Sheep Shearin’


Reading this week:

  • Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso

This past week it was back to farm country. We were officially on summer break, so we decided to head back north for some idyllic pastoral scenes, such as the above one with fluffy sheep. But! These fluffy sheep were not to last, because the World Famous Fred DePaul was coming down to shear some sheep and I got to help out!


Glamour shots.

Shearing sheep was the big event for the weekend. It only happens once a year, after all. Or anyway it’s supposed to happen once a year. The big drama this particular weekend is that the local newspaper had a front-page photo of Sheep Shearin’ Fred shearing a sheep that hadn’t been sheared in two years. This was dramatic because any responsible sheep farmer knows to shear their sheep every year, because it’s neither good for the sheep nor good for the wool to let the sheep go two years. Fred didn’t own the sheep, but everyone involved was worried that their good reputation would be harmed by the journalistic indiscretion. What has the world come to anyway?

Sheep shearing was scheduled to start at about 10 in the morning with the arrival of Fred. Farmer Billy, as my girlfriend’s dad is known to his legion of online fans, had prepared by rounding up the sheep. Besides being sheared, they were getting their hooves trimmed and getting deworming shots. All the lambs were getting banded and docked just so they wouldn’t feel left out.


It is a joke that I managed to make several times that day, but with the whole world protesting so they can be allowed to get a haircut the sheep were notably unethusiastic about their all-inclusive spa day. I mean between a haircut and a mani-pedi what more could you want? But they were unenthusiastic (I know I can’t blame ’em). To shear the sheep, you flip ’em on their back or on their butt, at which point they largely go limp. Most of the time I thought they resembled toddlers who didn’t want to do something, having to either be dragged along or hiding behind their parents. But Fred and Farmer Billy are very experienced and caused them no harm. I feel like after they’ve been sheared they must have quite the spring in their step, having lost all that fuzz. At the very least they must be cooler, with summer temperatures finally starting to make a debut.


One of the sheep reluctantly waiting her turn.

My role in the whole operation was largely moral support. I opened several gates and reluctantly bagged several bags of wool. One time I also measured out some medicine, but that was only because no one else was available. I did get kudos for grabbing the lamb of one particularly protective sheep. “Wow, you dove right in there!,” I was lauded, after heroically picking up a cute lil lamb, which we then used to lure its mom towards her inevitable haircut. Later my girlfriend took over lamb-holding duties, and she had to pose for both me and her mom as we obsessively took the cutest pictures ever. Those pictures are not included because she is the only person that reads this blog and I think she would be upset if I posted them.


After several hours the sheep were all finished getting sheared, and were released back into the field, where they were quickly distracted from their woes by grass. If I learned anything that day it is that, as my girlfriend pointed out, sheep are very easily distracted by grass. All the little lambs had very tight rubber bands around their tails at this point and couldn’t care less when presented with some grass.

Of all the sheep, the most dramatic makeover was Emmett, the friendly ram. He was tricky because his horns had to be maneuvered around, and I had failed to realize he had ears, but here he is, in all his shorn glory:


Overall quite the exciting day, and afterwards I lay down on the couch for quite some time out of laziness. I hope my lamb-wrangling skills managed to impress Farmer Billy.

Lying II

VOST 143

Pic also unrelated; before I was on YPs I sailed.

Reading this week:

  • Do Morals Matter? by Joseph S. Nye (this was not, as I was hoping, an analysis of how moral frameworks impacts presidential foreign policy decision-making)
  • Disasters and Development by Frederick C. Cuny
  • Famine, Conflict, and Response by Frederick C. Cuny with Richard B. Hill

It was a lie by omission, to be sure. I very purposefully didn’t tell the Engineer what I had done. Instead I frantically tried to call the divers back down and get them to sign my tagout sheet, because if they signed that then there would be no evidence that I cleared the tags improperly. I guess that’s more than just lying by omission, and I was trying to implicate others (unbeknownst to them) into my scheme. Eventually the diver came back down, because he realized he had not signed the sheet. He signed it, and we were Good to Go. Until I was discovered the next day when my Shutdown Reactor Operator reported me to the Chief of the Boat. He didn’t actually know I lied, he just thought there were double standards at play over what an officer would get in trouble for versus an enlisted sailor. But he made the right call and I never begrudged him for reporting me.

Once I was discovered to have lied, everything I thought would happen did in fact happen. I was removed from watchstanding, issued a letter of reprimand, and it affected my reputation with the crew and the chain of command. I learned lessons from all of that, but that’s not really the lesson I wanted to share with you. I learned that day why people lie.

I learned that it isn’t stupid people that lie, or lazy people, or bad officers, or bad people. I learned there isn’t anything inherently wrong with someone that lies (let’s except sociopaths and the like from this discussion). I learned that people will take the easiest path, and people lie because it is the easiest path.

