The U.S.S. John C. Stennis is the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s John C. Stennis Strike Group. The aircraft carrier is over 1,000 feet long, has a footprint of 4.5 acres, and weights 97 thousand tons. At sea it carries 6,200 Sailors and Marines, usually for six months at a time. Its kitchens serve 18,600 meals every day. The ship is propelled by two nuclear reactors. It can carry over 70 aircraft and three million gallons of jet fuel. Believe it or not, the average age of her crew is only 20 years old!
In 2008, I had the honor of spending two days onboard this engineering marvel while the Captain was exercising his crew in the Bering Sea. Watching the crews, both above deck and below, was truly inspiring. Every person knew how his or her personal role was allowing the ship’s crew to accomplish its mission. There were very few employee engagement problems here. Those issues were worked out long before the ship left port. To spend six months at a time in close quarters at sea with 5,000 others requires a level of commitment that few experience. There were no tourists, passengers or spectators (except me for those two days).
I had the pleasure of dining with the ship’s Captain. He had invested decades of his life in the Navy’s mission. And clearly he remembered where he came from. He had been trained from the time he was in his twenties to one day Captain one of the mightiest machines and one of the most dedicated crews in the world. At the pinnacle of his career, his focus was on two things: having the most capable aircraft carrier crew in the world, and raising up the next generation of world-class ship Captains, just as his Captains before him invested in him for decades.
The most amazing experience of my two days aboard the Stennis was standing on the deck as crews launched F-14 Tomcats, F-18 Super Hornets and other planes and helicopters from the carrier’s deck into the air and safely recovered them at the end of their missions. The four devices that launch these remarkable jets into the sky are steam-powered systems of 325-foot steel cables called catapults.
It was impressive to see how many planes and helicopters could be parked above and below deck by folding up wings and propellers and moving aircraft with four huge elevators. But it was eye opening to hear the Captain explain that the measure of success for an aircraft carrier was not how many aircraft could be parked on the ship, but how many could be launched OFF of the ship. A Captain is happiest when the deck is empty, because the crew has successfully launched their warriors into the air and out of sight to fly their various missions. You see, his mission was not to keep pilots and aircraft on his ship. His mission, and the mission of his senior officers and enlisted crew, was to train and launch leaders to accomplish their own missions. In that moment, I was reminded that the mark of a truly great leader is not how many followers they have, but how many more leaders they’ve launched.
In the years since that extraordinary visit, I’ve reflected many times on my own mission in light of the Stennis’ system of catapults, designed to launch leaders to do their mission and bring them safely back to train for their next mission. I have tried to create that kind of training and launching culture, whether as a military officer, a public official, or a pastor. It’s not enough to just be peoples’ leader. A legacy leader must be passionate about investing in the next generation of leaders. I’ve come to call leaders with that kind of commitment “Catapult Leaders.”
I’ve dedicated this chapter of my leadership journey to training and launching more Catapult Leaders, because this is my definition of great leadership. I’ve made my business success secondary to my primary role of giving my sphere of influence the gift of more great leaders. If you’re a Catapult Leader, or aspire to be, I want to connect with you, and connect you with other Catapult Leaders who join us on our mission of Launching Great Leaders.
Tell me about your passion for Launching Great Leaders by clicking here. I’d love to connect with you and dream about creating a Catapult culture in our organizations.
Jay Pullins is the founder and owner of Anchorage-based Catapult Leadership Solutions, providing expertise in developing the character and competency of leaders in all sectors. He is also a leadership course facilitator for Academy Leadership, LLC.