A Q&A on leadership with a nuclear sub commander
What can a nuclear submarine Commander teach captains of industry about leadership? Chris Middleton spoke to Commander Craig Fulton, RN, to find out in this exclusive Strategist Q&A on leading teams, strategy, and motivation.
Dealing well with pressure is one of the marks of a true leader. Some buckle under it, while others thrive. And what environment could contain more of it than a submarine? But under the sea, pressure is simply measured in bars. The other type – the psychological kind – is what an officer trains for, and it goes with the territory of commanding a small team in an armed metal capsule, away from home for between four and 10 months a year.
Commander Craig Fulton knows more about these things than many. An officer in the Royal Navy since his early twenties, 50-year-old Fulton has served beneath the waves on several boats, and commanded the nuclear submarine (SSN) HMS Sovereign and other vessels, serving tours of duty with NATO and multinational peace-keeping forces. [For Fulton's CV, please see box at the foot of this article.]
“I joined in the mid-80s and the Cold War was in full swing; submarines were the front and centre of a dangerous, secret game,” he says. “They offered challenge, excitement, early responsibility, extra pay and a lifestyle that lacked the ‘spit and polish’ formality of the rest of the Navy. I’m not sure why everyone didn’t volunteer for them. The lifestyle matched my character and I embraced it from the outset.”
The Strategist Q&A
Whatever our modern definitions may be, the word ‘strategy’ has its roots in the concept of marshalling forces to achieve military objectives. The Strategist spoke to Cdr. Fulton to find out how his experience of doing exactly that relates to situations that other leaders may face.
The Strategist: What are the most important skills for a submarine Commander to possess?
Cdr. Fulton: “He has to be a strong leader who generates the trust and loyalty of his team. But he also needs to be sure of his own ability and confident in making decisions without recourse to higher authority. There are plenty of experts onboard, but the big decisions all sit with the commanding officer (CO) alone.
“Knowing your limits is vital. A submarine CO who is not as good as he thinks is much more dangerous than a less capable one who knows his limitations and operates to them. There is no ‘Start new game’ button if you get it wrong, so you cannot drive your boat into a situation that you’re not capable of dealing with.
“The key difference between a submarine on operations and almost any other environment is that you cannot seek assistance from outside. Any form of communications – radio, email, and so on – would require a transmission, which we would expect an adversary to detect. That could compromise our position and so negate most of the point of being a submarine.”
For business leaders in this day and age, the idea of being unable to communicate with the outside world would seem inconceivable, even terrifying…
“We can suck in information and our hierarchy will be feeding us new orders and intelligence, but we will often go for many weeks or even months without transmitting in any form, so seeking advice or redirection is not possible.”
Submarines are, in every sense, highly pressurised environments – forgive the pun. In that intense situation, how many people might be under your command?
“A Swiftsure Class submarine normally takes 115-120 men to sea at once, but we have a rotating spare watch of people ashore. In total, my ship’s company was about 160 strong. It’s an unusual situation; 120 people separated from their families, crammed together in the same steel tube as a nuclear reactor and a magazine full of lethal weapons, then placed under the sea and dispatched to some challenging places.”
How does that pressure affect the leadership?
“It doesn’t. The leaders have all been ‘brought up’ in this environment and feel very comfortable in it. But that requires a management hierarchy that is rigid and formal, and an operational routine which ensures that everything which can be is planned well in advance. So each boat develops a routine of formal and informal planning meetings to ensure that the right decisions are made by the right people, in a controlled manner and at the right time.
“We hate surprises, and if the Captain is surprised by a decision which could have been foreseen he will become grumpy very quickly. Inevitably, unexpected things do crop up, like a fire onboard, and if there’s no time for discussion then the rigid military hierarchy cuts in. The senior officer makes the call and everyone obeys without hesitation. There might be a ‘post event’ discussion, but direct orders are not open for debate.”
And how does the submarine environment affect the crew?
“Separation is part of the life. There’s a low day or two when you have to say goodbye to your family and sail on a long trip, but people bounce back and get into the seagoing routine very quickly. Time on watch can be pretty intense, but submariners are, by necessity, a pretty laid-back bunch. It’s no place for arguments, because you don’t want ill-feeling to be festering for months with the protagonists in such close proximity. So people generally ‘agree to disagree’ quickly.
“There are a host of rules, mostly unspoken, based around keeping the atmosphere cordial. And everything is based on a routine, so that in this rather demanding situation everything that can be predictable is predictable. Round the clock everyone slips into their own unique routine as well.
