Admiral Rickover and The Responsibility of Leadership

(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

Posted by:

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

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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