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NASCIO 2011: Leadership in Times of Crisis

Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, a retired U.S. Navy commander, gives the keynote speech at the 2011 NASCIO Annual Conference.

This month marks the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in the port of Yemen. To kick off the NASCIO 2011 annual conference in Denver today, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, the retired U.S. Navy commander who was the commanding officer of the vessel, delivered a keynote address about leadership.

On October 12, 2000, the USS Cole was refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen, when it came under a suicide terrorist attack by al-Qaida. Explosives blew a 40’ x 40’ hole in the vessel, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39.

The naval crew’s integrity and sense of ownership enabled them to save the ship despite the devastating damage it took on. Cmdr. Lippold shared experiences of leadership that executives in any field can learn from.

“I was fortunate enough to stand on the flight deck of the USS Cole and say the words, ‘I relieve you’,” Cmdr Lippold says. Describing his role as commanding officer directing the crew to prepare for the ship’s mission to maintain U.N. sanctions in the Middle East, he recommends, “Set standards and goals of what you want to do from Day 1 so that everyone knows what you expect and what you’re going to demand of them.”

In his talk, Lippold described the five pillars of leadership:

  • Integrity: Do what is right for the right reasons at the right time, regardless of the consequences. “For us, lives are at stake,” he says. “For you, it’s the functioning of state government.”
  • Vision: What is the goal and mission?
  • Personal responsibility and accountability: “There’s only one person who makes you do something, and that’s you as an individual,” Cmdr. Lippold says. Assume responsibility for what you do.
  • Trust and invest: Create conditions that allow staff to succeed and have confidence in them while occasionally allowing them to fail. “The best lessons we’ve had in life have come from when we’ve stumbled,” he says.
  • Professional competence: Here, there are several critical attributes:
    1. Job description
    2. Standards of performance
    3. Training
    4. Tools
    5. Time to do the job right

On the morning of the attack, the ship was refueling while barges came to haul away garbage. “There was a thunderous explosion. The guided destroyer bowed to the right and rocked from side to side,” Cmdr. Lippold describes. “I looked down the passageway and a gray cloud rounded the corner and came rolling towards me.”

Though his initial thought was that there had been a fuel explosion somewhere on the ship, he quickly realized that the ship had actually been attacked because it was pushed the wrong way. He grabbed weapons and went out on deck. Seeing four orange rafts in the water, with one still fully inflated, he feared there were explosives in one and ordered all sailors on deck back inside.

“My timeline jumped out one hour. We had to get the wounded to shore,” Cmdr. Lippold says. He defines crisis management as “the ability to act in the now and still think ahead.”

Issuing orders as he could feel the ship sinking, he then decided to use the mess deck for triage. While he wanted to aid the injured, he explained that his top priority was to save the ship. Once sailors realized they were not going to lose the ship, he could then focus his efforts on triage. “We evacuated 33 people in 90 minutes and of those, 32 survived,” the commander says. “We did a phenomenal job.”

After the crew stabilized the ship over the next several days and it sailed from the port, Cmdr. Lippold ordered them to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” so that it could be heard echoing across the entire ship. “The people of Aden could hear that we were leaving the harbor with our head held high.”

The lesson learned is that if things can go from bad to worse, they will. Leadership in a crisis means adapting and dealing with the circumstances at hand. The crew “had the confidence to step up and do what was necessary in a time of crisis and they saved that ship,” he says.

Years later, the flag that had been flying on the USS Cole is now mounted on her mess deck. Cmdr. Lippold says, “That flag now serves as a source of inspiration of sailors serving on the rebuilt ship.”

For more coverage from StateTech Magazine on the 2011 NASCIO Annual Conference, check out our NASCIO Conference page.

Oct 03 2011

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