Against the Tide
Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy
Rear Adm. (Ret.) Dave Oliver
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2014, 192 pages
Book Review published on: July 21, 2017
Adm. Hyman G. Rickover was one of the most polarizing and controversial Navy figures of the twentieth century, a revolutionary leader who was the single driving-force behind the successful creation of the U.S. nuclear Navy. Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy captures the leadership challenges and culture biases the admiral had to overcome while integrating a new technology into the Navy. Most military professionals outside the U.S. submarine community only know Rickover as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” A few may have heard anecdotal tales about his notorious interview process; still fewer know about his profound accomplishments and the impact he had on bringing the Cold War to an end.
The author of Against the Tide, Rear Adm. Dave Oliver, retired U.S. Navy, is a 1963 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who, during his thirty-two-year career, served at sea in both diesel-electric and nuclear submarines. Oliver served on the very first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN 571); commanded the nuclear submarine USS Plunger (SSN 595); was chief of staff for Seventh Fleet; was commander, Submarine Groups Seven and Five; and was principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
The book centers on Rickover’s leadership style as it applies to his absolute commitment to ensuring the success of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine force. There was nothing laissez-faire when it came to Rickover’s leadership style. He was an autocratic and visionary leader who led from the front. It is remarkable that Rickover got underway on the initial sea-trials of almost every new construction U.S. nuclear submarine from 1954 until 1981 when he was well into his eighties. Rickover was a relentless, results focused, detail-oriented manager that some would consider to be a micromanager. He demanded accountability and was quick to act when people or processes failed to measure up to his demanding standards. So much so, that he left many disgruntled government civilians, private businessmen, and naval officers in his wake. But, in his defense, he was always focused on “doing the right thing” and in making positive changes to the Navy’s culture. Rickover instilled a safety first mentality in his workforce, because when one is dealing with nuclear power, failure is not an option.
Oliver lays out his book in a way that makes it easy reading for anyone who picks it up; you do not need to have an engineering degree or have served time onboard a nuclear submarine to understand the message he delivers. Oliver is clearly not suggesting that following Rickover’s exact management and leadership style will lead one to become a successful leader or manager. Instead, he divulges Rickover’s principles by arranging each chapter by first, albeit loosely, identifying one of his principles. This is followed by a short vignette, which reinforces or supports the principle, and concludes with a series of questions that make the reader think critically. Those questions provoke readers to examine their leadership style and reflect back on previous assignments, making them wonder if they had set conditions in their organization that would measure up to the standards Rickover had held for himself and the submarine community.
Along with Rickover’s management style and leadership principles, Oliver provides insight into Rickover’s life, what drove him, and ultimately, what made him so successful. It was shocking to learn that, although Rickover had served on two submarines early in his career, he had never commanded one. Rickover was a late-bloomer; had the opportunity in 1946 not risen for him to be one of eight Department of Navy personnel assigned to the nuclear program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, then Capt. Rickover may never have had the opportunity to accomplish as much as he did. It is almost unfathomable that one man’s desire, deep personal commitment, and investment into the idea of creating a new weapon system so complex and lethal could have had such a major impact on bringing the Cold War to an end. Rickover’s insight into the future and his ability to make timely course corrections are also noteworthy. He also knew his limitations—he knew he was an introvert that lacked command presence and strategy and warfighting knowledge. Despite those limitations, his determination overcame any weakness he may have had.
Against the Tide should not be the first book on leadership you read. It is more applicable to senior officers and program managers who already have an established leadership style. Conviction: a strong vision and the willingness to see it through, is the one consistent leadership trait of Rickover that Oliver highlights throughout the book that should be emulated regardless of seniority. It is difficult to say if Rickover’s leadership style would survive in today’s environment, but hard work and focus are always en vogue.
Book Review written by: James F. Buckley, Fort Belvoir, Virginia