Leadership Skills Learned At 100 Fathoms

What skills learned, while serving on a nuclear submarine, could possibly apply to sales management years later?

After graduating high school, I completed the Navy electrical and nuclear engineering schools; qualified in submarines earning my dolphins; certified to operator a nuclear power plant and taught at the nuclear power school.

Originally, I looked at this experience as beneficial when transitioning to civilian life. In fact, it did help me land my first job out of the Navy at San Onofre Nuclear as a quality control engineer. The commercial nuclear power industry was going nowhere, so I decided to change career paths. I moved to a technical sales position, then advanced to managing sales teams. All this led to a successful career as a sales executive, building and managing professional sales teams.

I had not been trained in this field, so where did I gain the knowledge and experience?

Subsequently, while reflecting on this journey, I realized where the skill set for my success originated.  The traits and abilities that I learned while serving in the Navy proved to be unexpectedly relevant to the business world.

Here are 7 of the numerous leadership principles and relational skills, I believe to be significant in the field of professional sales management. I’m sure you’ve heard these theories before but maybe not from this perspective.

Leadership Skill #1 – Communication

Every order on a Submarine was given verbally and repeated back verbatim before carrying out the command. You had to listen carefully while attending to other duties and repeat back the order to confirm you had heard it correctly.

In sales, we all know the importance of listening. It is a learned skill that one must work on regularly. One technique I practice, is paraphrasing back a statement I just heard. This gives the other person a chance to hear what they just said and tells them I am listening. It assures them of my understanding and helps to clarify. If what I repeat back is not what they intended then they will respond.

Leadership Skill #2 – Teaching

When asked, I say that my first sales job was in the Navy’s Nuclear power school as an instructor.

Teaching is a deliberate intervention that involves the planning and implementation of instructional activities to transfer information to the intended learner. The outcome can possibly change an individual’s behavior, knowledge, skill or attitude about the subject matter.

Selling is educating others on how a product or service can be used to help solve their challenges or needs. You must first understand the prospects true challenges and needs. Only then, can you prepare a method to transfer information regarding how your product or service will solve the problem. You sell solutions not products.

Leadership Skill #3 – Problem Solving

You cannot walk away from problems on a Submarine, there is no place to go but down. Challenges are faced with a can-do attitude searching for a solution and executing. The solutions come from knowledge and experience along with working as a team. Failure is not an option. On a submarine, you learn to solve problems in a rational calm manner.

In business and sales, you face problems and challenges every day. You must tackle them in a rational, calm manner to be effective. Work with your team and other resources necessary to develop a solution. Then communicate and get agreement from everyone involved before implementing the fix. Never delay or run from a problem, it only gets worse.

Leadership Skill #4 – Adaptability

On a Submarine, I was enclosed in a 295-foot-long steel tube, 30 foot in diameter with equipment and weapons occupying most the space. A crew of 98 people would eat, sleep and work for weeks and even months in this space. Our mission could change in an instant based on the tactical situation. You learned to adapt and how to relate to people and pressure, in all departments on the boat.

In the ever-changing business world, you need to adjust and be innovative to endure. The only constant you can expect is change. Anticipate the unexpected, and always be prepared. Learn how to adapt to people around you. The sales team should be able to work well with all sorts of personalities, inside and outside the company. They work with purchasing, engineering, finance, manufacturing, quality and senior management. All have different personality profiles.

Leadership Skill #5 – Learn how to learn, and practice

No matter how much you know, there is always more to learn. Every person on a submarine must go through submarine qualification. This takes nearly a year and essentially cross trains each person on every aspect of the boat. There is constant training and drills on a Sub. In sports, it would be called practice and game planning. On the Sub, you prepare and always stay in a state of readiness. I not only received a rigorous technical education, but more importantly, I learned how to learn and the importance of applying knowledge to practical use. I realized that knowing the answer was not enough if I couldn’t apply the information.

As a sales leader, I realized the importance of training the team and through that practice, I would always learn as well. We would practice presentations and how to handle different situations. We tried to anticipate the unexpected. There was always more to teach and more to learn. During these sessions, the team members were a major source of information. It was a team of professionals sharing their experience and practicing their trade.

Leadership Skill #6 – Team Work & Trust

It is said that “Submariners are a special brotherhood, either all come to the surface or no one does.”  I learned the true meaning of a team and what it means for others to depend on you, as you depend on them. It takes trust. We all trusted and depended on each other. If someone couldn’t be trusted or work in a team, it became apparent and they were transferred off the boat. There were people more senior in rank and lower in rank, but everyone contributed, and each contribution was important to the success of the team.

The same holds true in business for a sales team to excel. An exceptional leader will recognize the importance of everyone, and their contribution to the team. The leader will put their trust in the team members and help them to grow professionally. If you cannot trust your team members and need to micromanage, you may have the wrong team members, or maybe you’re the problem.

Leadership Skill #7 – Managing difficult times

I realized in the service that there will always be good and bad times, but you learn more from the difficult encounters confronted. You also learn more about the people around you during these times. Learning to deal with challenging times will strengthen your character and resolve, deepening your understanding and tolerance for the uncertainties you will encounter. This is the process of building wisdom that cannot be gained from books or classrooms. These life experiences are truly the understanding that will help lead you through the next challenge, and every challenge after, with a calm manner in facing difficult decisions.

I can say that in over 25 years of business experience I’ve had my fair share of challenges and rough times. They pale in comparison to the challenges encountered in the 8 years I spent in the Navy. Everything is relative and a matter of perspective.


Next time you face a difficult challenge in life don’t look at is a negative but as another growth opportunity. Remember everything is relative.

For more sales and leadership tips follow me here or on LinkedIn.

If I can be of service please contact me for a review of your sales department challenges. I love to help businesses grow.


Fred Lewis