Dave Oliver

Dave Oliver’s book, Against the Tide, was about his experiences working in the Hyman Rickover Navy. It was a fast read, Oliver fills it with stories and lessons. Here are three things I learned.

1/ Ego and fighting the last war.

Any lesson we learn is a good lesson, but it’s not the final lesson. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Yes, but in addition to being fooled I shouldn’t be duped, tricked, or manipulated.

Too often we stop at fooled. We fight the last war. Oliver writes:

“Basking in the glory of its role during the sweeping Allied victory in the Pacific, most of the post WWII U.S. Navy was in no mood to consider, or even listen to, calls for radical change.”

The Navy succeeded in the Pacific, therefore, the Navy was set to succeed in future wars. The Navy was stuck fighting the last war and fighting the other armed services too. Military funding was a zero sum game. Egos battled and turf was defended.

In any organization the individual incentives (promotion, rank, honor, pay) can move aligned with, or orthogonal to the organizational goals (win, growth, profits).

In his podcast, Jocko Willink, often points out that the military is much less formulaic that people think. We can see this is the careers of people like John Boyd, Victor “Brute” Krulak, and Hyman Rickover. Each of who pursued the truth at the expense of their career.

A good leader will hitch emotions like ego and point it toward finding the truth. That means figuring out where and how the next war will be fought, not basking in the glory of the last.

2/ Chesterton fences on nuclear subs.

Oliver describes Condition Baker as a surfacing maneuver where all the submarine cabin doors and pipes were sealed. Diesel subs often operated in shipping lanes and had to be careful during the final ascent. Condition Baker partitioned off the sub in case a ship’s hull sheared hit them. One compartment would flood, but not the entire ship.

When the nuclear Navy came around, Condition Baker wasn’t as important. Nuclear subs rarely surfaced in shipping lanes and did so only a fraction as often. But, submariners still called out Condition Baker when they surfaced.

Oliver was running a battery charge one day when Condition Baker was ordered and he realized a danger. His compartment required a cooling airflow that ceased when the doors and valves were closed.

Condition Baker was a dangerous relic.

Chesterton fences get their name from G.K. Chesterton, who suggested that before we change something, we ask why it’s there.

“…let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it”

Understand why something exists before you remove it. Oliver understood in an all-too-real way. The climbing temperature dials indicated Condition Baker was not only unhelpful, it was potentially disastrous. The thing it sought to stop — losing the ship — became more likely, not less.

Nuclear submarines eventually stopped doing this. It was “cleared away.”

3/ Extreme ownership.

“People may not be prepared for the situation in which they find themselves in life. The good leader recognizes this and reassigns them to a place or position where they can be successful.”

One of the maintenance procedures (O/I 62)on electrical equipment requires the power to be shut down. The engineers would do this at night, part because the air conditioning units would be offline and it was cooler.

One day Oliver read a report where on another ship an engineer had been electrocuted during the procedure. The report said it was an accident. A few months later the same thing happened. Another engineer died and another accident was the cause.

That didn’t smell right to Oliver.

How does the same procedure lead to the same outcome in two independent places and both times it’s an accident? Something else was going on and Oliver wanted to figure out what.

The best way to go through the procedure on his ship. After everyone went home, he and his head engineer got out the manual and started.

Things began well enough. At one point Oliver thought that maybe it was just an accident. Then he caught himself. As he was reaching toward the back of a control panel to take a reading, he realized his arm was a quarter of an inch from 450 volts of electricity.

“I carefully swayed right and abruptly sat down. The chief wordlessly lit a cigarette, bent over, and stuck it between my teeth. Then he lit one for himself. His hands were shaking. I was sitting on mine.

In doing the procedure Oliver realized a slew of problems that didn’t come up when the procedure was outlined:

  • It got hot and people sweated.
  • The work was done after a full day of work.
  • Important components were tucked in the back.

Oliver diagnosed the problem, closed everything up, and drafted a solution. With a few dollars in parts from the local hardware store he amended the system and sent a memo to the fleet.

Leaders need to own everything. Oliver didn’t have to deal with this problem, in fact, he had to jump through hoops to get all the details about it.

In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove wrote that leaders need to listen to the people in the field because they have the winds of the real world blowing in their faces. It’s often calm and comfortable where leaders are but they fail to see all the conditions on the ground. They fail to understand problems deeply enough.

When Samuel Zemurray went from selling ripe bananas out of a cart in New Orleans to running the entire import business, he attributed his success to being there. Zemurray relished that his competitors sat in their Boston offices. “They’re there, we’re here,” he would say.

3 thoughts on “Dave Oliver”

  1. […] Dave Oliver (Waiter’s Pad) “How does the same procedure lead to the same outcome in two independent places and both times it’s an accident? Something else was going on and Oliver wanted to figure out what.” […]


  2. Aside from the extreme ownership anecdote above, the best part of this book is the notes; the book itself seems closer to what the Navy thought of Rickover.

    Theodore Rockwell’s “The Rickover Effect” is more of a start-up story; Rockwell was part of the team from early on, and he can write better than Oliver or Duncan (“Rickover and The Nuclear Navy”).

    Liked by 1 person

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