“In my whole career I have never known a fight onboard. That is helped by the no-alcohol regimen; it is allowed in small quantities, but no-one bothers.”
How do you keep them motivated?
“The ship’s company stays motivated for two good reasons: first, because individuals believe that what they are doing is making a genuine difference for the security of their country, and second, because they don’t want to let down the rest of the team.
“One of the by-products of being in a tight team is that there is a strong desire to be respected by the other members of it. Individuals who are not willing to pull their weight, or who lose the trust of those around them, quickly become isolated and unhappy. So from the leader’s point of view, as long as you can convince the team that they are collectively doing a valuable job and then demand high and achievable standards, it’s possible to keep motivation at a very high level.
“Even a large organisation is made up of teams. So my advice to any leader would be to expend effort on making people feel that (a) the team is worth being part of, and (b) that they are a key and valued member of that team. The typical ‘team building’ day – an adventurous activity of some sort – is usually doomed to failure because it fails to address those points.
“Despite the isolation and obvious difficulties, I suspect that it is much easier for a submarine Captain to keep his team motivated than, say, the manager in a factory where the ultimate goal is profit.
“A close friend of mine left the Royal Navy and went to work for a big department store chain. He hated it. His frustration was that the people working for him only saw their job as a means to an end. Individuals might have had a couple of mates on the shop floor, but they didn’t display any loyalty to their departmental team or to their employer. As a result, they had no real interest in doing any more than the bare minimum.”
What problems present themselves at sea in a submarine – loneliness, stress, claustrophobia, for example? How many of them are unique to that environment?
“Claustrophobia is not an issue. In my 30 years as a submariner I can only think of one guy who really couldn’t handle it, and he left the boat on the day he joined. Thankfully, we don’t have press gangs any more so, generally, everyone is onboard because they want to be. The CO’s job is to make sure that everyone wants to stay; a high rate of voluntary retirement does not reflect well on the leadership.
“If people don’t like the lifestyle then they can always resign, so the guys you have around you are either new and excited about it all, or old hands and happy with it. It breeds a tight community, with its own collective character.
“Do people get lonely and stressed? I guess they do sometimes, but the leadership is continuously keeping an eye out for anyone who is struggling and the community as a whole knows that isolating someone is not acceptable. So ‘the group’ is quick to support if it needs to.
“The truth of the matter is that it’s a very accepting community. Everyone is measured by whether they can be trusted to do their job; black or white, straight or gay, married or single, religious or atheist – all these labels pale into insignificance against the much more important one: trustworthy or untrustworthy?
So the Royal Navy has become more inclusive?
“Yes. When I joined there were no women at sea, there was very poor representation from ethnic minority groups, and homosexuality was a military offence for which you could be charged. I’m glad to say that we have come a long way – and incidentally, the first three female submariners qualified this year. Equal Opportunities, anti-discrimination regulation, health and safety and all the other codes which have changed society as a whole have impacted on life in the Armed Forces.
“Has this placed more limitations on our military leaders? Yes. Has it made life in the forces better? Yes. There is probably more paperwork than I would like, and that can be a problem. Paperwork can stifle leadership if it forces leaders to do their job from behind a computer screen rather than with their teams.
“I’ve noticed that many junior officers prefer to send out an e-mail rather than sort out a problem personally. This ultimately slows down the rate at which junior leaders become confident in their ability to stand up, take charge, and be counted.”
What else have you learned about leadership from commanding a submarine?
“Every submarine Captain has their own way of doing things. The training over the years allows you to learn your strengths and weaknesses, and so by the time you are in command you are able to play to your strengths. Some COs are strong on technical knowledge and some are stronger on people skills; some are liked and some are feared. Inspiring the team is not always easy because you are operational for such a long time. It’s not the place for a big Churchillian speech; you have to genuinely make people want to do the job night and day, for week after week.
“I make a point of trying to understand the strategic background to everything we are required to do, and then breaking that knowledge down to a level that is relevant and understandable for every man onboard. If someone understands that their part – however little – in the big scheme of things is vital, then they will normally give it their best effort.
“Of course, the reality is that the day-to-day frustrations can make life hard – manpower shortages, pressure of work, lack of sleep, separation, maintenance issues, issues at home – but as the leader of the team you have to keep people looking at the big picture, and stop them from getting too focused about the irritations of the here and now.
“People seem to think that just because an individual is in the Armed Forces he will give 100 per cent all the time, and unquestioningly follow orders. It is true that a subordinate will follow a direct order, but that’s not enough. For example, just because you order someone to “go and fix that pump” or “go watch that sonar screen” does not mean that they will do the job to the best of their ability.”
