Episode 104 – Crisis Leadership – Lessons Onboard the USS Cole

Episode #104
Original Air Date: 05.04.2020

38 minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Matt Harper

What does true leadership look like in a time of crisis? Our guest Matthew Harper has first-hand experience. Matt was serving aboard the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen in October 2000 when the ship was bombed. 17 sailors died and 37 were wounded as a result of the terrorist attack. Matt recounts portions of the 72-hour ordeal and the key leadership lessons he learned as a Naval Officer from that experience.

Matthew Harper spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy driving ships around the world. He was a speechwriter for the 4-Star Commanding General of US Africa Command; he has a Masters Degree from the Harvard Kennedy School; and he is an award-winning published author on U.S.-Chinese Political, Military and Economic relations.

Leaders today are facing extraordinary challenges. As a project manager or team leader, what you do in a time of crisis truly matters. Matt walks us through his actions following the USS Cole bombing and what he learned about leadership during those days. He shares his five key leadership lessons for managing a crisis, including learning to cope with uncertainty and confusion, to collaborate effectively, and to commit to capturing lessons learned after the crisis.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“...understanding the people who you’re with, understanding how they may or may not respond, understanding their strengths and weaknesses so you’re better able to collaborate.”

- Matt Harper

“And you’ve got to be ready to do anything, something that you’ve never thought you had to do, or something you learned about 10 years ago.”

- Matt Harper

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. The unpredictable nature of a crisis means that leaders have little time to prepare. Our guest Matt Harper, a retired 20 year Naval Officer, talks about crisis leadership lessons he learned onboard the USS Cole during a terrorist attack.

Table of Contents

00:37 … Meet Matt
01:38 … Matt’s Role on the USS Cole
03:55 … Background to the USS Cole Deployment
06:32 … Geographical Location of Yemen
07:58 … October 12th, 2000
10:02 … Reacting in Times of Crisis
12:24 … Events Following the Attack
14:36 … Responding Well or Responding Poorly in a Crisis
16:34 … Management vs. Leadership
20:15 … Crisis Leadership Lesson One: Understand Yourself
21:05 … Crisis Leadership Lesson Two: Be Comfortable with Uncertainty
22:40 … Crisis Leadership Lesson Three: Collaborate
24:01 … Crisis Leadership Lesson Four: Be Ready to do Anything
26:35 … Crisis Leadership Lesson Five: Lessons Learned
27:35 … Keeping Motivated in a Crisis
29:42 … Get up on the Balcony, Take a Different Perspective
33:11 … Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone
34:41 … Resolving the Problem
37:20 … Get in Touch with Matt
38:52 … Closing

MATT HARPER: …this is the hallmark of the good leader, of the good project manager that says, got it, that’s the way it’s supposed to be done, but we’re in a crisis deadline or whatever the case may be.  And this is how we need to do it now.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I am Wendy Grounds, and with me is Bill Yates.

BILL YATES:  Hi.  Hi, Wendy.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hi, Bill.    Today we’re talking about what will we do in a time of crisis.  We have Matt Harper with us.  He is on Skype from Denver, Colorado.

Meet Matt

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Matt has had a twenty year career with the US Navy and we’ll get more into that. Specifically though, he had a unique experience and I’m looking forward to discussing with him and sharing with our audience.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Matt is going to tell us about his experience on the USS Cole after a terrorist attack in Aden, Yemen, which happened in October 2000. He was decorated for his leadership after this attack and he’s applied that to coaching lessons in crisis leadership, and so I think he’s got a lot of good stuff he’s going to bring to us today.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Matt, we so appreciate your time.  Welcome to Manage This.

MATT HARPER:  Well, thanks.  Thanks for having me.  Looking forward to it.

BILL YATES:  Any time we can bring somebody into a conversation that has the knowledge, the training, and the experience that you do, we know our project manager listeners are going to appreciate it and learn from it.  Wendy and I were talking, we feel like the best way to tackle this topic is just start from the beginning.  Give us a sense for what happened with the USS Cole and what your role was, or what part you played in that.

Matt’s Role on the USS Cole

MATT HARPER:  Sure.  Well, thanks, thanks again for having me.  I would like to kind of start out, having a 20-year military background, I’m sure a lot of the people listening to the podcast will have military backgrounds.


MATT HARPER:  But for most people who do not, I would like to say that anybody who spends time in the military, what we do on a daily basis is really project management.

BILL YATES: That’s true.

MATT HARPER:  It’s something that we I think don’t do a very good job, we people in the military or prior military personnel, we don’t do a very good job really making it clear that that’s really what we do, probably 90 percent of our day, is really different types of projects that all interrelate to each other.  They’re all underfunded; they’re all under-resourced.


