The Ordinary Ship

“In the ultimate life is fair
If you only learn to take care
Of what you truly believe
And carry on without bye or leave”

It was an ordinary ship-nobody was extraordinary. The new Captain was a mediocre personality. Nobody Expected any miracles from this Commission. The Wardroom (place to wine & dine) was like any other Wardroom, a mixture of good and average. Most of the Senior sailors had been on board for nearly 5 years and for quite a few of them it was the 3rd Commission. There was a feeling that “Yeh Naya cheez kya karega”(How will the new broom sweep)

The Captain somehow knew that he had a long way to go. However, at the very beginning he had made up his mind that no matter what, the ship would be tension free. Being the senior most and the Fief of the Fiefdom, he would be able to at least ensure this. The next move by this person on taking over was to win over the wardroom by sharing ideas and expectations. At the same time, he did not want to waffle by being vague, and long-winded. He also realized that at the beginning of a Commission, the ward room invariably consisted of strangers and acquaintances who perhaps were going to be together for the first time. Keeping all this in mind the Captain decided not to speak but circulate a list, titled SOLE – Simple Ordinary Leadership Examples. It read:-

“Simple Ordinary Leadership Examples” are:-
Sincere concern and commitment to the job and men.
Care to ensure that the administration works for the ship.
Behavior by example – do not do anything which will be misconstrued as non–officer like.
Create an environment: –
Of transparency and openness.
For learning from each other.
For participation across the board i.e. involving everybody.
That ensures true communication from top to bottom, bottom to top and laterally from stem to stern.
Ensuring useful feedback wherein everybody feels comfortable in transmission of ideas/suggestions/ areas of improvement to make the ship a better place to work, and belong to.
Enabling mindful welfare opportunities for self-improvement for the Ship’s Company and officers: To be able to pursue their off-working hour’s aspirations, hobbies and recreational activities.

In another message the Captain clarified to the officers what he meant by “Administration”. He wrote that true administration meant: –
Ensuring optimal balance between time and manpower.
Securing (pack up time) everybody on time as a functioning thumb rule.
Planning and granting of leave to all personnel.
Provision of wholesome food.
Creating an atmosphere of pragmatic fairness that must be sensed onboard all the time.
That motivates officers and men to want to come on board for work.
Anticipating the actions required to deal with day to day constraints.
Responding to all extraneous agencies with responsible alacrity and also conveying inabilities to meet commitments.
Prevention of mistakes rather than correcting them.
Realizing the value of 85/15 rule – i.e., 85% it is the organization’s fault that leads to a mistake – individually human error being only 15%.
Facilitating/streamlining life onboard: – Attending to mundane things like incoming, outgoing, gen-form, payment, etc. without unnecessary red tape/hassles.
Keeping tabs on critical personal problems – this normally being only in 1% of the ships population.

This Commanding Officer’s core belief was that The Navy would be well cared for if the people and their family were well looked after. Men recognize the limitations of the system and constraints of the service. They also realize and appreciate the genuine efforts of the administration and express their loyalty by committed involvement.

The wardroom hoisted all this with customary skepticism and disbelief. One officer was heard to remark – “Guru, Yeh Bandha Naya Murga hai – Jab Fleet Commander ayega, isko pata chalega” (this guy is so new. When the fleet commander comes, he will learn what reality is) The Captain called the Heads of Department (HODs) and suggested that the ship be run on corporate leadership style where all decisions would be taken in corporate consultation of consensus.

The ship was undergoing a short refit of 4 months. Based on previous experience and examination of the work package, the Captain felt that with proper liaison and coordination, the ship could complete the refit at least a month ahead of schedule. In his call on the Fleet Commander, he gave the latter, assurance that the ship would join the Fleet at least 20 days ahead of Dockyard Completion Date (DCD).

The next month or so, the Dockyard and other agencies became accustomed to seeing the Captain and department heads visiting various centers and coordinating repair activities. Closer to the deadline, the ships company and the officers were seen in and around the dockyard, ensuring collection of equipment and allied machinery parts. Amidst all these the ship still secured mostly on time every day, except during machinery and equipment trials. The ship had setup a special dockyard liaison team of Reps from all the departments. This not only ensured supervision of the dockyard work in accordance with agreed milestones but also provided the civilian mates with administrative and catering hospitality – the ordinary ship believed in the adage that a cup of tea at the right time works wonders.