How much room is there for you to lead in your own way in the armed forces, and how much is a matter of correct procedure?
“Of course, the Royal Navy trains its individuals to a high and uniform standard, and procedurally one boat will conduct an evolution in much the same way as another. But the atmosphere onboard – by which I mean the morale, efficiency and general level of effort – varies enormously and is entirely dependent on the leadership.
“Within the community, a submarine is often referred to by the name of the CO, and vice versa. The squadron staff ashore would often refer to me as ‘Sovereign’, and if the boat was referred to as ‘Fulton’ then everyone would know what was meant. A submarine starts to respond, and to an extent take on, the personality of its Captain quicker than you might think.
“As CO, you have a stake in every problem on board. Every machinery breakdown, every programme change, every accident and personal injury, every disciplinary incident or marriage breakdown among the ship’s company.”
How much of your own personality can you put into the role?
“I have effectively grown from boy to man as a submariner, so it would be ridiculous to pretend that my whole personality is not intrinsically tied to the naval way of life. I consider myself to be loyal, professional and hard working. Within bounds, I generally prefer flair and initiative rather than rigid adherence to rules, and I also think that life is here to be enjoyed. Hopefully these attitudes have rubbed off on my teams.
“In my early career, I was fortunate enough to have a couple of Captains who were happy to delegate a lot of responsibility to me, which pushed me to be the best that I could be – and better than I thought I could be. I have always sought to pass on that opportunity.
“It always feels more comfortable to be making the decisions yourself and checking everything meticulously. But I believe that in the long run it is better to delegate as much as you can. Good delegation generates self-worth down the chain and more highly motivated people. Ultimately this creates a much stronger team, even if the boss has to take some flak on behalf of his team along the way. I firmly believe that a great leader should be trying to make himself redundant by creating others in his image.”
Have you ever had cause to regret or rethink that belief?
“I don’t think that I ever made a radical change to my approach, but delegation is a skill in itself and as I have become more senior I have become better at recognising who is worth investing trust and training in. I used to naively think that everyone was a hard worker at heart, but I grudgingly accept that there seem to be a few whose DNA is geared towards minimum effort and zero responsibility. I’ve become pretty good at sniffing those out and, of course, they need to be handled differently.”
To what extent do you train specifically for being in charge of a submarine, as opposed to command in general?
“For the first couple of years there is a common training pathway for all Warfare Officers, and I had served in three different ships before I had to choose whether to stay in General Service – in ships – or move into a specialist area. But once you are a Warfare Officer in submarines you are automatically on an upward pathway to command. You can jump off the path, or be removed from it, but staying still is not an option.
“We need a rapid throughput to get the right number of good quality guys into the command positions and, unlike most commercial companies, there is no sideways entry option. The Navy can’t go to a headhunter and ask him to provide a submarine captain!
“But there are some big differences. For one thing, being underwater is inherently more dangerous than floating on the surface and so you need to be attuned to danger.
“As you gain experience you learn to instinctively and continuously be aware of things, like the temperature and salinity of the water around you, the quality of the air that you are breathing on board, the error ellipse around your navigational position and even the pressure onboard – that’s measured in bars, not heart-rate. Being aware of all these things creates a sort of sixth sense when things are not right. Many of these things are relevant to a surface ship captain too, but many aren’t – and there is a lot less room for error when you are deep underwater.”
What are your key memories from your time at sea?
“A high point was the end of the four-week at-sea assessment phase of Submarine Command Course. The senior instructor put out his hand and said ‘Congratulations, Captain!’ That was the culmination of a lot of concentrated effort on top of 12 years’ persistent work. It was a pretty good moment.
“Equally, I remember a moment when the reality of command kicked in. It was fairly early in my first command, HMS Chiddingfold, and after a period of exercising at sea we were visiting a port with a navigationally confined entrance. My navigating officer was delegated control of the situation with a local pilot offering advice. However, an unexpected tidal eddy and strong gust of wind span the ship out of the channel and towards an underwater mud bank and an anchored vessel.
“The bridge of a warship is pretty crowded in confined waters and when it goes wrong people physically and practically look to the CO to sort it out. I remember the silence as it all started to go wrong, and being aware of all the heads as they turned towards me to see what I was going to do. Luckily I made a couple of good, strong manoeuvres and saved the embarrassment of a grounding or collision.
“I’ve made bigger and more important decisions since, but at that moment, as all their eyes bored into me, I remember thinking, ‘Ah, this is what command is.’” TS
Signal, not noise.