Adm. Jon Greenert's career nearly ended almost as soon as it began – it was that time that as a junior officer on duty when he nearly sank his submarine in port.
He was the command duty officer and divers were attaching a part on the submarine's intake that prevents water from coming into the ship when folks are working on the hull and piping, Greenert recalled.
The divers affixing the part told the officer of the day, or command duty officer, the previous day that it was done, he signed off for it and everyone went on with their day.
It was the next day when Lt. j.g. Greenert took over as OOD that he watched a jet of water pour into his boat, flooding out the space. His career might be over sooner than he expected. Speaking at a TEDx conference in Pittsburgh, Greenert recounted the disaster that nearly sunk his budding career, along with the submarine he was serving on.
Delivered at Pennsylvania correctional facility June 17 and posted July 22, Greenert used the stage to talk about how personal integrity is the foundation of good leadership, and how second chances is the key for developing leaders.
Greenert recalls the day vividly.
"Workers came down to pull the bolts out, and here comes the water ... an onrush of water, the size of a pizza pan was coming in," he said. "And if not for the efforts of some fairly heroic sailors, pushing that thing back in, putting the nuts back on, we were going to lose that submarine. Because that was ... uncontrolled flooding."
The sailors got the cover back on the opening but the space was flooded up to knee level and it was time for an investigation.
Greenert was the officer on duty — it was his rear in the frying pan. Higher command wanted to issue him a letter of reprimand, along with the diving supervisor and the OOD who signed off on the part being installed correctly in the first place. But his CO stepped in.
"He said 'I'm not going to deliver these letters of reprimand,' " Greenert remembered. " 'I'm accountable for everything that goes on on this submarine, this is my responsibility. If anyone is going to get a letter of reprimand for this it's me.' "
It was a profound moment for the young lieutenant junior grade, and a lesson he took with him for his 40 year rise to the top of the organization. As Greenert noted, a letter of reprimand would have stopped his career in its tracks and sent him back to Butler, Pennsylvania.
The CO went up to higher command and argued the case, saying that Greenert and the previous day's duty officer had acted on the best information given to them, and had no way of knowing the part had been improperly installed. The responsibility rested with the CO, not with the junior officers.
"That's accountability, ladies and gentlemen, and its what we expect from our commanding officers," Greenert said. "People who understand their people, who stick up for their people and who take responsibility for all that takes place within their unit, their facility or maybe within their larger institution."
The CO made his case effectively, Greenert said. Nobody was issued letters and the procedures for diver maintenance was changed to ensure another submarine didn't flood out. But it was his CO standing up for him that Greenert remembered.
"Because the commanding officer had integrity and accountability, that junior officer had a second chance at a long career," he said. "A great leader ensured the junior officers on duty that day were able to recover from their mistakes, and today I'm the Chief of Naval Operations."
The leadership lesson he learned that day is an example of what Navy leadership is all about, he said.
"[The Navy] learned years ago that authority, responsibility, and accountability must go hand in hand to be successful," said Greenert, adding that those traits were the key elements of trust. "Unconditional trust is key in leading any organization."