Leaders keep their cool under pressure

May 1, 2022
Tom Moriarty says most mistakes by new team members are learning opportunities for all.

Earlier this year, I reconnected with an old shipmate, who is now in a very senior position in an important division of a large corporation. I was assigned with this fellow aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Spencer way back in 1988. At the time, I was the leading petty officer (supervisor) for the Auxiliary Division. This fellow had reported aboard as his first assignment out of recruit training.

When I was giving a workshop on productive leadership to his organization, my old shipmate related a story, something that stuck with him for more than 34 years.

The story goes like this. The newly minted Coast Guardsman reported aboard his first ship and was assigned to my team. Coming from boot camp, a person learns to be part of a team and to be focused on carrying out your mission. It does not prepare you for the finer points of maintaining and operating shipboard equipment. Learning shipboard systems happens over time as fellow shipmates show you the ropes. You are given responsibility as you get familiar with your duties.

This process of learning the ropes happens in every work environment. In the Coast Guard, new arrivals generally get more mentorship and support than in industry, but the idea is the same. The new person is coached through the activity by experienced people. If judged within their ability, they are given the responsibility to carry out the tasking on their own.

Human Capital

This article is part of our monthly Human Capital column. Read more from Tom Moriarty.

Well, in this particular case, my shipmate was asked to perform a preventive maintenance task. The task was to ‘clean the sea strainer.’ On a ship, duplex sea strainers are used to strain sea water that is pumped through heat exchangers to cool equipment. Duplex sea strainers are used because one strainer can be on-line, while the other strainer can be accessed and cleaned without disrupting the system the strainer supports.

On that day, my shipmate was judged to be capable of cleaning the sea strainer since he had been aboard for a couple of months and was presumed to have been taught the proper procedure. The procedure is pretty simple. Whichever sea strainer is on-line, the technician must shift the plug valve from the on-line strainer to the other strainer. Once the valve has been shifted, the strainer that had been straining water can be accessed by loosening toggle bolts that hold the strainer cover down against a seal on the top of the strainer housing. The technician then removes the cover, cleans the strainer, inspects the cover seal, replaces the strainer and reinstalls the cover and toggle bolts.

The procedure works well, as long as the first step of the process is done first. You see, if you loosen the toggle bolts without shifting the plug valve, the head pressure on the sea strainer sprays water all over the place.

One of the first rules of seamanship is to keep sea water outside of the ship. If you don’t, and too much water comes in, the buoyancy effects are overcome by gravity (the ship sinks). Imagine being a new person, alone in an isolated part of the ship, and water is now flowing into the ship because you forgot the first step. You shift the plug valve to stop the water flow, but there is now water sloshing around in the bilges.

Here’s the important part. When my shipmate came to me and told me what happened he was expecting me to chew his butt. I didn’t. What he said I did was to ask him “Did you learn anything?” He said yes, relieved and empowered.

Years before, I did something dumb (a story for another article). When my supervisor didn’t get angry with me, I asked why he wasn’t angry. His response was that it was his responsibility to put me in a position to have done better. Leaders take responsibility for their team members.

When my team member/shipmate made a mistake, it’s because I didn’t put him in a position to do better. People try to do the best they can. Often without the knowledge, time, tools, parts, or whatever they need to do a good job. Go for and do great things.

This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

About the Author: Tom Moriarty
About the Author

Tom Moriarty | P.E., CMRP, President of Alidade MER, Inc.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in asset management, reliability engineering, and leadership improvement. He is a member of SMRP (Florida Chapter Board Member and CED Director), a past Chair of ASME’s Canaveral Florida Section, and author of the book “The Productive Leadership System; Maximizing Organizational Reliability”. He has a BSME, an MBA (organizational development), is a licensed professional engineer (PE) in Florida, and a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional (CMRP). Contact him at [email protected], (321) 773-3356, or via LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/alidade-mer.

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