This article was originally published online by the U.S. Naval Institute, and featured in the March 2020 issue of their journal Proceedings.
Captain Brasseur has over 20 years leadership experience in the U.S. Navy, including command of the USS Whirlwind (PC-11) at the age of 30 in the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is currently serving in the Armament Cooperation Directorate at the U.S. Mission to NATO. The views presented here are his own, and not that of the U.S. Navy or U.S. Mission to NATO.
The ISST is collaborating with NATO and the NATO MUSIC^2 programme via the White City Ecosystem.
By Captain Michael D. Brasseur, U.S. Navy
The coronavirus is causing death, panic, and chaos the world over. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but it is a temporary condition. In the end, we will defeat this devastating virus. As a naval officer and former captain of a warship, I have learned a lot about how people in difficult situations, facing uncertainty, can overcome significant challenges.
In many ways, a warship is a floating society, complete with all the human drama that comes with combining men and women from all over the country, sending them to sea and charging them to work together to accomplish the mission on behalf of their nation. While there is certainly no comparison between the scale of commanding a warship and leading a fight against a global pandemic, it has become clear over the last week that we—the human race—are literally all in the same boat in the fight against COVID-19. In this fight, our mission is clear: Win.
In these challenging times, leadership will be key to turning the tide of the battle against this virus, an enemy that, for now, seems undefeated.
As the captain of USS Fort Worth (LCS-3), I commanded one of the Navy’s newest, fastest, and most technologically advanced warships. I focused on three things above everything else: Vision, Values, and Culture. A few years ago, I shared our experiences in Build a Winning Team, highlighting how our focus ultimately led to one of the best winning streaks in the young history of our new class of warship.
These lessons, transplanted from the quarterdeck to quarantine, could be valuable to anyone fighting against the pandemic.
Where there is no vision, the people perish. – Proverbs 29:18
As captain of Fort Worth, I went to great lengths to paint a vivid picture of our ship’s future. At every opportunity, I would describe in detail what victory looked like for us at each stage of our operations: inspections and maintenance, training, exercises, and ultimately mission accomplishment.
In the fight against COVID-19, there is currently fear, a lack of a unified global vision, and a pointless blame game playing out on the news, online, and in politics. Leaders must articulate a clear vision for our “crew” (our families, co-workers, and friends), one that inspires hope and mobilizes the planet. I envision a post-pandemic world that is closer and more interconnected as a result of us having embraced this fight together.
Think well to the end, consider the end first. – Leonardo Da Vinci
This is my favorite quote. It’s what separates visionary leaders from merely good leaders. It is one thing to paint an inspirational vision, it is quite another to make that vision a reality. This requires that we do as Da Vinci suggests—think through problems all the way to the end and then work backwards to achieve those ends. Each action we take must be toward accomplishing that end. Leaders of every nation need to do some detailed voyage planning in cross-functional, cross-border teams, and chart the course ahead.
As captain of Fort Worth, I knew that to achieve our mission we would need to be physically, mentally, and emotionally strong, and we would require a deep level of mutual trust unrivaled in the fleet. We invested a lot of time building strength and trust, our core values. Those same values are even more important in this fight.
We need to be strong in body and understand this will be a long fight. Take time to stay fit; if you are not fit, get fit now. Keep it simple. Eat well. Stop eating processed foods and put clean, whole food in your body. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Exercise. If you haven’t exercised before, start now. Do a few push-ups, sit-ups, yoga, and walk. Start small and build up. Do a little every day. Make it a habit at a set time every day. You can do a lot in your house. It’s also great to get outdoors—just maintain safe distances from others.
We need to be strong in mind. The fight against COVID-19 is ultimately an intellectual challenge. We will find a solution soon, but we need the brightest minds in the world focused on solving this problem, and they need the best tools at their disposal. I was recently in Silicon Valley visiting a quantum computing company, and I saw how capabilities to process information, model simulations, and propose solutions are light years beyond what was available the last time a pandemic ravaged the planet.
