Commander Kirk Lippold was in command of the USS Cole when it was targeted by a deadly al-Qaeda terrorist attack in 2000, 11 months before 9/11. Lippold's leadership resulted in lives being saved. In retirement, Lippold shares what he learned about crisis management and the pillars of leadership. Catch his speech during the chair's breakfast at the American Public Power Association's National Conference in Orlando on June 21.
Tell us about the moment the USS Cole was attacked. What was the first thought that ran through your mind? What was your biggest takeaway?
I was sitting at my desk in my cabin, in the forward part of the ship, at 11:18. It was a thunderous explosion, and the ship violently thrust up in the right. The power failed, the lights went out, and — like everyone else — my initial thought was that we had a fuel explosion. We had been pumping fuel as a routine refueling operation for about 45 minutes. But as the ship slid back down into the water, somehow I knew we'd been attacked. I moored the ship to the right side of the pier; the explosion should have pushed left if it had been a fuel explosion. I quickly determined we must have been attacked. That's when I went and grabbed a 9mm pistol, loaded it, and went out to find out what had happened.
My biggest initial takeaway was to try to gather as much information as possible before determining a cause. For me, it took seconds. In some cases, it may take minutes or even hours to glean the right information.
When there's a crisis, a finger is often pointed. In the electricity industry, it might be at a city leader for not being prepared for a storm or at the utility for not responding fast enough. What is your advice to leaders who find themselves on the other side of finger pointing?
Regardless of the finger pointing or the blame that may be cast in your direction, it is still incumbent upon you to make decisions. You cannot become frozen in your thought process by what is being said to you. As a leader or a supervisor in a crisis, it is your job to gather as much information as you can about a potential decision and then make that decision. Will that decision be right completely? Probably not — but as you gain more information, you're going to take the next step, change that decision, and make a new one. You cannot become paralyzed in your thought process just because questions are being asked.
In your book, you talk about two elements of command: absolute authority and absolute responsibility. How can leaders use these concepts in the business world?
When you as a leader give someone the authority and responsibility to run a project or to react to and handle a crisis, you as a leader — just like my boss above me when I was in command of the ship — have to be willing to trust that your employees will make the best decisions they can and that they possess the necessary judgment to do so. You must also trust that those people will seek counsel from you as someone that is more senior and more experienced, just like I sought counsel from my bosses during that time.
As a leader, if you think you're in over your head, you were in over your head 10 minutes ago. There were times when I had to be a big enough leader to take a step back and ask someone up the chain of command with more experience to help me make a better decision. Leaders have to trust that you are going to know that and do that. But the flip side of the coin is that you also have to be willing to do that as a leader without retribution. If someone does come to you with questions, it's not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. They don't want you to do their job; they just want you to share your experience.
I think the No. 1 thing that leaders sometimes fail to do is realize that they're ultimately going to be responsible for the decisions they make. When making decisions in a crisis, you have to be willing to accept that. It comes both with the authority and the responsibility — there's a degree of risk that's going to be involved, especially in the utility industry. There are going to be lives at stake and materials, equipment and facilities at risk, and you still have to make the best decision you can with the information that you have at that moment.
What are the five pillars of leadership you've developed?
When you look at the foundation of leadership that has to be present in every organization, it consists of what I call my five pillars: integrity, vision, personal accountability and responsibility, trust, and professional competence.
You must have rock solid integrity, and that's the one I want to make sure I define. It's not just doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, even if no one is looking. That's ethics. Integrity is doing all those ethical things regardless of the consequences. It is usually when people start measuring up the consequences of their decisions that they, sadly, find reasons to bend or lower that bar of integrity.
When it comes to using these pillars, I've never bought into the idea that there's a difference between baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials. Every single person wants to be led and led properly, and those techniques are timeless — they are not specific to any generation.
People want to be told what their job is and how well you want them to do it. They want you to give them training for their job, they want proper time to get that job done right, and they also need the tools to do the job. When you've given them all those things, you let them go out and do that job with guidance and oversight. At the end of the day, they do it, and they want feedback. I think people naturally want to be given the opportunity to succeed. People want to do right; they want to feel needed; they want to be given the opportunity to learn and have upward mobility. Each generation may have different priorities in life, but leadership techniques remain the same!