No unnecessary signals emanated from the ship. All points of dissent were invariably resolved through discussion. The Fleet Commander’s counsel was often sought and readily obtained. Now and then a telephone call from him to the Admiral Superintendent Dockyard (ASD) ensured continuing momentum. Lo and behold, to the pleasant surprise of the Command and the Fleet, the ship sailed out for machinery trials 28 days ahead of schedule.

The first outing was a disaster but providentially mishap free – There were many mistakes committed by various people, the Captain being one of them. Prior to this sailing the ship had formed a separate observation team that included one or two experienced officers from the Command/Dockyard. The ship’s Commander was appointed as the Chief Chronicler to record the observations. On return to harbor there was a massive hot wash up – the Captain owned up to his mistakes and what needs to be done from the “Bridge”(captains and operation team control position) point of view. With this opening, the entire atmosphere was transformed to an honest introspection on the ships performance by each department. The Master Chiefs who were present also contributed meaningfully to the ensuing discussions.

A couple of days later the ship sailed for weapon and gun trials. The gun system performed poorly. The port shaft had to be locked due to lub oil system failure. In the evening debrief the gunnery/weapons, maintenance and the engineering department owned up to procedural and technical omissions which had contributed to the cause of failures. There was no blame game. Mistakes, big or small were meticulously documented.

The ship tackled all defects with resolve and quickness. Subsequently, the ship joined the Fleet 21 days ahead of refit completion date. The ordinary ship had met its first self-imposed deadline. The wardroom sensed that somehow, they were off to a reasonable start. The ship continued to secure on time every day, leave was being granted – a feeling of contentment was spreading in the mess decks. Fleet exercises brought to light many chinks in the ships armour. Everyday there was briefing and debriefing. No mistake, however small, was ignored. Discussions were transparent. It seemed that some objectives of SOLE had been met. The disbelieving wardroom was subconsciously getting gelled into a well-knit team. The Fleet Staff were watching the progress of the ship.

Customary, healthy, rivalry could be always seen when other unsuspecting, more flamboyant Captains continuously ribbed this mediocre Commanding Officer of the ‘ordinary ship’. A few days passed and the Fleet Commander decided to step on board. The Flag shift brought about its own trepidation. Here again, the ship applied SOLE. The visitors were made to feel at home. There was a desire to learn and an openness in owning up to mistakes. The ordinary ship was slowly maturing as a reliable Fleet Unit. Yet the Captain and HODs knew that there were many leagues to cross before the ship could call itself a warship. Consequently, the practice of meticulous detailed briefing, debriefing and consultation with Fleet Staff, Dockyard was continued with consistent intensity. The wardroom and the Captain had become mutual leadership examples. It was gratifying to note that the galley news talked about the ordinary ship’s damn good ward room setup!- If you wanted warmth, peals of laughter and frank discussions you ought to visit this ship. Despite all these activities the ship kept a healthy leave program with a high degree of fidelity and departmental satisfaction. The Captain and HODs now started the practice of quarterly breakfast meetings with the Master-Chiefs. The ships company clamored and organized a family get-together.

During the next phase of the Fleet exercise, the rest of the flock suddenly saw the ordinary ship doing things in almost double-quick time. There was an aura of confidence, a sense of commitment and a degree of anticipation. In six months, the ordinary ship had undergone a sea change in its operational and administrative management paradigm. The Captain also sensed that the ship had finally matured into a well-knit fighting unit. On introspection, he realised that the ship had achieved this through: –

A healthy working relationship and comfortable work environment.
Effective communication and a high degree of transparency.
A sense of security and confidence between officers and sailors.
A process of continuous and constant professional interaction through a system of briefing and debriefing.
The institution of true and real welfare schemes primarily focusing on study opportunities, wholesome food, movie arrangements, granting of leave and most importantly securing on time.
Corporate, inclusive leadership styles of senior leadership through a process of delegation, decentralization and feedback.
The invaluable guidance of the Fleet Commander, the Fleet and Fleet Maintenance Unit (FMU) staff.