MATT HARPER:  And that’s what we do on a daily basis.  So about my experience, I originally grew up in San Francisco.  I always knew I kind of wanted to be in the Navy, so I went to ROTC up in New England at Boston University.  So I commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy in 1996.  I commissioned as a ship guy, so it meant I spent most of my time on ships.  So again, kind of the military big organization that people may or may not be familiar about:  if you say you’re “in the Navy,” that’s kind of like saying you work at GE.


MATT HARPER:  You could be, you could be a line worker who’s doing the same job over and over again, or you could be the CEO, and so there’s a whole range in between.  So my time at the Navy I spent most of that time on ships.  And then when I wasn’t on a ship, I was at a staff or at a desk job in a cubicle kind of doing paperwork, for lack of a better word. 

So I joined the Navy in 1996; and then in 2000 I was on my second ship, USS Cole.  So I was a young lieutenant at the time.  So a “young lieutenant” being I had about five years in the Navy in October of 2000. And so at the time I was the Assistant Operations Officer. As a young lieutenant I had a more senior lieutenant who was my immediate superior, and then it was the captain, and then the XO of the ship.  So I was kind of senior middle management, how’s that, for my time on that ship.

Background to the USS Cole Deployment

So we had been on deployment, so that meant we notionally had left Norfolk, Virginia for a six-month deployment.  So we left at the end of the summer of 2000.  We spent the first half of our deployment in the Mediterranean.  So back in 2000, after the civil war or the breakup of Yugoslavia, the U.S. military was helping NATO in resolving the separate conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.  At that time the semiautonomous independent country of Kosovo was having their conflict, and so NATO was providing a no-fly zone.  So just kind of background for what we were doing, what I was doing on the ship.


MATT HARPER:  And so the ship, the USS Cole, basically we were tracking every aircraft that flew over Kosovo and were enforcing a no-fly zone.  So as a young lieutenant I was sending out messages, and I was tracking all the airplanes that flew over Kosovo in the Mediterranean.

And so we left there in October, and we did a high-speed – for us, which was 28 knots, which is about 35 miles per hour.  So for a ship that is fast.  We did a high-speed run to go from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, to the Arabian Gulf.  And the reason I say we did a “high-speed run” is because the type of ship we were at had gas turbine engines, which is basically a jet engine that they put on a ship.  And when we go really fast, we use up fuel, we use up fuel quite a bit.

So what would happen normally is ships would go through the Suez Canal.  So this is prior to 9/11.  So this was relatively routine.  So we would pull into the port of Yemen, and then we would refuel.  Nobody would leave the ship.  We would just get more fuel, and then we would shoot off back and head into the Arabian Gulf.  So again, at the time, we were probably the 12th ship to pull into Aden, Yemen.

Now, in 2020, no ship ever would pull into Aden, Yemen because Aden, Yemen is really a war zone, and it has been a war zone for quite a while.  Back in 2000 it was deemed peaceful enough for us to go into.  So we pulled into Aden, Yemen on the morning of October 12th.  In my job as the Assistant Operations Officer, I had actually sent out the messages requesting fuel, so when I put out one of those messages, that unclassified the port visit.  So what that means is that basically you could fairly easily find out we were pulling into Aden, Yemen, and again, that was a routine thing that we did.  Yes.

Geographical Position of Yemen

BILL YATES:  For those who are geographically challenged and maybe not have a map in front of them, so you’re just a bit south of Saudi Arabia.

MATT HARPER:  Correct, yeah.

BILL YATES:  So you’re below Saudi, you’re a bit to the west of Africa, the continent.

MATT HARPER:  Yes, yes.

BILL YATES:  So give everybody, kind of draw an audio picture.

MATT HARPER:  Sure.  So if you start in the eastern end of the Mediterranean, so the eastern end of the Mediterranean of course is Israel, and then south of Israel eventually is Egypt. Then there’s the Suez Canal.  So really on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and that will go into the Red Sea, which is going to be on the western side of Saudi Arabia.  So you are correct, you go down through the Suez Canal, you go through the Red Sea. 

At the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula is Yemen, and then across from the Red Sea is the Horn of Africa, which is Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia.  So that’s a significant kind of hotspot for the world and one of the choke points that the Navy likes to make sure that we understand what’s going on, that choke point going through the Red Sea and of course up to the Suez Canal.  So if you keep going around the Arabian Peninsula, you go up along the coast of Yemen, you’ll go up around the UAE and Oman into the Arabian Gulf.

