Removed for Driving People

There are real consequences for employing a driving people philosophy in its fullest measure.  Sometimes you get fired.

Last night I read with much interest the Naval Inspector General Report on the conduct of Captain Greg Thomas when he was Commanding Officer of Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  Captain Thomas was relived of duty earlier this year and official fired in late October.  Navy Times and other news agencies covered the story.

According to nine of the 45 employees the Naval Inspector General interviewed, Captain Thomas regularly used profane language and was heard to say to subordinates, “I am about to fire you.”

The tale of Captain Thomas’ behavior is an interesting case study because it is clear that Captain Thomas was driving people at Norfolk.


Driving people: using some coercion (e.g., orders, fear of negative consequences, removal of positive consequences) to externally compel someone to change.

It appears from the report that when his subordinates failed to respond to his coercion or threats, Captain Thomas applied more pressure and upped the negative consequences he suggested.  It’s a sad tale, but entirely predictable as the result of employing the driving people philosophy to its fullest measure.   It’s interesting that some of the news reports include this claim by one of the interviewees:

“He believed that at some point someone was going to ‘snap under pressure’ being applied by” Thomas, the report said.

The sad part of this story is that there remains a shipyard of over 8,000 people with a mission to do (repairing, modernizing and maintaining the U.S. Atlantic Fleet) that still needs to be done, and done better.

Now that the report is out, and it seems that driving people will not be tolerated, what are managers left to do if they want to improve performance?  For a lot of the manager–in all industries, not just military commands–driving people is the only skill they have.  They could be thinking of Captain Thomas and saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I,” because most of them have employed various coercive tactics over the years, probably even some of the same ones that got Captain Thomas fired.

What is a manger to do?  You won’t be surprise to hear me say that they could try driving change for a while.

Driving change: choosing a change for yourself and clearing the obstacles for others to internally choose the change too.

It won’t be easy and they’ll have to start the change within themselves first (an untenable prerequisite for some I’m sure), but if they want to achieve the results that their nation truly needs from them, then I don’t know what other options are left to them.

Why not try driving change?  It just might (okay, it will) work.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Removed for Driving People”

  1. This guy did not drive people for the better. I worked for Captain Thomas when he was a Commander, and the repair officer on the subtender USS Frank Cable. This guy was mean spirited, vindictive, and was the personification of tyrannical and capricious conduct. He was not someone who was pushing people towards excellence. He was pushing them towards their breaking point, just because he could….And that was when ten years he was at a lower paygrade. He in fact did nothing but hamper processes that would have made work safer, morale higher, and processes streamlined. He did so just for a rise. I can only imagine what he was allowed to get away with as a RDML Select.

  2. April, thanks again for another interesting post. Sorry it has taken me a while to comment and I hope my comments do not come across as too critical because I like trying to understand how you think about being an engine of change (goodness knows we need more of that in Navy maintenance even if it is not always appreciated).

    While you have a point with your observation that “driving people” too hard can get you fired, the language you use is so vague, even with the reprise of your personal definition of the term, that it renders the observation too general (I think “trite” is overly harsh) to be of much use as guidance or provide insight to others seeking to make sense of the Shipyard Commander’s (SYCO’s) premature detachment. I will explain why I think so.

    My knowledge of the specifics is limited as an observer, but my understanding is the senior Navy leaders at the Naval Sea Systems Command sent Capt Thomas to Norfolk Naval Shipyard *precisely* to drive the people there to compel performance improvement through change. I cannot know for sure, but having some experience with the Navy’s military leadership culture, I believe these senior leaders, military and civilian, expected he would be using *some* coercion in the process of obtaining the desire performance change. The government spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and Navy leadership at many levels has not been satisfied with their collective performance. I note that you do acknowledge this. With stakes as high as that, they were not going to wait around for someone to coax change slowly out of the employees there. You did not write this, but I think it is important to note because of the pressure placed on Capt Thomas to produce short term results that would build to long term improvement. In fact, the prior Commanding Officer was removed *precisely* because Navy leaders felt he was not acting quickly enough to improve performance.

