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May 25 2020

Five Leadership Lessons I Learned From Being on a Submarine

By Facebook Careers
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Editor’s Note: As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, so must we. Staying connected with family members, friends, and businesses has taken on new meaning. Teams at the Facebook company are involved in efforts to keep people informed and safe as we build the programs, products, and services our communities rely on. In this story, John D., VP of Global Operations, shares what he learned about teamwork and managing uncertainty while working on submarines when he served in the U.S. Navy.
Before John D. was the VP of Global Operations at the Facebook company, he spent over eight years in the U.S. Navy, where he served on a submarine patrol. “People often ask me what it was like to be on a submarine,” he says. “I tell them it’s a lot like being inside your house for 70 days and working really, really hard. Now I see how my past experience is helping me lead during the uncertainty we’re facing today.”
Read on to learn about what being on a submarine taught John about taking care of himself and his team, along with the top five takeaways he regularly shares with others.

1. When things feel uncertain, pause and prioritize.

“On submarines, problems compound fast,” John states. “A small fire leads to a bigger fire, which leads to loss of the electrical system, which leads to loss of propulsion, which can lead to lower ship-control, and more. Life on a submarine meant constantly fighting real and simulated crises.”
Composure during unpredictable or high-stress times is key, and the ability to slow down is an important trait in a strong leader. This is something John says he’s thought about several times since March while managing teams during the coronavirus pandemic. “When problems escalate, it’s best to pause, breathe, and prioritize,” he offers. “Lower your voice. Send the signal to your team that things will be okay.”

2. Check in with your team to show care.

Checking in with your colleagues is a small act that will go a long way. John recounts, “On the submarine, the best shipmates in the wardroom would make a point to stop by the bridge or the engine-room if they had a spare moment. They would check in on the officer who was standing watch (a six hour shift) and offer to give them a quick break. Each of us knew that we needed each other, and our spirits were served by showing our care for one another in small deeds.”
At Facebook, John highlights the Building Resilience@ resource group as a standout community where team members demonstrate kindness and compassion towards each other. “It’s incredible to see how people are taking care of each other during this time. I’ve noticed more ‘how are you’ check-ins, people sharing more personal photos, and we have virtual hangouts on Friday afternoons.” he notes.

3. Make time for movement, even if just for a few minutes a day.

“Exercise and endorphins are good for your mind,” John says. “I used to come back from submarine patrol feeling really good.”
Finding ways to exercise underwater was challenging, but it wasn’t impossible. And according to John, forming just a couple of healthy habits can help anyone achieve the feel-good benefits. “When I was on the submarine, I got creative. I did 10 pull-ups each time I passed the overhead pipe,” he says. “And when I passed a railing, I’d do five dips. I also ran back and forth down the missile compartment passageway, which is like doing laps in a small driveway.”
Whether it’s a short walk around the block, getting outside with your family, or using a standing desk for a few hours each afternoon, John says that incorporating a small amount of movement into the day will help you stay energized, focused, and feel more upbeat.

4. Encourage your team to get fresh air.

Are your spirits low? Does it seem like your team is losing steam? In John’s experience, something as simple as getting fresh air can elevate your mood and spark motivation. “On a submarine, we had to monitor our environment constantly for the health of the crew,” he says. “We made our own oxygen and scrub and burned out the CO2 and CO constantly. Every so often, we would come to periscope depth, which is just below the surface, to ventilate the boat using fans and a snorkel mast.”
Remarkably, John says that each time the crew got more oxygen, everyone’s mood would elevate. “I was always amazed,” he says. “Encourage your team to get fresh air!”

5. Seize every opportunity to learn and develop, individually and together.

Continuous learning will help you learn new skills, grow, and become a stronger team member, and John says that he’s witnessed an exciting knowledge evolution taking place. “There are so many new digital resources and eLearning that anyone can tap into today,” he observes.
Looking back at his time in the U.S. Navy, he can see how valuable training days were to his team and their overall development. “On a typical patrol, we used Tuesday and Thursdays as training days. Everyone on the crew was involved in raising their level of professional knowledge, either by attending training, delivering training, studying, or taking exams.”
“If you have capacity, take advantage of the opportunity to learn,” John stresses. “And if you’re a leader, inspire your team to explore.”

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