I was doing some work for a class in leadership on the weekend when I happened to catch the latest episode of This American Life. Here's the show summary:
Life aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier that was stationed in the Arabian Sea and supported bombing missions over Afghanistan. Only a few dozen people on board actually fly jets. It takes the rest of the crew — over 5,000 people — to keep them in the air.This American Life producers visited the Stennis in 2002, about six weeks into its deployment. The hour is devoted to this one story.
My brain mushed the two topics - leadership and aircraft carriers - together. The part that really caught my attention was the ratio of crew (>5,000 people) to pilots (<50). I know that ratio is similar to any large organization from retail chains to manufacturing giants. But the fighter pilot example captured my imagination because the realities are so stark.
The people on that ship give up a lot; they leave families behind, they work long hours, they rarely go outside, and even their personal relationships are monitored. The only thing that gives their work meaning is the ability of the people at the top - the Top Guns with their right stuff - to perform. If they fail, the entire crew fails.
No matter how well the cook cooks or the rookie cleans, they can't make the mission succeed. They can screw up and sink the mission, but they can't make it succeed without the pilots.
That is an insane amount of pressure, and it's not mentioned anywhere in any of my leadership texts. The texts all assume leaders have oodles of time to develop their emotional intelligence, discover their personal leadership style, blah blah blah. They never factor in that sometimes leaders are 20-somethings with piles of passion whose main priority each and every day is much simpler: survive.
Those are the leaders I want to hear from.