Author James L Barnhart: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Confirm intellectual, physical, and emotional well-being of your team. The enlightened leader considers both the collective team’s capabilities and individual team members’ intellectual, physical, and emotional well-being when forming plans and making individual assignments. This is important at all times, but it becomes imperative during uncertain and turbulent times. In the pressure cooker environment of a nuclear reactor plant undergoing massive equipment and systems upgrades, the grueling hours combined with the intense scrutiny under the watchful eyes of auditors led even the best of the team members to make mistakes. Pay attention to team well-being, both at the individual and collective level, and call a pause to the action when needed to relieve pressure and avoid burnout.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing James L. Barnhart.
James L. Barnhart, a Distinguished Naval Graduate of the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School, served as a naval engineering officer leading nuclear controls and instrumentation divisions aboard submarines. Jim built upon his foundational nuclear Navy experience in the corporate business arena to enable business customer delight through flexible and industry-leading services and operational excellence during hyper-growth periods for startups and established companies.
Recognized for his distinguished C-suite career developing winning teams, advancing global growth, delivering record financial performance, and earning best-in-class customer satisfaction with superior operational performance, Jim is pursued as a speaker and advisor.
Jim holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Washington State University and an MBA from Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I joined the US Navy and earned my line officer’s commission immediately following completion of my undergraduate engineering studies. The Navy’s regimented environment both in the nuclear propulsion training curriculum and while serving in submarines at sea provided a superb foundation for accelerated success when applied to business after my years of service.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
During my early days at Officer Candidate School a uniformed guard who walked with strict intent, squaring corners and rapping his heels together at each stop, led the way to the company office. My mind, though foggy from lack of sleep, was racing as I attempted to decipher what action on my part would make this crazed lunatic stop shouting at me. “CAJORIZE!” As I searched frantically about for any sign as to what I should be doing differently, the orders only escalated. If I moved, he shouted. If I attempted to speak, even to ask what he wanted me to do, he shouted. If I looked about for a clue as to what he expected of me, he shouted more loudly. A few days later we had to stand for inspection. The inspecting officer stepped uncomfortably into my personal space to size me up, so close the visors of our hats were nearly touching. This was well before the pandemic days with six- foot social distancing as the norm! I met his gaze and he met mine with a shout of “CAJORIZE!” There it was again, and still I wasn’t sure what it meant. Meanwhile, I was earning some serious demerits, judging by the furious scratching on the inspection tally clipboard.
Once safely back in our dorm-style room to collect our books for class, and to yo-yo out of the inspection uniform and into one suited
for daily wear, I finally asked Jesse, my roommate, to decipher that damned “cajorize.” He laughed so hard he could barely breathe, nearly causing the further infraction of a late fallout for class as he wiped tears from his eyes. It seems cajorize is an order given by a superior to an unworthy underling to look away — to “cage your eyes.” We were meant to look only at the back of the head of the candidate in front of you or directly ahead into the distance if alone or first in line. A subordinate is not to eye a superior. Who knew?
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My uncle, Dennis Barnhart, was something of a legend during the early days of microelectronics and personal computers. He was CEO at a company called Eagle Computer when he took me under his wing and invited me to work as an intern at his company. One sunny afternoon as we drove home from the office, he shared his vision for where he would take the company. Impressed, I could not help but ask, “Where do you get the confidence?” He burst into hearty laughter before explaining a fact that I had never pondered before and that I struggled to believe at the time: Most people want to be led! Bring forward a vision for a better future and people will gladly follow.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Every business book I read over the years fell short of expectations. Some were too dry with statistics in tabular or graphical form, others were too academic, too theoretical with little insight into how the reader might be expected to put the theory into practical use, while still others were entertaining success stories about a specific company or business person but of little help in developing the reader’s leadership capabilities.
