Inspiring Leadership in Those Around You

JohnNewMaster Chief Petty Officer David A. Lindenberger. He is the toughest man I’ve ever met. As the senior enlisted man aboard the submarine USS Providence during my time in the Navy, he was known simply as Chief of the Boat or the COB.

He wasn’t a particularly big man, maybe an iron fist taller than me. And he didn’t have the frame of a fighter that would make folks cower in fear when in his presence. The COB was stern and demanding, and all with the subtly of a lion. I did a lot of growing up during those years, and I owe a lot to the COB for his leadership.

Life on a submarine was no picnic, but if there is one thing you do learn it is that you have to be able to trust the folks around you with your life. Quite literally, everyone’s fate is in everyone else’s hands. That kind of trust is not easily accomplished. Consider how many people today you would trust with your life, or the life of a loved one. It was the COB’s sole responsibility to whip a crew of 120 men into shape to ensure the Providence was ready should she be called into battle.
In 1987, though al-Qaeda was more than a decade away from becoming a household name, The Cold War was still very much in effect, so training was a routine part of our day. When nuclear weapons are involved, leaders like the COB don’t have a sense of humor.

That was one heck of a learning experience for an 18 year old straight off the streets of New York. Needless to say, I saw things a little differently than the COB…for about an hour. That was how long it took for me to realize that this man was no joke. Before I even knew where the bathroom was, I learned that “uh, huh” was not the right answer to the question, “Do you know why you’re here?” Suddenly, I didn’t need to use the head anymore. Infer from that what you will.

The COB’s booming voice and challenging manner had me wishing for the good old days of boot camp, where a three-mile run in boots  and a full backpack could buy a guy 30 minutes of solitude. Lesson two was that there’s not much privacy aboard a submarine.

For three years, the COB rode me like mule. He was difficult, hard to please, a strict disciplinarian in every sense of the word, yet a friend and father figure that I came to admire so much more than he ever knew. I was one of dozens if not hundreds of sailors who cycled through the ship who wanted to both poison his powdered eggs (if you think foodservice is challenging in convenience stores, you should see the menu on a submarine) and run to ask for his advice whenever a personal conflict surfaced.

It took me years to realize how savvy the COB was. He knew when to roar and he knew when to mentor, and he led with integrity, which says a lot for a man who yielded so much power. I think about Master Chief when I talk to retailers about the challenges they face training new employees. There is a lot to learn about running a convenience store for a young employee. Many employees come to work on day one unsure of what to expect and maybe even a little timid. But how you nurture their growth in those crucial first few weeks will determine how well employees matures on the job.

Some people need discipline and the rigidity of a regimented schedule. Other employees can think outside the box and recognize when things need to get done. There is room for both types of employees within any organization if they have the right guidance. Ultimately, recognizing each employee’s strengths will help you provide better service to your customers. We can all learn a lot from Master Chief. So, if asked, make sure your employees know how to answer the question, “Do you know why you’re here?”

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