    In DoD organizations led by military, the prevailing expectation of the superiors of those military leaders is that a leader will apply *more pressure* to subordinates that are not *getting it*. This is the norm, not some alien standard. If the subordinates not responding are military, they can be fairly easily fired (not always with due process, but that is just how it is). If they are civilian, it is a lot more challenging to remove someone, even for not performing to standard.

    I do not agree from your conclusion after reading the report that “driving people will not be tolerated” for the reasons I have just stated. Capt Thomas’ superiors *expected* him to be driving people to produce better results. In my opinion, he was removed from command because the methods he used were interpreted by the Inspector General and those reading the report as not conforming the Navy’s Core Values (a brief explanation of which can be found here: Did Capt Thomas not know what the Navy’s Core Values are? Of course he did, but I believe his passion for high performance (he drives himself as hard as what he expects from others) got the better of him.

    Capt Thomas *was* trying to drive change, but I think there was an expectation by his superiors that he would also “drive the people” that were obstructing that change. There is a balance for how you go about doing that without intimidating and demeaning people, of course. Unfortunately, making this balance dynamically is not easy and is certainly not taught explicitly to Navy leaders in any course I attended on active duty. I am not sure it could be.

    The lesson *I* took away from this tragic tale (for both Capt Thomas and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard) is not “There but for the Grace of God…,” but rather “Your leadership approach (specifically embodied by how you treat people and the results you obtain) had better be able to withstand external scrutiny or you will be toast shortly after someone files an IG complaint.” I have no personal knowledge of the incidents recounted in the report, but I have never been a fan of demeaning/yelling/and otherwise treating people disrespectfully even when they were not performing in a manner deserving respect (I am not saying Capt Thomas did this). It is like why it is a bad idea to argue with an idiot. In five minutes, no observer can tell which one of you is the idiot. You can still raise the pressure or coercion factor with non-performers, but there is an art to doing so in a respectful, positive, and loyalty inspiring way (at least for others if not the individual who will likely never see things your way). The details of that approach would be the content for a much longer (possibly too long) blog post.

    The situation Capt Thomas and Norfolk Naval Shipyard employees found themselves in will recur again and again. The outcome could be different, but not if the leaders with so much at stake just see themselves as needing to “drive change.” The suggestion you make is not wrong, it is just that Capt Thomas likely thought he was doing just that. Others in the future will too and to be successful they need detailed guidance on how to balance driving change *and* people since both are often necessary.

    Thanks again for an interesting post.

  3. April,

    My friend Ralph Soule directed me to your blog after we had been discussing the IG report you cited in this post. To give you a little of my perspective, I’m retired a Navy nuke, and served at Puget as Chief Engineer in NIMITZ, and XO in BAINBRIDGE in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I’m very familiar with PSNS, as well as NNSY, having endured several overhauls and availabilities there. I went to the Department of Energy (DOE) at their Savannah River site, where I worked in several nuclear facilities, before striking out in a third career in Human Performance.

    From my experience as a leader in the Navy, I found that there were a couple of simplistic models for driving change. One was to drive people to challenge them to “do better”. Another was to remove roadblocks from their paths. CAPT Thomas appears to have been the former. I was there as well, early in my career, before I saw the light and moved toward the latter style. When you punish people into submission, you will only get from them the performance that you tell them. And you have to tell them repeatedly. But when you reward people for the behaviors that you want, and additionally remove barriers to their progress, then you’ll get performance that far exceeds your expectations. But it takes time.

    I think the challenge for the shipyards is that the leaders they have are generally classically educated as engineers and scientists. While this helps in complex technical environments like naval shipyards, that type of background generally isn’t strong in terms of leadership that comes from a more well rounded liberal arts education. As a product of Admiral Rickover’s nuclear power program (my interview with him was most interesting), I can say with some assurance the the “kindly old gentleman” would agree with my assertion. He was a big believer in understanding the arts as well as the sciences, and was incredibly well read. But as the engineering community in the naval shipyard environment focuses on technical performance, I think that ignoring the people side of the business will continue to result in more failure like the IG report highlighted.

    Thanks for an insightful post. I hope it gets some play in wider circles.

    Warm regards,


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