I decided to write a book of leadership lessons, “Elite and True: Leadership Lessons Inspired by the US Navy,” that would share a personal journey in an engaging manner with just enough background context to make recognizable similar situations that aspiring leaders would likely encounter. “Elite and True” brings front and center the leadership lesson(s) to succeed in myriad recognizable scenarios, and it ties together the storyline, the recognizable scenario, and the lesson with bits of humor sprinkled throughout to make for an entertaining read — it provides readers the opportunity to have fun while expanding their knowledge. Reviewer feedback indicates a trifecta success! An engaging, educational, and entertaining “goldmine” of leadership lessons.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I prefer to lead by example, and to succeed in uncertain or difficult times it is imperative to establish mutual trust and respect. As a factory manager early in my business career, I continued to draw from my experience base, both from the US Navy and my work as a manufacturing engineer, to drive improvement progress. As a naval division officer, I had the utmost of respect for the knowledge, the talent, and the overall value of the machinists, electricians, sonarmen, reactor controlmen, and engineering laboratory technician teams I had the privilege to lead. The factory presented an analogous talent pool of planners, buyers, assemblers, test technicians, and manufacturing engineers. By collaborating with them on the daily challenges as we pursued monthly and quarterly factory output goals, I helped the teams make steady progress on improving shipped product quality and on-time delivery. By soliciting employees’ perspectives on the challenges we jointly faced, we established mutual trust and respect and enjoyed new levels of productivity, both as individuals and as a team. The positive work environment perpetuated itself, and through discussing challenges with the team in open collaboration, I found no need to issue a direct order; team members knew what needed to be done, and they took it upon themselves to make it happen. When a bad batch of components arrived, for example, the planner, manufacturing engineer, and buyer huddled to assess the situation.
They found an alternate supplier to cover our current need and quickly placed an order to minimize the unproductive time, even while providing feedback to the original supplier of the nonconforming parts to prevent the problem from recurring in the future. After taking these actions, they reported to me on the situation.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m blessed or cursed with an incredible internal drive. Once I commit to achieving a goal, there simply is no quitting. Might the current path fall short? Of course, but that just indicates a need to identify another approach. Might I grow weary during the pursuit? Again, yes, but that merely is the signal to step away for a bit, to focus on the next item on the to-do list for a spell while recharging to again advance on the committed objective. The best doses of unrelenting commitment renewal come from others who voice their opinion that the goal currently under pursuit “cannot be done!” What can be more motivating than doing the impossible?
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives.
Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
Ha! No, ironically the lack of an inspiring book on how to be an effective leader was a prime motivator in the decision to write “Elite And True.” As we were parting company, a retiring business division VP and GM commented, “I learned more from you in the last 18 months than I did from my 27 prior bosses over the last 40 years. You should write a book!” I pondered his comments, thinking about what he saw in my approach to leadership that had eluded all those other bosses throughout his career. I recognized the seminal influence from the Navy and committed to writing a book that could fill the void for curious and aspiring readers.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
When times are uncertain the prime role of a leader is to communicate! Acknowledge the realities of the environment, admit the harsh truth for your followers to assure them that you are aware of the headwinds. Share with them your action plans to not just weather the storm, but for the company to come out of it even stronger on the other side.
Resist the temptation to hope that the storm will blow over if you just hunker down and hide to ride it out. Be visible! Let your team know what you are thinking. Admit that some decisions are difficult but necessary. And by all means, be willing to accept new data that may arise that indicates a course correction is needed. It’s far better to adjust course along the way than to have set no direction in the first place, or to stubbornly stick to a course after new data informs the need for course correction.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
In uncertain times, a true leader remains open to the team, is visible and present for timely communication updates, and is honest about the situation and plans. If a leader has established the right team — not a group of sycophants but a true team of talented lieutenants as direct reports who are confident to voice their own thoughts on the situation — then rich team discussion will inform what people are feeling at all levels of the organization and enable formation of the right inspiring and motivating action plan and messaging. It is imperative that top lieutenants commit to the vision and acton plan, with consistent messaging to everyone throughout the organization. To paraphrase that old metaphor, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Acknowledge the elephant, divide it into bite-size pieces so everyone can understand which piece we will address by when, then proceed, with frequent updates on steps taken and wins achieved along the way.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
No one looks forward to carrying a difficult message. When difficult news must be delivered, do not procrastinate; bad news does not improve with age. Deliver the message face to face unless travel time would unduly delay the communication. Do not hide behind an email or written letter. Reach out as soon as possible, and speak from the heart when delivering the message. Allow the recipient to take it in, and honestly answer any immediate questions they may have. Follow up in writing, usually by the next day, with any details that may be needed to either memorialize the discussion or to outline next steps, whichever is appropriate to the situation for the difficult news that you delivered.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Some people are better at anticipating the future than others, but no one has 20/20 foresight. Given the unpredictable future, jot down the most viable alternative action plans for the plausible scenarios you face, assess the expected outcomes for each of the alternatives in turn if chosen, select the optimal path from those potential alternative actions that you’ve assessed, communicate your intentions, and get on with it. I discuss this strategic thinking more thoroughly in Leadership Lesson 10.B of “Elite and True.”