October 12th 2000

BILL YATES:  So from a project standpoint, you’re in a remote location, way away from headquarters and base and supplies, you’re having to go to an area to get restocked.  In this case you need fuel, and so that sets the stage for the events you’re going to describe.

MATT HARPER:  Yeah.  That’s exactly it.  We are, at that time, again in 2000, we are in a pretty austere and remote location; correct.  And that will lead us to be, after attack – I’ll jump ahead very slightly.  After attack we will remain in Yemen for about two, two and a half weeks because it takes so long to come and basically get us.


MATT HARPER:  Yeah.  So it’s the morning of October 12th, and again, very routine stop, we’ve done this before.  Every Navy ship does this in some capacity.  So we pulled up to a refueling pier.  We had been there for about an hour when a terrorist small boat that had disguised itself as a garbage barge, again, fairly routine,  when we pull into port, we will have ships come up to give us fresh water, depending where we are, and then also take off garbage.  Very kind of mundane operations.

So this terrorist boat came up alongside, and it detonated right about the center of the ship.  So it was a massive explosion, to say the least.  You can get on the Internet, and you can see the hole in the side of the ship, and it is a massive hole.  So at the time I was in my stateroom doing paperwork, and we felt the entire ship rock.  We heard the explosion, and then the entire ship just started listing, so leaning over to one side as we took on water.  And there is where of course the crisis begins; right?  You can say that it is something that we in the Navy on ships train for.  And it is something we do train for.  But it’s one of those events where in the moment it’s hard to believe that it’s actually happening; right?

Reacting in Times of Crisis

And so as we talk about crisis, it’s one of those, until the actual moment comes along, no one is really going to know how they react in that time of crisis.  And as I talk a little bit further, I’ll kind of talk about some of the lessons.  But again, one of those is kind of – that first one is kind of understanding who you are, and trying to understand how you will react in times of crisis.

BILL YATES:  That’s a great lesson right there.  Man, for project managers, we think we know how we’re going to react when something really bad happens with our project.  But then it happens, and then we find out, right? Yeah.

MATT HARPER:  Right.  And it’s one of those things, it doesn’t matter the crisis; right?  You can be running a project and then told, hey, your budget is slashed in half, but you still have this timeline, and you’re still expected to meet 80 to 90 percent of your goals. And that could be a crisis that you’re just not prepared for.  And it’s interesting to kind of think about how you respond to that, so one of the things in crisis, whether that’s a physical crisis or an intellectual crisis, your body is going to react.  Naturally, physiologically, we are going to react. 

So what the body does, you’ll get the sweaty palms, the heart will start racing, you’ll start shaking a bit, perhaps.  Depending on what the situation is, your eyes will dilate.  And so there’s a response that the body takes, and again, what helps is kind of understanding, how you’re going to react in that moment of crisis.

BILL YATES:  Matt, I know the military more than perhaps any other organization tries to simulate moments of crisis; right?  So in your training and in controlled environments, they want to simulate crisis to see, you know, what does happen?  How do we physically respond as a team?  How do we emotionally respond as a team?  So did you feel like some of that led to or helped your team as they responded to the crisis?

MATT HARPER:  Honestly, I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I think it’s hard to simulate really truly a crisis of really any significant magnitude.  Military boot camp will try to kind of make you as an individual comfortable with chaos, with uncertainty, but I think it’s pretty hard to really simulate true crisis.

Events following the Attack

WENDY GROUNDS:  So could you walk us through your steps when this attack happened? What was going through your mind, and so what did you learn through that about yourself?

MATT HARPER:  Sure.  So when the event happened, I thought it was a fuel explosion. We were basically refueling.  We were basically at a gas tank, for all intents and purposes, and I thought it was a fuel explosion.  So at the time I thought, you know what, stuff happens, that was nothing I was expecting.  Most of the people on the ship were uncertain of what happened.  So at that point we really just go through what we’ve been trained to do.  So in that case the training does kick in.

And so what we do in the Navy is go to general quarters; right?  If you saw any Navy World War II movie, it’s “General quarters,” and everybody goes to their battle stations.  At the time, though, because of where the explosion was, people could not move forward and aft on the ship.  So if you were in the forward part of the ship, you could not go to the after part of the ship, and vice versa. 

So because of where I was, I was fairly isolated in the back part of the ship.  I was just trying to walk through what I was responsible for doing.  My job at the time, my responsibility was to send the message out and to tell the world what had happened.  So I was trying to figure out how I get to the forward part of the ship where I needed to go to send out the message.  At that time, it was really something that we actually had trained for and I was fairly confident in our ability to handle; right?

