Empowerment is Not Enough


Nuclear Submarine HMS Vanguard Returns to HMNB...

Nuclear Submarine HMS Vanguard Returns to HMNB Clyde, Scotland (Photo credit: Defence Images)


When I took command of the USS Santa Fe I thought I would be a leader who empowered his subordinates. The nuclear powered submarine was not performing well. People were doing what they were told, initiative was non-existent and fear of making mistakes paralyzed most decision makers into inaction. Plagued with poor morale and operational problems, almost every sailor who could was leaving the navy. Retention was at the bottom of the fleet. Based upon my Naval Academy leadership training, I set about inspiring and empowering my men, upholding high standards of professionalism and exhorting the benefits of teamwork.

Shortly after taking command I did what no captain of a nuclear submarine should ever do – I made a mistake. I suggested to the Officer of the Deck, the watch officer who actually orders the submarine’s speed and depth that he order something that was not possible at the time. The startling thing was that he immediately ordered it. He later told me that he knew it wasn’t executable but ordered it anyway because I “told him to.” I realized that we had a crew that was trained for compliance, not critical thinking.


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