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Provide stable leadership through the ups and downs. Remember that people want to be led! Share your vision, communicate the priorities for your organization, and let people know what you expect of them to enable your collective success. Stay the course, but do remain open to new data that may arrive that informs a need for a course correction.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most common mistake I’ve seen is for a leader to recognize but to wish away the headwinds, to hope that if no particular remedial course of action is taken that everything will magically turn out okay.
Another common mistake is to blithely continue business as usual with the mistaken belief that you are invincible and the present challenges somehow do not apply to you. The third mistake is to pivot the business strategy too quickly as each new challenge appears The key is to stay true to your value proposition, to demonstrate stability during the storm, while exhibiting flexibility to change when appropriate.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1 . Remain calm. A test station had failed during the last week of a fiscal quarter. Panic ensued, so I asked to have a look at it. The station looked like an old desktop computer box, with LEDs blinking on the front and cables emanating from the rear. A few questions to the test technicians gave me a general sense of how the test was supposed to be run and how the unit was misbehaving. I removed a few screws and opened the box to find the most impressive wire-wrapping display I had ever encountered. I had heard the term “rat’s nest” used to describe electrical wiring before and now understood that it could be an appropriate description. The wire wrapping actually was quite well done, with tidy wraps around each pin of integrated circuit chips, LEDs, resistors, transistors, and capacitors mounted in fiberglass boards. The intimidating appearance drew from the hundreds of wrapped electrical connections, each painstakingly completed with a strand of fine blue wire. The test station innards appeared to be a rat’s nest of blue wire encompassing a collection of electronic components.
Troubleshooting would have been easier had different circuits been coded by different colored wires, but by carefully tracing individual blue wires from external-cable input, through the internal electronic components, and to the tester outputs, I was soon able to isolate the problem, replace the problematic component, and return the test station to operation.
A short time later, one of my colleagues commented, “Nice job, Jim! That was impressive the way you calmly repaired the test station.” “Ha! He only seemed calm because he doesn’t understand the gravity of the production line being down during the last week of the quarter,” was the sarcastic reply from another guy.
“Being on patrol aboard a nuclear submarine when the reactor SCRAMs and you hear the warning ‘torpedo in the water’ is stressful.
Troubleshooting and repairing a test station when no lives are at risk is no cause for panic,” I replied to the pair.
2. Reframe “problems” as puzzles to be solved. A simple example is the starter motor on my car going out when I was living in Hawaii. Research into a replacement indicated a new starter could be had for the same price I had paid for my first used car. Hmm. That was not going to happen anytime soon. The nice thing about Oahu
and the Hawaiian Islands in general in a situation such as this is the volcanic origin of the land mass. The island is really a mountain top jutting from the depths of the ocean. There are few areas of level ground aside from the perimeter beaches, and my rental house driveway was nearly as steep as the price of an Italian starter motor for the Fiat in question. A brief coast down the hill to build momentum and a quick pop of the clutch would serve to start the engine when departing. With a bit of strategic planning before parking the car during outings, I found there was almost always a nearby decline that would provide the needed momentum for a compression start of the engine for the return trip. A starter replacement investment could be deferred. Dealing with problems is unpleasant. Solving puzzles is fun. Leverage prior experience and knowledge to extend them into creative new solutions. The mental attitude when approaching a given situation will have a tremendous impact on the outcome.
