Leadership Principles That Started in a Navy Cockpit and Took Flight

Ask any group of managers to define leadership, and you’ll quickly build a list of qualities and behaviors that are always interesting and occasionally contradictory.  Great leaders are inspiring, courageous, and compassionate.  They lead from the front, or the rear. They engage, or get out of the way.  They are passionate and energized, or practical and effective. They are born, not made, except when they are made, not born. They are enthusiastic, realistic, and of course, “Leaders Eat Last” (with apologies to Simon Sinek).

So what’s the common thread?

Is great leadership so situational, so personal, that no two people experience it in the same way, or is this a case where we’re overlooking an underlying principle?

JP Kelly and I recently chose to tackle this question. Our goal was simple.  We sought to identify the leadership principles driving measurable success in organizations of every kind. We decided to document a detailed, double blind study of leadership techniques.

Here’s the plan:

1) Randomly select two individuals with virtually identical backgrounds to be our unwitting (yes, unwitting) human subjects.

2) Establish a baseline of leadership behaviors by immersing our subjects, together, in a dangerous, real-world environment with an intense focus on teamwork, decision-making, communications and motivation, and zero control over their mission, environment, compensation, or team composition.

3) After five years, remove our subjects from the lab and release them into the world for an extended double blind trial on leadership, conducted without their consent or knowledge.

4) After an additional 25 years, reunite and interview the subjects, measure their outcomes, and publish the results of three decades on parallel tracks,

But wait, you say, that will require a time machine, right?

It would, of course, unless the research began thirty years ago, which is where our prior experience comes in to play.

JP and I first met when we served as members of Crew 11, flying anti-submarine missions from the flight deck of USS Ranger during the height of the Cold War.  We’re the same age, have nearly identical backgrounds, and both chose to volunteer for naval aviation, JP as a pilot and myself as a naval flight officer.  For five years, we worked in the same kind of airplane.  For three of those years, we served in the same squadron, the same crew, and for a year, even worked together in our “ground jobs” in the squadron.  In 1983, we went our separate ways, with JP remaining in the Navy for three command tours, while I left the Navy and went the corporate route.

Reunited after 30 years, we were struck by the similarities between our individual leadership challenges and the way we solved them.  We discovered that we had been “Leading in Parallel”, effectively completing a thirty year study on applied leadership principles.

For us, the bottom line is this: Naval aviation does not necessarily produce great leaders, but it does create an environment that enables something we call “Principled Leadership” to emerge.  Based on our experience any organization can drive dramatic improvement by applying four Principles of Mission, Team, Future, and Fun. That’s what we’ll begin to tackle in installment #2 of this series.

Dennis “DB” Brouwer is a certified leadership coach with a tactician’s view of the world.  As a Naval Flight Officer, his job was to enable the original Crew 11 to find and “neutralize” Soviet submarines stalking the carrier battle group.  After leaving the Navy, he worked as a sales rep before moving on to a wide variety of leadership positions and turnaround scenarios where he has seen, and worked through, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Along the way, he co-founded a venture-backed software company, led the turnaround of a $275m business unit, and served as a senior executive at a Fortune 200 company.  He is a Crew11 Managing Partner and co-founder. 

James “JP” Kelly is the consummate hands-on leader.  As a Navy pilot with 6,000 flight hours and hundreds of carrier landings under his belt, he was once named Tactical Aviator of the Year. In addition to serving in the National Military Command Center and as Ops boss on USS Constellation, JP has completed three successful command tours; including two squadron commands, and one as Commodore, Sea Control Wing, Pacific. Now a retired Navy Captain, JP spent the past ten years as a leadership instructor and small business owner.  He is a Managing Partner and co-founder at Crew11.

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