We need to be strong in soul. It does not matter what your religious faith is. The virus does not care. But what matters is that we all realize that the challenge ahead is big, and that it will tax us all down to our souls, to the core of what we each believe. I believe this test is an opportunity to strengthen our souls and find our inner peace.
On the USS Fort Worth, I sought to connect with my team on a deep, personal level. I encouraged strong bonds across all levels for two reasons: (1) As captain, I could not be in all places at all times, and (2) when a crew develops deep bonds, they will do anything to avoid letting their shipmates down.
To be successful in this coronavirus fight, we will need to build a deep level of trust among ourselves and in our institutions. Building trust starts with open and honest communication, but the greatest gains in trust are earned through deeds, not words. Building trust takes time. Losing trust can happen in an instance. The quickest way to lose the trust of your shipmate is to not do what you said you would do.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. – Peter Drucker
As legendary thought leader Peter Drucker suggests, culture is the most critical element in building a winning team.
The culture we built on the Fort Worth can serve as a model for this fight. We created a culture that reflected our values and supported mission accomplishment. Winning was important to us and we were willing to work hard to get the win. Along the way, I wanted us also to be happy and humble.
Serving on a minimally manned ship challenges the crew: the work is hard, there is little personnel redundancy, everyone must be an expert in another’s job, and there is more than enough work to overwhelm the team. Some crews make the mistake of falling into a “woe is me” mindset, which ultimately leads to a victim mentality, low morale, and even lower performance. I never apologized for the amount of work we had to do, and I always reminded my team we were lucky to wear “U.S. Navy” on our chest and to go to sea in our warship.
We have much work ahead in this fight. Our healthcare professionals are leading the charge, demonstrating an unrelenting work ethic. You will not see them feeling sorry for themselves—they don’t have time. But they cannot do it on their own, and the rest of us need to grab an oar and pull to do our part. It is going to be hard, but the work can be the reward: the feeling of doing something very important when your neighbors need you most.
Never underestimate how important humor is to mission accomplishment. Even in the tensest circumstances, my crew knew they had the freedom to have some fun. Once they started playing practical jokes on me, I knew we had achieved our objective of creating a happy culture.
For those of you making memes, please don’t stop. A good laugh can lighten the darkest situation and turn someone’s day around. My favorite coronavirus meme is the one of a husband asked to choose between two options for quarantine: a) quarantine with your wife and children, or b), and before the announcer could even describe what “b” is, the husband emphatically chooses “B!” Never underestimate how important it is to laugh and be happy. According to the 2013 World Happiness Report, “Happy people demonstrate better cognition and attention, take better care of themselves, and are better friends, colleagues, neighbors, spouses, parents and citizens.” In this fight, we will need all of the above.
Pride goes before the fall, and nothing can humble a captain like a warship. While winning was very important to us on board the Fort Worth, I was quick to remind my team that our work had to speak for itself, so it was pointless, even counter-productive, to be boastful.
Now is not the time for national pride or personal arrogance to get in the way of potential resolutions to this crisis. We all need to humble ourselves. In this fight, ideas matter above all else, not whose ideas they are or where they come from. I am reminded of an African Proverb I have written on the whiteboard in my office at the U.S. Mission to NATO: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Today, we need to go far, fast. Ideas must take priority over pride. This is a time for unprecedented, unrestricted collaboration.
Final Thoughts – Winning
On Fort Worth I wanted to win, and I wanted a team of winners. “Hardworking, happy, and humble” meant nothing if we did not have victories to match. We had a simple rule: Celebrate the wins and learn from the losses. Moreover, we never shied away from losses, instead we used them to give life to our ship’s motto: “Just as iron sharpens iron, so too does one warrior sharpen another.”
We will win this coronavirus fight—together. We are up to the challenge and we will be a better “crew” because of it. The end state is a global crew that is healthy and more connected than ever before having sailed through this storm together. If we all work together, I predict this storm will abate soon. After years of sailing the magnificent oceans, captains develop a sixth sense for when a storm will pass, and we know on the other side the seas lie down quite beautifully.