It wasn’t till about 30 minutes later, maybe 45 minutes later that word started going around that it was a terrorist attack.  And once it became a terrorist attack, it was completely different in that there were people out there trying to do harm to the ship, and there may have been more.  So that really kind of stepped up our response.  That heightened our anxiousness, you know, our alert level that there may be continuing attacks.  There were people that I saw who reacted well, of course; and then of course people who didn’t react well; right?  And again, that kind of goes back to trying to understand who you are and how well or how well you will not act in crisis.

Responding Well or Responding Poorly in Crisis

BILL YATES:  Matt, I want to go deeper on that.  That’s intriguing to me, just the area of what did you see?  Contrast those two.  Who responded well, and who responded poorly?  And just give us kind of a list there.

MATT HARPER:  Yeah.  I will tread delicately there.

BILL YATES:  Sure, yeah.

MATT HARPER:  So in general there were people who had responsibilities who gave up very quickly on trying to execute those responsibilities.  That’s what I will say.  One example that very much comes to mind is one of the things I did, if I were talking to a Navy audience off the record, I would say, “Why was I doing that job?”  There was somebody specifically tasked to do a job, and I was doing it, and I’ll just try to put that as delicately as possible.

And then there were other sailors who, one in particular, I had told to do a very mundane thing, really just kind of stand there and watch a piece of equipment.  And it was very clear that that person was going to do it, and they were going to have no questions about doing it, and they were going to do it as long as I told them to stay there; right?  No matter what happened, I felt that that sailor was going to just stay there because I told him he needed to do something.  That’s kind of contrast, again kind of doing exactly what needs to be done and being able to have the personal wherewithal to do it, and then perhaps not being able to kind of understand what needs to be done.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Matt, I can think about situations that I’ve been in where I’ve been working projects for an organization, and the customer receives notice that they’re going to be acquired, or they’re going to have a major layoff or something like that, and just seeing the impact that it has on our customers, that are really almost like a part of our team.  Some react well.  They’re like, hey, whatever happens, happens.  Right now I’ve got a job to do.  They stay focused.  Others, they cannot stay focused.  As a leader, what advice do you have for helping them through that?

Management vs. Leadership

MATT HARPER:   Well, here is where I think that over my career I’ve really come up with kind of the definition between management and leadership; right? So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the difference between the two is.  I think that even now, if you read most definitions of leadership and management, they’re really the same thing; right?  When people talk about good leadership, I would argue, okay, a manager will exhibit those traits. And so it doesn’t make them mutually exclusive, it just makes usually a leader being the good one and the manager being kind of a pejorative term.  And so I think for you guys as project managers, that should probably raise some angst that the manager is what you don’t want to be, and the leader is what everybody wants to be.

BILL YATES:  Right.  True.

MATT HARPER:  So I’ve always felt most definitions really just don’t clarify what the difference is.  And so in grad school I took a couple of classes with a great professor who really defined for me and gave me a great definition of leadership and management.  And that being, here it comes, management being able to do the technical work, and so the technical work being work that the organization and the people really already have the tools, they already have the playbook, they already have the instruction to do.

So most of what we do, most of what I would argue project managers do, and I will 100 percent certainly tell you, 90 percent of what we do in the military is management.  It is what we know how to do, we know how to manage a ship, and so that’s not bad or good.  That is the people in the organization have the skills, they have the knowledge, they have the experience to execute, and managing that execution is something that we need to do every day, and that’s what we do every day.  Leadership, on the other hand, is where we have to adapt to a problem or a situation or a crisis that we don’t necessarily have the tools, that there isn’t a book to go to and say, okay, this is how we manage this crisis.

Leadership is how we adapt ourselves and our people to really solve the problem we’re going to make ourselves better, and so one example is to fire somebody.  So there is a very clear way, in management philosophy, of how you fire somebody.  We do it all the time.  But the leadership side of that is how do you fire somebody and still make it so that they feel worthwhile; right?  So they still feel important.  So if they remain in the organization in a different job, which we do in the military quite a bit, how do they still contribute?  That is hard, and people may or may not have the tools, to lead people through that event.  So how we help people through a crisis or a situation that they may not be ready for.

So the attack on the Cole was very much a crisis in which we had to kind of adapt to the situation, and how we interact with people, how we save the ship, that was something we had to adapt to very much in the moment.,

And so as we come back to, some of your questions, when you’re talking about people who may freeze up or who may not react how you want them in a time of crisis, the job as the leader is to figure out how you give that person the tools, how you help them manage – and I hate using that word – but how you help them get through that event, adapt to that event so that they can be either successful or to make it through or to meet some type of goal.

Crisis Leadership Lesson One: Understanding Yourself

WENDY GROUNDS:  Can you lead us through that?  You mentioned there were five leadership lessons through a crisis like this, so could we touch on that?

MATT HARPER:  Sure, sure.  So in crisis it may seem obvious, I would think and I would hope most people would say, yeah, you lead in crisis.  When I give my presentation with a slide show, one of the first things I throw up is the picture of three people who didn’t lead in crisis.  Two were captains of ships who were the first people off the ship when the ship was going down, and the other was one of the security guards down at Parkland, Florida, during the shooting down in Parkland, Florida, who basically stayed outside the whole time.  So it’s not obvious, and again, it comes back to understanding yourself and how you’re going to react.  So that was the first one, you’ve got to lead, and you’ve to figure out how you’re going to lead people.

Crisis Leadership Lesson Two: Being Comfortable with Uncertainty

Two is being comfortable with uncertainty and confusion. So as we kind of talk about leadership being how we adapt and how we help people adapt, having to adapt usually means there’s something wrong. There is some confusion.  There is some uncertainty in the program, in your environment, in your relationships, and so just being comfortable with that and understanding that there may be some time, where it is going to be uncertain.  If you’re a person who doesn’t like that, if you’re a person who always likes to know exactly what the answer is, there’s a chance that in time of crisis, when there is mass confusion, that you’re going to struggle.  So, it’s kind of thinking about and knowing yourself and how comfortable you’re going to be in that moment of confusion and crisis and uncertainty.

BILL YATES:  Matt, this ties right into something we’re actually practicing and preaching here at Velociteach, which is “Know thyself.”  With healthy teams we know how we’re wired, not just individually, but each team member.  And then we’re able to kind of come alongside each other when we do have a crisis moment and go, hey, guys, I’m wired this way.  So you can imagine, actually you can read it in the profile, you know how I’m feeling right now.  So help me out here; right?  So I like that.  So your first point about understanding, and then understanding self and understanding the team; and then, secondly, getting comfort in uncertainty and confusion and knowing how to, not just for yourself, but also for your team members, how to help them become comfortable or adapt to it.  That’s great, so keep walking us through these.

Crisis Leadership Lesson Three: Collaborate

MATT HARPER:  Right.  So that’s exactly it, and that kind of leads me to my third point is really collaborate, right?

BILL YATES:  Okay. a

MATT HARPER:  Collaborating, is something project managers preach all the time, but it’s not something we necessarily do very well all the time.  But in a moment of crisis, in a moment of uncertainty where we have to adapt, being able to collaborate; and then, just as you said, understanding the people who you’re with, understanding how they may or may not respond, understanding their strengths and weaknesses so you’re better able to collaborate.

So during the second and third day after the attack on the Cole, we were trying to dewater the ship.  And so, as you can imagine, a ship does not want water in the people tank, as we say, and we had a very, very hard time.  We struggled.  There are books, and there are classes, and there are lessons on the struggle we had to get water out of the ship, to dewater the ship.  And it was very much a collaborate, any idea is a good idea until we figure out it doesn’t work.  So we were trying anything in any way possible to get water out of the ship.  And so that collaboration and, again, knowing the people around you and utilizing their strengths and understanding their weaknesses. 

Crisis Leadership Lesson Four: Be Ready to do Anything

And then four is be ready to do anything.  So I was listening to one of your podcasts, and there was a RACI chart; right?  RACI?

BILL YATES:  Right, yeah, sure.

MATT HARPER:  Remind me what that stands for, please?

BILL YATES:  So a RACI chart.  So you’re responsible, you’re accountable, you’re consulted on something, or you’re kept informed on something.  So it helps you, for the different roles on the team, you know, it may be, okay, I don’t need to make a decision on this, but I need to be kept informed. Or this piece over here, I’m actually accountable for that, so yeah, the RACI chart’s helpful.

MATT HARPER:  Right.  So one of the things I learned in a time of crisis is that responsibility and who has to do what really goes out the window. And what is the best, I guess what’s the tidbit for your listeners is, in a leadership role, when it comes in times of crisis, or maybe the deadline, right, let’s call it the “deadline,” when it has to get done, then it just has to get done by whomever it is. Whether that means that the leader is doing it, perhaps that’s not the best use of the time, but in a moment of crisis, when you have a deadline, which can be its own crisis, then it’s got to be done.  And so you’ve got to be ready to do anything, something that you’ve never thought you had to do or something you learned about 10 years ago.


MATT HARPER:  So in that moment of crisis, if you’re not going to do it, it may not get done, right? And so again, I think that kind of – that’s the difference between the normal management state, where you have tools, you have a RACI chart to say this is your responsibility. I’m going to hold you accountable, or somebody’s going to hold me accountable.  As opposed to the leadership in crisis where, okay, got it, so let’s make this happen and get this done.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  When there’s a hole in your ship, when there’s water where people are supposed to be; or when there’s a 25 percent budget cut; or when, okay, this piece, you’ve got to deliver that a month earlier than we said and here’s why, yeah, it’s all hands on deck.  You’ve got to kind of forget about the planning you’ve done, really, you know, from a process standpoint, so you’ve got to revisit that planning, right?  You’ve got to go, all right, look.  How many resources do we have?  Has anybody done this before?  So we need you doing this right now.

MATT HARPER:  Right, right.

BILL YATES:  We’ll get back to normal state later, but right now we’ve got an emergency, let’s deal with this.

MATT HARPER:  Right, and so I would argue, and I’m sure that you can probably give dozens of examples of this, is this is the hallmark of the good leader, of the good project manager that says, got it, that’s the way it’s supposed to be done, but we’re in a crisis deadline or whatever the case may be.  And this is how we need to do it now.


Crisis Leadership Lesson Five: Lessons Learned

MATT HARPER:  Right.  And then so the last thing, and I think you guys have touched on it in previous podcasts, is continuing to learn; right?  Lessons learned.  There’s lots of different ways to do it, but really being able to capture what worked and what didn’t work, figure out why it did work or didn’t work, and then try to institute that, whether that’s in training or in policy or whatever the case may be. 

So the Navy does a fairly good job at that.  There were a number of lessons and policy procedures and equipment changes that happened because there is a fairly robust program to figure out what went wrong, both from an operational, why did we go into Yemen and not have a security boat there, to why wasn’t this pipe able to go through that fitting on the ship to help dewater?  Those were some significant issues that we ran into that the Navy did a fairly good job in working to rectify.

Keeping Motivated in a Crisis

WENDY GROUNDS:  So Matt, as a leader – and it seems like you’ve taken on, in this disaster, you took on a lot of roles that you normally wouldn’t have done.  This isn’t something that, okay, we fixed it, and we’re good to go the next day, so this was ongoing.  I think you say it was about two weeks?

MATT HARPER:  Right.  A little over two weeks, yup.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Little over two weeks.  And, so you know, there’s a hole in the boat, there’s people injured, nobody goes to sleep because there’s so much going on.  How do you sustain yourself?  How do you keep motivated and keep your team going through something like that?

MATT HARPER:  That’s a good question, and I would say, as you kind of raise that question, so I don’t know if I’ve done a good kind of “my lessons learned” on that, to be honest.  I think that there were some people, probably myself included, that it just came naturally to. So I was single at the time, and I think that makes a difference; right?  The reality of it is I didn’t necessarily have a family, Mom and Dad, of course, but I didn’t have an immediate family back home that I was necessarily trying to contact. I was young.  I was 25.  Young and maybe a little dumb here and there, so it was just one of those things I just did, that was what had to happen.

There were, again, in the after action, there were people who struggled with that.  If anything, what I would say, is there were probably things that I did during the event in which I look back, and I think that was probably not the right thing to say.  That was not the support, up or down; right?  I mean, there’s support to the people who work for you, but there’s support for the people you work for.  So that’s kind of loyalty down, but loyalty up, and there were probably some things that, you know, I did or said that probably, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have done or I would have said differently.

And again, to give some feedback to your question, at least for me personally that was just kind of what I was there to do. It’s knowing yourself, if you’ve got issues that you have to overcome, and then trying to really understand your people and at least be cognizant of some of the issues that they may have to overcome.

Getting up on the Balcony: Taking a Different Perspective

BILL YATES:  Matt, so I confess that I’ve been in crisis situations where I wish I could hit the redo button. You know, I may have burned bridges, or maybe started to burn a bridge, and so maybe it didn’t completely burn.  But I may have done things to fellow team members, peers, or to managers, or to the customer, right, to points of contact that I wish I could go back and retrieve an email or just have a redo button that I could press with that.


BILL YATES:  And it is, sometimes it’s so painful for us to reflect on those; right?  So it’s like, okay, I know, there’s a part of my brain saying I know I need to have a conversation with a mentor or a coach or just a friend who I can confide in, maybe that doesn’t work for the same organization, and talk through this and just help them give me honest feedback about, okay, this was the right thing you did, or you were right to do that, and affirm those areas.  And then also say, “Dude, what were you thinking?”  You know, who was that going to help?  You were just letting off your emotional volcano and not thinking about who was going to hit by it.  So, yeah, it’s a tough thing to do, it’s a real challenge as we grow professionally to have that.

MATT HARPER:  One skill that, my leadership instructor, teaches, and so it’s hard to do, it’s hard to do.  But what he calls it is kind of getting up on the balcony, and it’s hard in the moment to step back and to look down and to see what’s going on from a third-person perspective and to kind of take yourself out of it.  And you will usually see that there’s other things going on that impact how people are reacting and how they’re thinking, but it’s hard to do.  You can tell yourself all the time that you need to take a step back and look at what the other perspectives are.

And as you go back to time of crisis, I think the only thing you can do is try to practice it when you’re not in crisis. You practice these skills, and you think about these lessons when you’re not in crisis so that hopefully one or two stick around when you’re in crisis and the building is literally on fire or something, something of that manner.

BILL YATES:  I just was reminded of this in the last week, I was reading a book that referenced a classic by Patrick Lencioni, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.”  So he’s got five dysfunctions of, you know, teams that dysfunctional, here are the five characteristics that you see. And so the fourth one is an avoidance of accountability, and it all starts with trust.  So he says, with those teams that are dysfunctional, there’s no trust.  And because of that, and it kind of keeps building on, and when there’s no trust, then there’s not accountability, or you’re kind of faking it when you go through the debrief or go through your retrospective.

  You know, you’re not really getting down to that juicy stuff that you need to see and identify and change in yourself and in your team.  And when you have, you know, people lost their life in this incident that you’ve described.  So it’s so serious, and the importance of taking a wide-eyed look at it and being honest and transparent, it’s vital to health and better performance in the future.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, I think it’s really important just understanding yourself.  I know when I’m in a crisis I tend to freeze, just completely freeze up, and with age and with experience, I’ve got to recognize that.  So now when I get to a crisis, and I start freezing, I’m like, hang on, this is what you’re doing. You need to, you know, so you’ve got time now to just kind of step back and say stop freezing, and get on with what needs to be done.  But it takes, I think it takes one really big crisis for you to understand that, okay, this is how I react.  And then you learn from that, and you try to do it differently.

Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone

MATT HARPER:  No, I think you’re right.  It’s interesting.  I think about this a lot, and I think about how you prepare or train yourself.  So I have a nine-year-old daughter.  And when she is in a nine-year-old crisis, all right, a young person’s crisis, she freezes. And I see that, and so I actually try to push her out of her comfort zone a little bit.  So the one example I’ll give you, and hopefully it kind of pertains to your teams a little bit.  So we saw a car accident. It was actually the aftermath of a car accident, so people were starting to mill about, people were getting out of their cars. My daughter saw it.  There was no role for me.  I don’t think anybody was seriously hurt.

But I stopped, and I got out of my car.  But I could see her reacting as in “Don’t go over there, don’t go over there, don’t, don’t, don’t put yourself in danger.”  And so I kind of pushed her a little bit.  I didn’t make her get out of the car, but I saw how she was reacting, and I tried to push her a little bit to make her uncomfortable. 

So I think that does equate to your teams, in everyday time, push your team a little bit; right?  So push your individuals, again, knowing them and how far you can push them, push them a little bit.  Get them out of their comfort zone and hopefully get them to think about how they would adapt.  A little bit at a time, give it to them as they can handle it, and so hopefully, something will stay with them if they ever do face a crisis.

Resolving the Problem

WENDY GROUNDS:  Right. So looking back at the attack on the USS Cole and your role in it, what are you most proud of?

MATT HARPER:  That’s a good question,I don’t think anybody’s asked me that before, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about my role.  I am most proud of the work we did.  We solved the problem.  So when I give this talk in front of a military or Navy audience, I have these slides that I will throw up that will actually walk through the entire problem and how you get water out of the ship. So we thought of a lot of different things, we collaborated a lot. We tried a bunch of things that didn’t work, but we ended up doing some pretty creative things, and I will be very proud of that.

The one, just to give you an example, I guess the one thing that was probably the most creative that they still kind of teach is to get water out of the bottom of the ship,  you have to go against gravity; right?  So the water was below where the ocean waterline was.  So you have to pump water up and out and we didn’t have any power, and we struggled for a long time to do that.  We ended up cutting a hole in the side of the ship, so instead of going 20 feet up and over outside the ship, we went right out through a hole we cut in the side of the ship.  It was what we should have done 24 hours prior.  It took us a little while to think of it and then get permission from the captain to do it, but…

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I bet that was fun, asking him, “Hey, we want to cut another hole in the ship.  Are you cool with that?”  That’s counterintuitive.


BILL YATES:  Matt, think you so much for sharing these insights.  I know that project managers as they listen will think about how they can better prepare for crisis moments in their projects, both personally as leaders and to help their team prepare better.  It’s so helpful to talk with someone like you who has been through training and preparation for a crisis, and then just seeing, okay, hey, the playbook has to change when the crisis happens. You’ve got to reevaluate it, and then you’re going to make your changes and go. 

So even your point about the RACI chart and throwing it out the window, that’s so powerful to know, just for the team members to know that, that, hey, this is our plan.  But I guarantee you, team members, we’re going to have to change this plan when the crisis happens.  But we’re all in this together, we’re all going to collaborate and come up with a solution.  We’re going to cut another hole, in the boat, and we’re going to do this.

MATT HARPER:  Yeah, yeah.  No, that’s exactly it.  You hit it right on the head, and, yeah, hopefully I can provide some perspective or some thoughts, if nothing else, to think about it, hey, so remember what that guy said?


Get in Touch with Matt

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  Matt, so how can our listeners get in touch with you if they want to talk a little bit more or hear more about your story or just get some advice?

MATT HARPER:  I’m happy to talk to anybody who reaches out, so I can be reached, probably the best way, through LinkedIn, it’s Matthew M. Harper.  There’ll be a lot of Matthew Harpers on LinkedIn, but Matthew M. Harper.  I also have a Facebook page for my consulting, I have a small part-time consulting/speaking company called Forged Analytics, as a website domain and on Facebook.

WENDY GROUNDS: And we just thank you so much for your time and just being our guest today, we really appreciate you.

MATT HARPER:  Well, thanks again for having me.  It was great, and again, hopefully I can provide a couple of tidbits of good information, so thanks again.


WENDY GROUNDS:  So a special word to our listeners now, there’s a double benefit from listening to these podcasts.  You have also just earned some PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward your recertifications.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast at the top of the page, and click the button that says Claim PDUs, and then click through those steps.

Also, if you like what you hear, please leave us a review wherever you listen to our podcasts, or you can leave a comment on our website.  If you have any questions for me, please email me at manage_this@velociteach.com, until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

14 responses to “Episode 104 – Crisis Leadership – Lessons Onboard the USS Cole”

  1. Gerene Gramlich says:

    Excellent speaker and topic! Thank you!!

  2. Pietro says:

    Congratulation. Top podcast!!!
    It is very interesting telling about project management from outside project management world.
    Go on this way 😉

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      Thanks for your support Pietro! So much of life is a project and it’s always interesting to hear from people who have dealt with unique projects.

  3. Peg Lampe says:

    This was great – thanks so much for sharing the conversation. I really appreciated the comments about knowing yourself and how your team reacts and trying to push them just out of their comfort zones; also, the fruits of collaboration.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      Thanks for leaving a comment Peg. I so agree with Matt that understanding yourself will help you prepare for those real crisis moments.

  4. Homar Alvarado says:

    Yep, the military is the perfect training ground for developing and honing the base skill sets for creating awesome project managers. Way to go, Matt Harper.

  5. Anne-Sophie Drouin says:

    Very interesting podcast and speaker.

  6. Sandra CHristiansen says:

    Interesting leadership lessons for managing during a crisis, coping with uncertainty.

  7. Maria Kristofer says:

    I couldn’t recommend the point more: Know yourself, and learn about yourself from how you respond to a crisis. Very valuable.

  8. Oberon Matheny says:

    Enjoyed this podcast. Very interesting and definitely some take-away learnings.

  9. George says:

    I congratulate you for the honesty when you said “I don’t know”. Stories like this help us all together with life experiences of course. Trust is what plays a great role, not just subordination, but trust.

  10. Megan says:

    Story telling, reflecting the event of what happened is a great way to help learn and this one was very valuable and thought provoking. I felt like I was there and I also had take-aways on how to apply skills acquired. As project managers, we do risk planning, but this situation felt different to me. In this situation, thinking how you can make a plan, but when something happens, you do take a moment to grasp what is really happening/assess the situation. Fight or flight kicks in, but also Freeze. In that moment, you realize what you’ve been planning for. You can also forget what you’ve planned for. The last organization I worked at, the leadership roles for our Supply Chain Logistics were former military personnel. It was great to learn from them. This was a great podcast!

  11. Sri Salagrama says:

    Excellent podcast!! Thank you!!

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