(Note: This is a blog I published over 2 years ago, but the message needs repeating, at least to me!)
“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. Once implemented they can be easily overturned or subverted through apathy or lack of follow-up, so a continuous effort is required. — Admiral Hyman G. Rickover
Admiral Hyman Rickover was considered the father of the nuclear Navy and, as described by his officers and others, a man obsessed with leadership and responsibility. In the Admiral’s view of the world, leadership and responsibility were synonymous and he preached his mantra everywhere he went.
“Responsibility is a unique concept: it can only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.” – Admiral Hyman Rickover
I never had the pleasure of meeting the Admiral, but I worked closely alongside several of his officers and civilian staff in the early 1980’s. It was during this time that I came to understand the power of individual responsibility and how it can change the course of destiny and improve organisations.
Most people my age remember the 1979 Three Mile Island Nuclear accident. At the time it was the second most publicised media event in US history, next to the JFK assassination. For months on end the press treated the public to story after story and accusation after accusation on who was to blame, the “danger”caused, and the clean-up efforts.
It just so happened that in 1982 I was hired as a young consultant (okay, not so young!) to assist the new CEO of General Public Utilities Nuclear Corporation (the organisation responsible for all the GPU Nuclear assets), Philip Clark, in developing a leadership and culture change program to build a “culture of safety” at Three Mile Island. Phil Clark was a veteran of the Nuclear Navy Reactor program and a student of Admiral Rickover. And in building his new management team to take on the containment of the damaged TMI Unit 2 Reactor and the successful restart of the undamaged Unit 1, he chose others from Rickover’s Nuclear Navy. It was definitely the A-Team and I was proud to be associated with them.
And together we learned a great deal. From me they learned about the power of corporate culture and the “shadow of the leader” concept, as well as the importance of team building, even for highly technical nuclear engineers who didn’t want anything to do with “charm school”! But I think I got the better part of the deal, from them I learned the Rickover philosophy of responsibility and accountability.
If everyone is accountable, no one is accountable.
Thanks to the efforts and vision of Phil Clark and his leadership team, TMI Unit 1 is one of the safest and most productive nuclear power plants in the world, constantly setting records for continuous production and safety. Also, the damaged TMI Unit 2 has been successfully decommissioned and its damaged fuel cells safely contained.
Today in my work with CEOs on turnarounds and strategy execution, the lessons of Three Mile Island are always forefront in my workshops, trainings, coaching and advisory work.
If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month. -Theodore Roosevelt
John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
PS: John also writes thriller novels