Naval Lessons of Leadership and Accountability for Banking

Bank Leadership Lessons From The Navy

Commander Bryce Benson was asleep at 1:30 am when the Philippine freighter, the ACX Crystal, rammed the USS Fitzgerald on June 17th off the coast of Japan (Figure 1 and 2).  Within seconds the Commander’s stateroom flooded with cold seawater along with Berthing Room 2 that held 35 sailors. Four sailors grabbed sledgehammers, and one sailor grabbed the only thing he could, a kettlebell, as they started bashing in the door to the cabin enough to crawl through. According to the accident report, "The rescue team tied themselves together with a belt in order to create a makeshift harness as they retrieved (Benson), who was hanging from the side of the ship."


Thanks to the swift and brave actions of the crew, Benson was rescued and immediately flown to land for hospitalization. After the crash, the report notes, the bridge changed the lights on the destroyer’s mast to one red light over another.  "Red over red," is "the international lighting scheme that indicates a ship that is not under command."


Weeks later Benson, despite being asleep, his ship being run into by a much larger vessel and being the Captain of a crew that heroically saved the ship and all but seven sailors, was relieved of command for “losing situational awareness.” 


Leadership Lessons From The Navy


The Ownership of Leadership


Every day, there is some 26-year-old Lieutenant that is the “officer on deck” and has command of a $2B warship. Should they have a collision, run the ship aground or have any number of other infractions occur under their watch, the Captain gets relieved of duty despite not being directly responsible, on watch, awake or even on the ship. 


“That is the Navy Way, it has always been that way, and I think it is 100% correct,” says Leif Babin (Figure 3), a former decorated Navy SEAL, young Lieutenant that drove ships and co-author of NY Times bestseller Extreme Ownership. The fact is, “There are no bad teams, just bad leaders,” says Babin and the most important job a Captain has is to staff and train his or her crew.


Running a ship aground or colliding with another ship should never happen. There are multiple safeguards in place, and an event such as the one that occurred on the Fitzgerald is a result of many failures from many different areas.


Like a bank, a ship runs on decentralized command where the Captain can’t be everywhere. If a Captain can’t create a team that can function under pressure, make good decisions and handles the basics, then they are not much use to the Navy.


Ranking Your Priorities


Few bank managers have stopped their day-to-day work and ranked their priorities by task. Generating loans, bringing in new banking relationships, keeping existing customers happy, meeting compliance needs, raising capital, making sure wires are sent on time or hundreds of other responsibilities fall on bank managers.  A bank leader needs to divide their time and focus on a variety of tasks. However, finding new talent and training existing staff may not be the number one priority, and we contend that it should be.


We hear it and say it hundreds of times a year in banking –“People are our most valuable asset.” If true, then our effort and actions should reflect that.

Since responsibility rolls up and the Captain is ultimately accountable for their team, any team member making one of the many defined critical errors, regardless of the outcome, is usually relieved of their command. You can debate if that is fair or not, but it is hard to argue that despite all the high-risk activities that the Navy does on a day-to-day basis, critical errors are rare.


Developing Leaders


To be clear, a bad leader also isn’t an excuse for the leaders below them. Leadership occurs at every level in banking. If you are a department head or product leader it is your primary responsibility to make sure your team is ready and to compensate for any deficiencies in the chain above, below or laterally.


Further, when we talk about “Flawless Execution” from some of the leadership lessons we are learning from Afterburner that is not to say that it is “flawless” all the time. Flawless Execution is aspirational, a state to achieve over time. The path isn’t always straight, and critical errors occasionally occur. The connecting action is accountability and ownership of the deficiency so you can improve and be “more flawless.”


The U.S.’s most decorated Fleet Admiral, Chester Nimitz, ran his destroyer aground as a junior officer in the Philippines after failing to check the tide charts in the harbor. He was relieved of his command, and court marshaled.  He was allowed to remain as it was noted that he immediately reported the incident, gave full detail and took 100% responsibility. Fleet Admiral Nimitz went on help us win World War II and was the founding father of modern submarine warfare.


Putting This Into Action – Flawless Execution Class in Boston, May 22nd


Bank leaders have many jobs and responsibilities, but hiring and training staff needs to be near the top. When the Navy says ‘there are no bad teams, just bad leaders,” it is recognition that the leader has to take ownership of all the actions of the team and that any failure is a failure of their command. Leaders that take that ownership tend to spend more time developing their team, and their team tends to perform at a higher level. Bad leaders get moved out, weak leaders get trained, and high performers get challenged.


If you are interested in developing your leadership talent, come to our next “Business Development Flawless Execution” workshop. Our next one is just outside of Boston (Newton – on the Charles River), the afternoon of May 22nd from the hours of 10 am to 1 pm. There, you will hear stories and lessons from David “Finch” Guenthner, Partner at Afterburner, F-16 pilot and former leader on Air Force One. Finch, along with our team, will hold this interactive workshop with the goal of developing greater performance when it comes to business development.


In full disclosure, we are charging $195, which covers our cost of our main speaker, venue, and lunch. You can’t get a former elite military leader at your bank for anything less (we know because we tried) so this is a unique training opportunity to learn the proven lessons of the US military and some of our proven strategies and tactics that ranked our Bank in the top 100 performing institutions. This is the same training that we use here at CenterState and is also used by Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Synovus, GE, Pepsi, the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, the NY Yankees, Nike, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, FedEx, Microsoft and many others.


To learn more & register, go here: