Monday, May 11, 2015

Beer brewing leadership lessons

Not all fizzy yellow beer sucks. Kona Longboard, for example, is a great lager to enjoy on hot summer days in Hawaii.
What I've found in my years of brewing beer is that it's a lot like Navy leadership.  Maybe that is the reason the Naval Academy's fight song is so strongly associated with drinking, or that so many Naval traditions have roots in alcohol.  If given the money I would train every new Ensign how to brew beer.  BigNavy(tm)'s attempts to puritanically eradicate drinking from our force actually cause us to miss a grand opportunity to impart real leadership lessons.

According to the Castlemaine XXXX museum, beer brewing is what brought early people together and created civilization. I'd drink to that.
When you first start brewing you tend to make a lot of mistakes.  My first beer was a brown ale.  The lady at HomeBrewUSA (a wonderful brewing store located in Virginia Beach) told me that it was fairly hard to mess up a brown ale.  I definitely pushed the ale's resilience to the limit.  I managed to boil over my hops by mistake and struggled to cool the wort to the proper temperature.  I even put the batch in the secondary fermenter vice the primary one, which caused it to overrun the bubbler and spew fermenting wort into my closet.  It was a mess, and yet in the end the beer came out drinkable and I walked away having learned a lot.

Ironically, at the same time this was happening I was a division officer on a submarine.  I had a division of 10 Sailors with a Chief.  I had to learn to manage maintenance, division collaterals, underway preps and EVALs.  I made lots of mistakes as a junior officer.  Luckily, my Chief and Department Head bailed me out so that the division didn't suffer.  In the end, I learned a lot and became a better leader for it.

A brown ale designed for the working man and associated with industry, just like my first division. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
When my boat pulled into Australia, I got the chance to visit the XXXX Brewing Company (and no, it's not X-rated, that's the actual name).  XXXX (pronounced "Four-X") had massive boilers, computer controlled ingredient injection and an automated bottling plant.  Meanwhile, at home I had a 7 gallon plastic bucket, a 5 gallon glass carboy, some plastic instruments and a hand operated bottle capper.  Both XXXX and I made great beer...XXXX just made more of it than I did.

Good leadership tools are basic and work on both small and large scales.  When I took over a 170 Sailor Training Department, I found out leave chits for my Sailors were taking weeks to get approved.  I did the same thing a former boss did to solve problems: walked around to confirm the problem, integrated a solution into the battle rhythm and enforce the rules.  I printed the leave approval tracker from NSIPS every week, and after counseling one person that had let four chits sit for 72 hours with no action, the leave chit issue went away.  That increased morale and helped refocus Sailors on the mission and away from worrying about whether they would get a chance to take time off.

I'd work for this guy, wouldn't you?
The beer making process hasn't changed much over 5,000 years.  Yeast ferments barley and other ingredients into alcohol.  Combined with hops and aged over time, the end product is tasty beer.  While you can certainly just combine it all into one pot and let the magic works, understanding the steps and providing attention at certain steps result in a better beer.  For example, using a separate primary and secondary fermenter (the 7 gallon bucket and 5 gallon carboy) allow you to strain off particulates and add secondary flavors.

In much the same way, the organization you lead will operate with or without you.  Your goal as a leader is to insert yourself at the right moment to make things better.  Your time is valuable.  Pick the right time and the right place and you get a better product.  Choosing to not be present is just like putting it all the ingredients into one carboy and praying for a miracle.  People need your leadership and they need you to be present, not just a figurehead in a nice office.

Much incredible beer has come from these simple vessels...
Most people start drinking beer in college, and they typically drink fizzy low-quality light beer.  Light beer was an invention of Prohibition repeal and World War 2.  Prohibition ensured that only a few large breweries survived.  These breweries subsequently purchased smaller start ups once prohibition was repealed and ultimately squelched craft brewing until fairly recently.  World War 2 raised the demand for lighter beers because they were cheap and could be more easily consumed by working women.

And yet, once you've had good beer, you don't typically go back.  In the same sense, once a junior officer has had a good leader and seen how leadership is supposed to work, he or she can't accept poor leadership.  I introduced many of my friends to ales, IPAs, stouts and porters.  They cannot drink cheap light beer now without feeling like something is missing.  The same is true for leaders.  Once we've worked for an awesome boss, we find it hard to accept poor or mediocre performance.

I also find that most people don't appreciate the amount of work that goes into one bottle of beer.  It takes a lot of time, talent and expertise to make one bottle of beer.  Most people, after consuming one bottle, don't sit back and say "I just used up five hours of labor and it tasted great!"  Similarly, the GMT briefer that didn't bother preparing and wasted everyone's time with crappy training probably didn't think about the man hours wasted.

In the end, there are multiple types of beers, each of which has a time and a place to be consumed.  No one beer fits all occasions, just like no one leadership style works for all situations.  It takes patience and skill to make a good bottle of beer, but it is worth it in the end, in the same way you enjoy looking back at the great division, department or command you helped build.

Even if you never brew, please take the time to appreciate the beer you drink, the leaders you work for and the people that work for you.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.  The author reminds you to drink responsibly with other great leaders and a designated driver.