Lessons from the USS Cole attack

May 21 2012 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Phrases like "It's life or death", "failure is not an option" or "plan of attack" all have become part of our vocabulary. But how would your team hold up if something really awful happened. More importantly, we have to ask ourselves how we'd stand up to the challenge.

I had the opportunity to speak to, and meet, someone who has lived just that scenario and written to tell about it. Commander Kirk Lippold (US Navy, Retired) was the captain of the USS Cole, which was attacked by terrorists in 2000. He has written about it in his new book, Front Burner: Al Qaeda's Attack on the USS Cole.

While I'm not one of those who fetishizes the military experience, nor am I always comfortable drawing parallels to civilian and everyday life, Lippold does make some important points with great relevance to the rest of us.

The key lesson for me was that it was the preparation, training and hard work done before the ship ever set sail that allowed them to overcome the shock and devastation of a bombing that claimed 17 lives. Those activities were based on what Lippold calls his "5 Pillars of Leadership".

  • Integrity (Do you believe this person will do what they say they will do)
  • Vision (Can you articulate what your vision, purpose and outcomes will be)
  • Personal accountability and responsibility (no excuses, no whining)
  • Trusting and investing in people (what some would call empowerment)
  • Professional competence (Are you good at your job and can you set the parameters for others to excel as well).

The key thing is that these expectations are not only of the leader, but apply to every member of the crew, project team or company.

Through countless hours of repetition, discussion and mind-numbing training and drills, the crew were ready when disaster struck and for over 20 minutes there was no communication between the commander and most of his crew.

The point, as far as this column is concerned, is that none of those things should be adversely impacted by the fact you're not physically together very often (if at all).

The takeaway for me was much more personal. Stop whining. A misinterpreted email or a missed deadline is not good, it's easily avoided and you need to take immediate action. Oh, and stop whining you ingrate. You don't know what trouble really is.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.