Thoughts from a Change Agent

Today I recharged my batteries with a few great articles by and videos about Admiral H. G. Rickover, my favorite change agent.

First, I’ll share a clip out of his speech, “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life,” given to various audiences over several years (a benefit of the pre-Internet age).

The task of finding a purpose in life also calls for perseverance. I have seen many young men who rush out into the world with their messages, and when they find out how deaf the world is, they withdraw to wait and save their strength. They believe that after a while they will be able to get up on some little peak from which they can make themselves heard. Each thinks that in a few years he will have gained a standing, and then he can use his power for good. Finally the time comes, and with it a strange discovery: he has lost his horizon of thought. Without perseverance, ambition and a sense of responsibility have evaporated.

My favorite line is “he has lost his horizon of thought.”  Wow! Who would want that fate? Who wouldn’t want to keep those following behind them from falling into the terrible trap of waiting until they are someone before they try to do something?  I don’t know about you, but that line pushes me to re-double my mentoring efforts to keep the spark of thought and action alive in as many minds and hearts as I can touch.

I followed up reading the speech above with watching some great footage of Admiral Rickover being interviewed by Diane Sawyer for 60 minutes.  The video is a quick 16 minutes, but within it you learn a lot about why Admiral Rickover is a great change agent to study if you want to improve your powers of perception. From what he does and what he says he believes, try to pull  the essential “whys” behind his “whats.”  Does that make sense?  He doesn’t tell you why he does things.  He just tells you what he does.  You are left to infer why and through that inference and testing your inference your mind grows.

Watch the video then read the rest of this post, because I want to share a few of the lessons I picked out of the footage, but I’d rather you know what points I’m referencing before you see my explanations of them.

Admiral Rickover. /. 60 Minutes from Paul and Holly on Vimeo.

Some of the lessons for change agents in this video.

1. All change agents, but especially those pushing the limits of technology and challenging an entrenched culture at the same time, require the good will of at least some people in power to protect them and let them work.  Rickover was passed over for promotion by the Navy over and over.  Senators and Congressmen continued to intervene on his behalf.  Rickover cultivated their support, but he did it in a unique way: through results.  He gave them results that were worthy of praise and allowed them to attach their names to his program’s achievements.  When Rickover learned unceremoniously of his forced retirement via his wife hearing about it on the radio, it isn’t surprising that many of his long-time congressional supporters had already either left Congress or were weakened in their power over a new Navy administration.  Without his protection, even his results weren’t enough to keep him in his job.  This model of results mattering for not when protectors leave is repeated over and over again in Gifford Pinchot’s book, “Intrapreneuring.” (It’s worth a read if you’re an internal change agent.)

2. Change agents need to focus on the results they are producing and the benefits of those results to the world.  They shouldn’t focus on what others think of them.  There’s a fabulous book by physicist Richard Feynman, titled “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” that carries forward the same message.  I loved how often Diane Sawyer tested Admiral Rickover to see if he would show some emotional response to others’ impressions of him.  Every time he refused, at times almost seeming confused about why she would bother to ask.  I too often allow what other people think to bother me, so I regularly use Admiral Rickover and Richard Feynman as my mentors in ignoring other people’s opinions.  If you are similarly stricken with a need for everyone to like you, I lend my mentors to you to use as well. They won’t steer you wrong.

3. Your answers don’t matter if the questions are wrong.  If you’re hoping to transform anything, this is a big lesson to learn.  The quality of the questions you ask will determine the quality of the answers you find and if other people are asking dumb questions, then it is incumbent upon you to ask better ones.  Don’t expect anyone else to do it for you.

4.  If you can’t think when things are slightly askew (e.g., an Admiral has sawed off a few inches from the front two legs of your chair) then you can’t think fast enough to solve the essential problems you’ll face if given responsibility over anything that matters.  One of my personal missions in life is to correct all those who have learned the wrong lesson from hearing “Rickover stories,” of the closet and the chair and the pony tail and other challenges to would-be nuclear officers.  Too many people look only at the surface, judge it with their own maliciousness, and presume that Admiral Rickover was drunk on his own power and tormented the men for sport.  How foolish that story is on even quick evaluation of the facts.  Here was a man who took his responsibility over a complex technology very seriously, who gave speeches on living a life of purpose without sloth or waste, and who didn’t care what other people thought.  Why would he waste one moment on such a purposeless act as pure maliciousness?  I find his use of what instruments he had at his disposal in his Washington office ingenious.  Quickly, he could induce a state of partial uncertainty in each candidate and watch their reaction.  If they folded, or defeated themselves, or worse, while being slightly put-off in an office, how could he expect them to act when challenges arose at sea, whether in a submarine or on an aircraft carrier, with a mission to complete and men to lead?  We can all learn from his disciplined purposefulness to make every situation a teaching and testing moment.  Think of how you can quickly test potential candidates to join your team to drive your change.  How can you simulate through a day-to-day situation some of challenges you know they will face while they drive the change?  How did they hold up? Do they need a little time to develop or would you rather not invest in having them on your team?  Your change may not be delivering the first nuclear powered submarine in only five years, but if it matters to you maybe it’s worth trying your own purposeful screening methods.

I could probably go on and on.  My friends do claim I’m obsessive in my admiration for Admiral Rickover.  I’ll stop my points for change agents and close by saying that I hope you are lucky enough in your life of scholarship, of searching for new learning, to find someone from which you can learn as much as Admiral Rickover has taught me.  He’s certainly one of the men that I will seek out in heaven on whatever day I get there.  (That may be one of the few places Admiral Rickover and I disagree.  I believe there is a heaven and I look forward to the day I get to shake his hand and thank him.  I’m better for his example.)

Good night my fellow change agents.  May you grow bold and courageous to live out the purpose of your life.  Why not try?

 

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