The Ordinary Ship continued to fly the flag and carry on its task with the same degree of intensity and determination. The ships company became fiercely competitive. Of course, mistakes were made, equipment went defective. The ship learnt to weather all its professional and natural storms with confidence, anticipation and commitment – Innovation became the credo – The Captain watched all this with a sense of awe. He could not believe that simple basic values of care, concern and commitment would yield such results. This wave of comradeship, competence gave him new found confidence that one could achieve a lot by being, ordinary, natural whilst evincing care and concern for people with whom one must work with. He also realized that behavioural values and leadership examples that he had discussed with the wardroom, while obvious, were seldom talked about and mostly ignored. This gave him an idea that he ought to share some other practical leadership values in order to find out whether all these were valid in today’s Navy. He made yet another list and called them the GRAB laws. (Golden Rules and Behaviour). These postulated: –

Avoidance of one-up-man-ship.
“Talking with” as opposed to “Talking at”, with peers and subordinates and “Talking to” seniors.
Making subordinates clearly aware of the working guidelines onboard.
Understanding the difference between awareness and apathy.
Considering time to be of high value and ensuring minimum wastage of this precious commodity.
Evolving correctness in communication, including effective feedback for a comfortable work atmosphere.
Drawing upon human skill, talent, experience and self-esteem available in abundance onboard – A belief that every man wants to prove himself.
Continuous lateral interaction to achieve team cohesiveness.

Wardroom discussions on the above produced a copious list of additional suggestions. This was discussed with the junior and senior sailors. Their contributions were equally positive and constructive.

The ordinary ship carried on and carried on in the same manner. One day there was a sudden requirement for the ship to sail out along with ready duty ship. The Captain had gone out for the weekend. Yet the ordinary ship got ready to sail well ahead of the ready duty ship.

The Command Operations Officer (COPO) / Fleet Operations Officer (FOO) were treated to the sight of the ship being singled up and engines flashed up, with the Commander ready to cast off.

Meanwhile, onboard the ready duty ship, the Officer of the Watch (OOW) was seen telephonically arguing with the Motor Transport (MT) pool for transport.

Another day during a shop window for a VVIP, the rocket launcher hoists failed. There were only 15 minutes to go. The Captain grabbed the broadcast, explained the problem and cleared the lower decks. It was a sight to see, men forming a human chain to manually load the rockets. The ship fired the rockets, on time and saved itself and the Navy embarrassment. Lessons in human spirit and capacity were being daily learnt.

One night in harbor the Duty Petty Officer during middle watch rounds discovered ingress of water in a below deck compartment that normally would never be examined at night. The Duty Watch isolated the problem and averted major flooding and damage. On being asked as to how he had taken rounds, the Petty Officer stated “Saab, is jahaz mein, duty watch, duty watch type ka kaam nahin karta” (Sir in this Ship, we do not do ordinary work) – the Captain and HODs had tears in their eyes. Another lesson in human involvement was absorbed.

The Ordinary Ship had achieved this by just being ordinarily caring, with genuine concern for each other. This perhaps was the key to its successful commission, of course with, luck thrown in. It would make this fable too long if you had to also write about the role of the Fleet Commanders – There were two of them – Different personalities, different styles.
One was imperious, yet humane and approachable.
The other down-to-earth, humane and highly approachable.
In short, pragmatic policies, a ready ear from the top was a major factor in aiding the Fleet and particularly helping the ordinary ship get out of “hot waters” on more than one occasion.

It would be a fairy tale if it was written that the ship became the best ship of the Fleet and that it had won most of the Fleet Trophies and walked away with the regatta cock beating the carrier and other ships by a handsome margin.

It was not a fairy tale. It was just true.

The wardroom and the Captain split up in accordance with the laws of the Navy, each going on respective career tracks.

After few years they met up – friendship beyond the gangway (the plank that helps people enter the ship) was evident in the spontaneous get-together.

The Captain concluded: –
“In the ultimate, life is fair
If you only learn to take care”.

The Captain who by then had become older thought about the Commission and still thinks about the Commission. It moved him to write:

“Ordinary niceties, simple grace
A warm and friendly face
Alchemy of friendship that cannot be explained
Continues to be fresh yet unchained
And lets you go in your own way
Till you again some day
Meet ordinary niceties and simple grace”.

(This article was published in the US Naval Institute Proceedings in March 97)

8 thoughts on “The Ordinary Ship

  1. Excellent read sir & highly motivating. You have always been an inspiration to your subordinates. Warm regards


  2. It was an excellent read sir .. As always interesting perspectives to implement in the corporate even today … One of my most loved times on the mighty warship D52 during your FOCEF days ..


  3. It was an extraordinary effort by the crew under dynamic leadership of the Captain. Its easy to make certain statements however implementation requires guts & resolve under the atmosphere
    of competition amongst Fleet ships. BRAVO ZULU to commanding officer & ships company who brought this transformation. VICE ADMIRAL ASHOK SUBHEDAR VETERAN


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