conjecture instead of recollection.

Forbes is often a good place to find practical articles about leadership in action.  One such recent article examined some learning points gleaned from the long career of Admiral Rickover, USN.  More specifically, these highlights came from a book “Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy” authored by Rear Adm. David Oliver (Ret.) (in case you find you’d like to dig deeper).

Hyman Rickover was best known for his work in moving the Navy out of diesel submarines and into nuclear ones.  This transition involved far more than changing the power source – it required a culture change, too.  Admiral Rickover’s leadership in change management and building a new culture around his programs can provide insights into our building of a new organization at Trail Life USA, and to understand some of what has been happening at the prior organization in terms of continuing culture shift.

The first major point of observation offered in the Forbes article is “change the people to change the culture”.  In Rickover’s case, he needed to shift from “muscle-bound warriors” to “engineers” as the nuclear propulsion systems are very advanced, computer controlled systems.  Additionally, the tactics of “cold war” tracking and “hunting” required an approach more like chess than checkers.  This isn’t to detract in any way the valor, alertness or courage of the sailors who served in diesel boats, but merely to recognize that sometimes the way forward requires a different approach.  Those who make the change successfully should keep moving forward, while others may need to step back in order for the larger vision to yield the greatest result.

In an organization like Trail Life USA, I think we need to recognize that some old habits and ways of thinking need to be shed at the doorway to our collective future.  Trail Life USA (TLUSA) isn’t designed to be a mirror image of The Prior Organization (TPO) in that TPO had, arguably, built up some “bad habits” over time and gone down several paths that simply don’t mesh with TLUSA’s vision for youth development (this might include things like interfaith (no faith) services, religious pluralism, movement away from teaching scouting ideals, trying to embrace a new, improved scouting program build around “modern views/ethics” and so on).

In this same vein, TLUSA ought to continue to carefully screen the ideology/vision of folks who will serve in advisory roles, or follow on as the next generation of leadership within the organization – do they share the same vision or are they likely to make radical changes to program, curriculum, content or vision?  The prior organization has seen an ongoing shift in people added to key positions that brought political and social engineering changes with them – a desire to get into the organization and change it to reflect the way they think it should go.  The continued turnover of key positions has not preserved the core traditions, but continued to challenge them as being outdated and contrary to modern society’s “world view.” (

The second point offered in the article was “get expert advice, then stick with your decisions.”  Adm. Rickover was concerned about radiation exposure.  He queried experts in the field and then divided their recommendations by 100 to be even more conservative.  This drew criticism that the new boats were slower than their Russian counterparts (due to heavy radiation shielding), but in the end, this decision was critical to winning the cold war effort for a number of compelling reasons (see original article for a detailed analysis).

TLUSA has worked with a broad base of experts in both traditional scouting areas and non-traditional areas, too.  A shining example of great results has been its early adoption of technology to communicate (town hall meetings via web cast, use of broadcast quality videos to educate and promote, etc. Another example has been the early and strong focus on youth protection programs (and rightfully so!)  Still, we must resist the inclination to push back when the experts recommend a conservative path that takes longer to develop than we’d like.  We all wanted uniforms immediately, but were not aware of the many layers of technical details that were critical to that effort’s long term success.  Thankfully, those issues were very thoughtfully addressed to help avoid problems in the future.

We must also be careful to examine our choice in experts carefully.  The prior organization has made some amazing choices based on recommendations by experts.  One of my favorite examples was the decision to ensure that their largest, newest camping facility had 4G cell service throughout (despite being touted as a high adventure facility which seemingly promises to get us away from civilization for a while.)  The cost overruns for this facility have placed a financial millstone around the organizations neck.  In our effort to become the premier youth development program, we must be willing to set a realistic pace, identify experts and use wisdom to take their advice with a grain of salt – for the betterment of our program constituents (those families we exist to serve by fostering life changing relationships with God as we pursue outdoor adventuring as our theme).

The importance of empowered talent” was the third key point offered.  In Adm. Rickover’s case, he brought women into the program at a time when women were not as empowered as they are today.  As the article points out, this wasn’t to promote a social agenda, but to get the right talent, skills and experience in place to best serve the needs of the organization.  We have to be careful to recruit and empower the “best fit” people as we grow – recognizing talent over stereotype, and preserving tradition only where it makes a material difference in outcomes.

