Quite by accident, I discovered the transcript of a speech by Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986) at GovLeader.org, a website developed “by and for government managers who believe that having great leadership at all levels is critical to the effectiveness of government.” Especially in recent years, I could not agree more.
Here’s an opportunity to learn at least a little bit about a truly unique military leader, and, to share his thoughts about subjects directly relevant to all levels and in all areas of human enterprise.
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Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986), the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” was one of the most successful — and controversial — public managers of the 20th Century. His accomplishments are the stuff of legend. For example, in three short years, Rickover’s team designed and built the first nuclear submarine—the Nautilus—an amazing feat of engineering given that it involved the development of the first use of a controlled nuclear reactor. The Nautilus not only transformed submarine warfare, but also laid the groundwork for a whole fleet of nuclear aircraft carriers and cruisers (which was also built by Rickover and his team).
The text below is an excerpt from a speech Rickover delivered at Columbia University in 1982, in which he succinctly outlined his management philosophy. His determination, clarity of purpose, emphasis on developing his people, high standards, and willingness to give his people ownership of their work had to have been very inspiring. He had exceptionally high standards and was known to take some of these same strengths to extremes, however, which no doubt led to his reputation in some circles as being difficult to work for. On that cautionary note, GovLeaders.org is pleased to present Rickover’s own description of his management style.
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Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done. For this reason, subordinates must be given authority and responsibility early in their careers. In this way they develop quickly and can help the manager do his work. The manager, of course, remains ultimately responsible and must accept the blame if subordinates make mistakes.
As subordinates develop, work should be constantly added so that no one can finish his job. This serves as a prod and a challenge. It brings out their capabilities and frees the manager to assume added responsibilities. As members of the organization become capable of assuming new and more difficult duties, they develop pride in doing the job well. This attitude soon permeates the entire organization.
One must permit his people the freedom to seek added work and greater responsibility. In my organization, there are no formal job descriptions or organizational charts. Responsibilities are defined in a general way, so that people are not circumscribed. All are permitted to do as they think best and to go to anyone and anywhere for help. Each person then is limited only by his own ability.
Complex jobs cannot be accomplished effectively with transients. Therefore, a manager must make the work challenging and rewarding so that his people will remain with the organization for many years. This allows it to benefit fully from their knowledge, experience, and corporate memory.
The Defense Department does not recognize the need for continuity in important jobs. It rotates officer every few years both at headquarters and in the field. The same applies to their civilian superiors.
This system virtually ensures inexperience and nonaccountability. By the time an officer has begun to learn a job, it is time for him to rotate. Under this system, incumbents can blame their problems on predecessors. They are assigned to another job before the results of their work become evident. Subordinates cannot be expected to remain committed to a job and perform effectively when they are continuously adapting to a new job or to a new boss.
When doing a job—any job—one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in the job forever. He must look after his work just as conscientiously, as though it were his own business and his own money. If he feels he is only a temporary custodian, or that the job is just a stepping stone to a higher position, his actions will not take into account the long-term interests of the organization. His lack of commitment to the present job will be perceived by those who work for him, and they, likewise, will tend not to care. Too many spend their entire working lives looking for their next job. When one feels he owns his present job and acts that way, he need have no concern about his next job.
In accepting responsibility for a job, a person must get directly involved. Every manager has a personal responsibility not only to find problems but to correct them. This responsibility comes before all other obligations, before personal ambition or comfort.
A major flaw in our system of government, and even in industry, is the latitude allowed to do less than is necessary. Too often officials are willing to accept and adapt to situations they know to be wrong. The tendency is to downplay problems instead of actively trying to correct them. Recognizing this, many subordinates give up, contain their views within themselves, and wait for others to take action. When this happens, the manager is deprived of the experience and ideas of subordinates who generally are more knowledgeable than he in their particular areas.
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To learn more about Admiral Rickover, please click here.
To check out its resources and learn more about GovLeader, please click here.