3. Embrace change. After chatting with the recruiters and observing the office operations early in my naval career, I had a basic understanding of the recruiting process. The recruiters would pull or buy mailing lists of the desired target demographic, whether it be high school graduates or dentists, then type up mailing labels for the target-appropriate literature and send a mass mailing via USPS. The same recruiting lists could be manually sorted for “smile and dial” cold calling. The IBM Selectric typewriter was the primary office tool at the time, but one astute lieutenant junior grade had the foresight to purchase a couple of personal computers and database software in the hope of improving office efficiency. Seizing the opportunity to add value, one other ensign and I volunteered to establish a recruiting database on the PCs.
Personal computers (PCs) were just emerging, and the software available was nearly as limited as the computer skills of the average populace at that time. The database program could readily sort by any of the selected fields, but the workable data size was severely limited to what could be stored in a single file on the PC’s default disk drive. The mailing lists we were dealing with exceeded that many times over, rendering the purchased software useless for the intended task. It took a few weeks of studying software manuals and testing various code manipulations, but we were successful in coding software to modify the database program to allow us to manage data sets across multiple floppy disks. Our modified program would prompt the user for the appropriate disk as needed, allowing us to sort the list by education, geographic location, and other factors. With the target recipients sorted and identified, we set up a mail merge program and routed the output to a printer. For the first time in the Navy’s recruiting program, “personalized” letters could be mass produced, complete with address labels, to reach out to the civilian populace in the efficient pursuit of recruitment quotas.
4. Ask yourself what WILL go wrong? Upon returning to the ship from liberty call one evening, I came upon the duty officer, who was looking much the worse for wear. I inquired his condition and reason behind his appearance.
It seems the tidal flow and winds in the harbor were even more energetic than they had appeared from our small transit craft while heading to shore for a liberty call. While we were enjoying our visit in the city, the buildings had afforded protection from the strong winds, and we were oblivious to the tidal flow. Out in the harbor, those aboard the submarine had been much more exposed. The force of the currents and winds had overcome the mooring lines, and the submarine had begun to drift from the safety of its anchorage. The crew members remaining onboard the sub had an evening of harrowing excitement, working topside during the storm to restrain the sub’s movement, tighten the mooring lines, and prevent any further chance of separation from the safe moorage.
Before taking action, consider what will go wrong. This mindset of what WILL go wrong is a step deeper into critical thinking than considering what COULD go wrong. By taking this approach, I have many times foreseen potential issues and modified the course of action ahead of time to avoid or minimize a potential undesirable outcome. In the case of the mooring lines, the stormy weather conditions provided ample forewarning that nature would test the anchorage. Special attention to securing additional lines from the onset would have been prudent.
5. Confirm intellectual, physical, and emotional well-being of your team. The enlightened leader considers both the collective team’s capabilities and individual team members’ intellectual, physical, and emotional well-being when forming plans and making individual assignments. This is important at all times, but it becomes imperative during uncertain and turbulent times. In the pressure cooker environment of a nuclear reactor plant undergoing massive equipment and systems upgrades, the grueling hours combined with the intense scrutiny under the watchful eyes of auditors led even the best of the team members to make mistakes. Pay attention to team well-being, both at the individual and collective level, and call a pause to the action when needed to relieve pressure and avoid burnout.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“People want to be led!” courtesy of Dennis R Barnhart. This revelation was my seminal insight into true leadership. It has served me well from early in my career as a naval officer through my success rising through the ranks in corporate business. Most people will willingly follow a true leader as described in “Elite and True: Leadership Lessons Inspired by the US Navy”
How can our readers further follow your work?
My book “Elite and True: Leadership Lessons Inspired by the US Navy” is available at bookstores everywhere.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
My pleasure. Thank you!
Author James L Barnhart: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.