Building a board, advisers, and area point men that share a common vision, even if pulled together from unlikely (atypical) sources, makes a difference in sharing and realizing the aims of the organization.  More importantly, giving these advisers the flexibility to respond in the field to improve processes and send that feedback up the chain without fear of admonishment helps the organization improve quickly.  At TPO, Scoutmasters, Unit Commissioners and District Executives could become frustrated by inflexible policies pushed down from “National” without considering the impact locally.  Vice versa, programs run locally that showed promise often withered as they were promoted up the chain of command – often leaving local volunteers feeling frustrated and isolated.

Shared experiences should help us grow better, faster.  TLUSA seems to be empowering local teams to try new things to find out what works best.  What a breath of fresh air!

The Way Forward?

How do you feel about these leadership and change management concepts? What do you see at TPO versus TLUSA as we start our second “official” year?  What can we do better?  What will we lay down and leave behind in order to have a stronger realization of our goals? Are we ready to let go of some traditions if they’re at odds with the way forward (Seton’s promotion of a caricaturized Native American mythology, freemasonry overtones,  Are we ready to embrace new traditions in their place which raise the standard higher?


4 thoughts on “Forbes on Leadership (Adm. Rickover)

  1. Paul, interesting thoughts. I read the Forbes article and have a SLIGHTLY different spin on Rickover. Having been one of the “interviewees” and see the results of his leadership style, I would summarize his style as 1) requiring unquestioning loyalty to him 1st, and the Navy 2nd; 2) He wanted brilliant technical minds to be able to solve problems as they occurred, but discouraged innovation outside the bounds of his authority (he was a major resister to the idea of mounting Ballistic missiles to submarines, something that happened DESPITE what he wanted, 3) he was in charge of the nuclear navy and served 63 years, but much of that was because he threatened that without his leadership, Navy would have a nuclear accident (which could have been true). My interview with him was as wild and strange as many of the stories you’ve heard but it convinced me that it had nothing to do with me being part of his Nuclear program and everything to do with him being able to say that he interviewed everyone who entered the Nuclear program. Thankfully, he passed on my participation and I was much happier for that!

    • Great feedback and I appreciate the insights into the man. I had heard similar accounts of eccentricities. I may not have made it clear enough in my blog post that I was fascinated with the principles espoused NOT the man espousing them.

      Sometimes we can get good ideas from imperfect leaders despite the personality quirks or “flaws”. For instance I have found a lot of useful material from the biography of Robert Rogers (Roger’s Rangers) despite his brief stint as an accessory to counterfeiting and later decision to side with the British loyalists.

      I suppose we need to keep our eyes wide open on the character of the leader but also not be afraid to receive valid learning points where we can find them.

      I hope that seems reasonable.

  2. Paul, I am not familiar with Adm. Rickover, but I do appreciate your balanced and insightful comments about our (sometimes apparently slow) progress. Behind-the-scenes, structures and systems are being put into place that will assure (by GOD’s grace and empowerment) a thriving discipleship and adventure program for generations to come.

    • Rob, thanks for the feedback! I believe that you, Mark, the Board members and the area Point Men are collectively doing an amazing job. Not only is a new organization being created from scratch, but all of you have gone out of your way to solicit and incorporate suggestions as much as possible while remaining true to the vision, mission and goals established from the start.

      I have been blessed to contribute in small ways such as serving as committee member on the Delta Life team, handbook second printing review team, workshop chaperone at the conference,etc. these activities pale in comparison to the heavy lifting that goes on daily to keep this program moving and growing…but it let me observe from the wings of the stage two important details: the Holy Spirit is present and the people involved love God more than the program (as it should be)…”seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added uto you”

      Rob, I do pray for you, Mark, the Board members and the Point Men (perhaps not as consistently as I ought to, but the team is on my list and I know it makes a difference!). It would be great to publish a prayer calendar to remind supporters of standing needs that could be brought before God throughout the month…something that would never be considered at TPO.

      Lastly, many TLUSA supporters may not realize how challenging it really is to do what your team is accomplishing (and that it’s actually happening at a fast pace for an organization this large). I just want to publicly say Thank You and keep up the good work! Now, about the cost of those official socks….(LOL)

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