Being a successful leader in the age of automation comes down to a simple mantra
In 1960, American career submarine officer Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard—son of famed hot-air balloonist and scientist Auguste Piccard—were the first two people to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point of the Earth’s oceans. How deep is deep? If you placed all 29,000 feet of Mount Everest on the bottom of the trench, it would still be 1.2 miles underwater.
When I met Walsh at the Global Exploration Summit in Lisbon, a meeting of the intrepid members of The Explorers Club, I asked him for advice that had proven helpful to him during his career. His four-word answer is an instruction for leaders both above ground and below water:
“Manage machines, lead people.”
During his many years in the US Navy both before and after the Mariana Trench expedition, Walsh went through a lot of leadership training. This was back in the late 1950s, when manpower—emphasis on man, as women were not permitted to serve aboard submarines until 2010—was the primary resource the military had at its disposal. That said, the submarine force had long been using emerging technologies for both battle and research, and training its sailors to use these newfangled inventions.
The way that Walsh learned to deal with the tension between man and machine was to focus on the emotional, human qualities of the crew he was leading, and leave the automatic thinking for the machines they manned. Rather than trying to control the changing technology itself, he focused his leadership efforts on the happiness of the operators.
“Having nice shiny kit is fine, but if the people operating it are not motivated, then you will not do well,” Walsh says. “Motivated men are to marvelous machines as 10 is to one.”