Whether at a Startup or on a Nuclear Submarine, Earn Your Leadership

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Imagine you were let go from your position as chief executive officer. What would the aftershock of that be? Would there be one? Would co-workers rally together and picket on your behalf?

If you're unsure, then it’s time to evaluate the current leadership practices in place. Take, for instance, this scenario: In June, the board of directors for New England supermarket chain Market Basket ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. When this happened, according to Business Insider, Market Basket employees protested not for higher wages or better benefits, but for Demoulas’ return. Six weeks later, Demoulas was reinstated as CEO after buying the entire company.

It’s safe to assume that if Demoulas were asked the same questions, his answer to all would be “yes.” The next question to ask, then, is how do you become a CEO whose employees exude loyalty?

Related: 15 Behaviors and Traits of Great Leaders

From my nearly 20 years of experience as general manager, COO, vice president and eventually CEO, I’ve had the chance to work with many leaders in the software industry and I’ve made observations about what makes a leader successful. Where I learned many of my most valuable leadership lessons, however, was during my time as a civilian with the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power School where I trained naval officers inside a nuclear submarine.

While there, I witnessed firsthand many different styles of leadership with a range of outcomes. How CEOs handle not just success, but times of hardship and adversity says a lot about their character. It takes more than a college degree and professional experience.

Companies today need CEOs that will fight down in the trenches with employees and get their hands dirty -- someone who recognizes the value of earned leadership.

Barking orders vs. earned leadership

On the surface, military leadership is clear and simple by design. There exists a strict hierarchy amongst officers and enlisted -- a hierarchy that is necessary in times of battle when ambiguity could cost lives. At first blush, this may appear to have little to do with the modern workplace (at least at most startups!)

Look a little deeper though, and you’ll find that underneath the salutes and ranks, another style of leadership is very much at play: that of earned leadership.

Our training station was run by an experienced captain who prided himself on running a tight ship (even if this one didn’t often leave the pier). I could hardly blame him -- he was, after all, responsible for training the next generation of nuclear sailors.

After observing interactions between the captain and officers during exercise drills, it was very apparent to me that our captain at the time did not practice an “earned leadership” style. His style would better be classified as “whoever yells the loudest is the leader.” This proved problematic for multiple reasons.

When the captain barked, people sprung to action and things definitely “got done.” The failure I observed was in what happened when he wasn’t around. In an environment where the respect of the leader wasn’t really earned -- an environment driven by fear -- the team could often be heard “rooting for failure.” The more he yelled, the more they rooted. Needless to say, failure happened (and secretly everyone cheered).

Related: The 8 Signs of a Bad Leader

I also had the privilege of meeting a senior officer, Commander “Marty,” who was in the process of training to become the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier. To command such a rank, you must be both a pilot and nuclear trained.

This officer, 20 years older than his peers in the class and an experienced pilot from Desert Storm, was down in the boat studying and taking tests right alongside the fresh graduates from high school.

Now anyone would have understood if he cut a corner or two, got some extra help and did the minimum required for him to get through and back to his “real job.” Heck, the guy was a hero and on the fast track to the Pentagon! But what I saw was exactly the opposite. He worked harder, he stayed later and despite having not been in a math class in 20 years, he finished in the top 10 percent of the class.

Does it come as any surprise that by the time he graduated, all the other students would have done anything to be on Commander Marty’s boat? This was a man who understood the benefits of earned leadership. He never raised his voice or asserted his authority needlessly yet anyone on his crew would have followed him off a cliff without a second’s hesitation.

I have found that the same principles apply in business. Leaders who can’t relate to or gain the respect of their team have a really hard road to success while those who can gain their team’s respect find they have an entire army (or navy) pulling for their success.

How to be a respected leader

If there is a magic bullet or a single path to earning the respect of your team, I’m afraid I have yet to discover it. I do believe, however, that the golden rule “Do unto others…” isn’t a bad place to start. Respect should be mutual, so start by giving and see what happens.

Great ideas can come from anywhere and being smart (and humble) enough to actively look for them sends a really strong message. Don’t be afraid to dive in and get your hands dirty. Go on sales calls, use your products, talk to customers and get out there.

Teams respond to the effort and attitude that says, “I don’t know it all, but I’m willing to learn and I’m willing to learn from you.”

Leadership lessons are all around us, both positive and negative. Although I never left the dock, I learned a lot from the Navy and from Commander “Marty” (now retired Vice Admiral “Marty”) and his style of earned leadership.