Young Sailors need something to focus their attention. They need something tangible for them to gain if they are successful. In the corporate world, it is bonuses or incentive pay. In the world of a Sailor, it might be as simple as the hair on top of their boss’ head. There have been two times in my Navy career when I bet my crew they couldn’t achieve a goal, a lofty goal. In exchange for achieving the goal, I would present myself at a time of their choosing for a “barber” (of my choice) to remove my hair from my head. Of course, I also had a skilled barber there to make it all better in the end.
It was in 1994 as Chief Engineer on my flight 2 Oliver Hazard Perry frigate (FFG) – for those with little Navy understanding read that as “OLD SHIP” -- when I bet my hair for the first time.
The goal for the crew; achieve a grade of GOOD or better on the upcoming Operational Propulsion Plant Examination (OPPE). This feat was very lofty. Most ships are SATISFACTORY. Very few receive GOOD. Still fewer receive the grade of OUTSTANDING. AND this was in an era of some ships receiving UNSATISFACTORY and the Chief Engineer being fired. When I was preparing to take the job, my contemporaries and I would joke. 50% is all we ask. 50% of the Chief Engineers of this day were being fired. You do the math.
Well, this bet created quite a stir amongst the entire crew. OPPE was an engineering event, but it took the entire crew to pull off a grade of good or better. The engineers would need to get the whole crew involved if they wanted to see the top of my head sans hair.
As we prepared for the OPPE, I focused my department on working hard while we were underway to constantly improve our ability to operate the plant. We worked hard to improve our ability to demonstrate we could fight fires – an entire crew evolution. We worked hard to improve the material condition of the engineering plant. My Commanding Officer gave me lots of freedom to do what I needed to do without getting in the way of my progress. He did provide me assistance in the form of augmentees (a tiger team) to my department to assist in painting.
Other People Painting Engineering is what the rest of the crew called OPPE. But it was a welcome addition. The week prior to the exam, the Commanding Officer pulled out one more stop, he assigned each department an engineering space to deep clean under my supervision.
It came down to the Friday before the exam. The Commanding Officer asked for a meeting of my department senior leadership. He wanted to know if we would be ready. He polled all of my leadership and then asked me the question.
My response: “Boss, the engineers and I have some spit and polish to apply. We will be working this weekend to make sure we have all the paperwork ready for inspection. But the spaces are ready. The crew is ready. You have the entire crew out there right now wondering what you will be asking of them for this weekend. They have busted their tails (ok, I probably used a different word here. Haha!) helping us get ready. On Monday, we need them rested and excited for the exam. If we make them work this weekend, they will be down. I think you should go out there and tell the crew you met with us and have decide your ship is standing by for the inspection team. Tell them to rest and relax and come back Monday morning ready to show the inspection team what we can do.”
Well, the Commanding Officer did just that. There was an incredible cheer that went up from the ship. The crew took the weekend and came back Monday morning ready for the examination. As we say, we hit the deck plates running. We were cruising through the examination. We got underway early the afternoon of the first day. Quite the feat. The hair on the top of my head feeling a little vulnerable.
There were some bumps and bruises along the way. But we got down to the final demonstration of fighting the fire. Now, during the exam, the crew must go about its business as if it was a normal underway. However, the crew always knows what is happening and is ready for this fire demonstration. It is the last event.
As the Sailors are heading to get ready to fight the simulated fire, one of the lead firefighters is a little too zealous. He hits his head on a door way frame, knocking himself off his feet, where he hits his head again. Two Sailors who are standing there think it is all part of the demonstration and react to render assistance. The fire team comes together. There leader does a quick head count and realizes one of the nozzle men is missing. They call out for him. The two Sailors rendering assistance tell the team leader the nozzle man is injured. Without skipping a beat, the leader rallies his team and prepares for the fire fighting demonstration. The demonstration goes flawlessly.
In the end, some of the bumps and bruises we suffered were the reason why we only achieved a grade of SATISFACTORY. AND to be honest, I was most likely to blame for the most of the bumps and bruises. BUT we had missed the mark of a grade of GOOD or better nonetheless. The crew was excited for having completed the examination so quickly – a mere 36 hours --but a little down that they would not see the top of my head.
What is a leader to do? I could have easily walked away from the crew my hair intact. BUT I decided to gather the crew, I would yield my hair. As we watched the inspectors leave the ship, the crew celebrated by removing my hair. First in a reverse Mohawk. Then a BoZO the clown style. Finally, they removed the hair in a patch work. And then allowed the barber to make it all smooth and neat.
When I came to work the next day, the crew was still charged. Telling stories of the experience. Excited to have triumphed. Wanting to touch my head and laugh with me. It was a good use of my hair. I think the best quote came from my daughter when I got home. She said, “Daddy you’re funny. Now put your hair back on.” Haha!
I learned that sometimes you need to give your people a focus point and the ultimate reward for achieving it. And sometimes come through with the reward even when they miss the mark. I gained a lot from being willing to do so.