Admiral Rickover

Gain a modest reputation for being unreliable and you will never be asked to do a thing.
Paul Theroux

Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes . . . but no plans.
Peter Drucker

We all know people who are not committed. They put in the time and do enough to get by. They make promises, but don't follow through: "I'll take care of it!" they say, and then they don't. They disappoint others who were counting on them. And they continually make excuses for their broken promises.

There are others, though, who are always reliable. Their word is their bond, and their promises are sound. With others' trust, they build strong relationships, and outstanding personal and professional reputations.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover was the father of the nuclear navy. Today, we take nuclear powered ships and submarines for granted. But, back in the early 1950s, it was considered crazy to put a nuclear reactor (which at that time was the size of a city block) on a ship, particularly a submarine. Through sheer force of will, Rickover made a nuclear submarine a reality, and the USS Nautilus launched in 1954. In all the years since, there has never been a reactor accident involving a U.S. nuclear-powered ship. Admiral Rickover was asked during an interview what he expected from the officers in his nuclear power program. "My expectations are simple," he explained. "I expect them to get the job done . . . or die trying." Some may see this as an extreme expectation of commitment. However, to Admiral Rickover, it was reasonable. Because, in his program, if you failed to get the job done--if you said you were going to do something and didn't--you could cause people to die.

Most of us don't work in nuclear power plants or have commitments that could lead to radioactive releases. But we do count on each other every day in myriad ways, and apparently small commitments can make a huge difference. Consider medical technicians and pharmacy attendants who can make life-threatening mistakes with procedures and drugs. Restaurant employees can create food safety issues. Tractor-trailer drivers can cause devastating accidents. A parent can take his or her eye off a child, and destroy a family. Commitments are important, and your reputation for making good on your commitments will enhance or damage your relationships.

At work, we need to preserve our professional reputations by showing up at meetings we agree to attend and actively participating. When I was a Epcot, I held a welcome reception for new leaders. About 40 managers committed to attend. We sent out multiple reminders, including one on the day of the event. Only 20 people showed up. I asked my HR manager to follow up with the no-shows, to find out the excuse. Reasons varied from "I forgot" to "I lost track of the time" to one manager who said she had locked her keys in the car while it was running! These new managers hurt their reputations and showed an inability to follow through on their commitments.

As part of my reputation, I try to respond to every e-mail and call within 24 hours. This shows that I value the messages that people send to me and attempt to get back to them in a timely manner. I don't necessarily resolve the issue within that time, but I can at least acknowledge their message and let them know when I will get back to them. When a team member brings something to my attention as their leader, I will try to fix it, in a demonstration of my commitment to them. If I can't fix it, I let them know why. I held many employee roundtables, and would frequently be told that a manager had been told about a problem, but didn't do anything about it. The employees considered this a lack of commitment on the part of the manager, and they were right.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are overcommitted, unfocused and disappointing everyone, I suggest you take a day or weekend away to refocus and recommit. During that time, you should list all your commitments. Think about why you agreed to a particular commitment in the first place. Sometimes we agree to do something because no one else volunteers, or we don't want to disappoint someone, even though we are not really passionate about it. Other times, we continue to do something that should be delegated to someone else because "it's just easier if I do it." Determine the commitments that you are truly passionate about and eliminate or reduce your commitment for the others. You have to be willing to just say no or delegate it, even if it means you have to spend a little upfront time teaching someone else to do it. When you understand what you are doing and why, you'll be much more committed and motivated to accomplish your objective.

Another good practice if you are married is to do a weekly review of your commitments with your spouse. Set a time and sit down together to review the upcoming weeks. Make sure you both know about work, family or community events, and who is expected to attend what. This ensures that there are no "surprises," for example, when one spouse expects the other to take the children to school and the spouse has a breakfast meeting.

There have clearly been times when I've had to miss one of my children's events because of a work commitment. In those cases, I make sure to tell the child in advance that I can't attend and explain why. I also ensure that the next event for that child takes priority. Remember that you will always have your family, but you will not always have your work, and make your decisions accordingly.

By honoring your commitments at work, home and in your community, you will build and preserve the relationships that lead to a full and satisfying surpassing life.

Action Points

  • If you commit to attend a meeting, be there!
  • Respond to all e-mails and calls in 24 hours.
  • Get a day away, list all your commitments, and determine the ones you are passionate about.
  • Delegate or eliminate commitments that no longer make sense.
  • Do a weekly review of your commitments with your spouse.
  • Make family commitments a priority.

An excellent professional and personal reputation, and strong relationships!

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