That sounds disingenuous to people. People make the tough decision all the time. They take the courageous path and certainly don’t take the easy way out. But I think it is a matter of framing. We train people on integrity so as to make the thought of lying so distasteful and so unimaginable that it won’t be perceived as the easy way out. We try to make it so that to lie would be to condemn yourself to endless days of questioning your own identity and self. We punish lying severely so the consequences of lying are clear to all. But still I lied that day about the tagout violation, and I lied because the consequences of telling the truth and reporting myself seemed so unimaginably overwhelming that lying was simply the easier thing to do, and I did it.

The lesson I learned about leadership is that if one of your subordinates lies, that is a huge and immediate signal that something has gone wrong with your leadership and the system you have set up. If someone lies, they are still responsible for that lie, and that lie should be met with the appropriate consequences. But if a person lies that means that you, as a leader, have set up an environment where telling the truth is no longer the easy answer, and you need to immediately rectify that. Sometimes that is hard or impossible. The sheer nature of the submarine service means that there are huge pressures on everyone nearly all the time, and so a lot of times the only option is to make lying have even more devastating consequences.

But nonetheless analyze the rest of the situation. Why did this person feel like lying was the easy way out? Is it that when they tell the truth, it is met with such negative consequences that it doesn’t make telling the truth worth it? Have you set up bad incentives? Do you shoot the messenger so no one wants to tell you the truth and only tells you what you want to hear? Maybe instead your subordinate has been heaped with such responsibility and innumerable tasks where it is impossible to get them all done. If they’re honest that the tasks they have been assigned are impossible, is something done about that, or are they told to just get it done anyways? And if the answer is that these impossible tasks have to get done, no matter what, why wouldn’t they lie? What other choice were they left?

When a subordinate lies, look at the situation they were in and figure out why the choice they made was the easy choice to make. Expand your scope to the other people that work for you. See if they are in a similar situation, and be proactive to make telling the truth the easy and obvious answer. Training people on integrity is important, and it is important to do it regularly. But people only ever act in response to the situation and environment they are placed in. You, as a leader, don’t get to make people’s choices for them. But you are the one that creates the environment in which they make those decisions. Make sure it is an environment in which people can make the good choices you want them to make.

Lying I


Pic unrelated; it’s back from my YP days.

Reading this week:

  • The Last Whalers by Doug Bock Clark

I came across an article about the CO of the USS Decatur getting fired for lying, so I wanted to share some thoughts on lying. I’m on a “thoughts on leadership” kinda kick with my posts on decision making, and this dovetails with my post on regrets. The other regrettable and regretted decision I considered writing about was the time I lied to cover up a tagout violation.

I now believe that the most important trait in a leader is honesty, which is a much larger concept than just not lying. Not lying is an important part of that though. Back at the Academy, and throughout my time in the fleet, we had regular training on integrity. I was going to say these training sessions were annoying, but that’s not quite the right expression. They were fine to go to, and I didn’t particularly mind going, it’s just that if you don’t lie you’ve already kind of achieved max integrity. You could achieve no higher level of integrity by like, not telling lies moreso than you already were (or uh weren’t) if you weren’t a liar. I believed myself to be a person of integrity who, when faced with a difficult choice, would make the right decision. Until I went ahead and found myself in that position and lied anyway, and learned an important leadership lesson about lying.

The story involves some nuclear reactor stuff and some work controls stuff I’ll try to avoid going into detail over in order not to bore you. This was of course back when I was on the submarine, and the ship was going to do some testing which had not been performed in Guam ever, or at least in anything resembling recent memory. This involved discharging some nuclear material from the submarine to the submarine tender which, for various reasons involving piping connections and the possibility of spewing boiling radioactive water all over the harbor if it went poorly, made people nervous.

To cope with the work and the schedule, the engineering department was split into two watch teams that would stand back-to-back 12 hour watches. I was selected to be the Engineering Duty Officer (EDO) for the day shift, and was therefore the lead guy for this whole project. I wasn’t in charge of planning it, but I was in charge of actually doing it, leading my team and all that. This evolution took what was supposed to be days and turned into weeks of preparatory work. It went from days to weeks because so many things went poorly. They mostly went poorly on the submarine tender side of things, but people’s hackles were raised. Naval Reactors was keeping a close eye on all this and so was everyone else and there were these big wigs and in and among this whole massed operation somehow check valves could still get installed backwards. My counterpart EDO on the night shift had already been replaced like twice, for relatively minor stuff that blew up only because everyone was so nervous.

So it was in this environment that I went to go clear diver’s tags one day. Diver’s tags are part of the maintenance system, and function to prohibit the operation of any equipment that could harm the SCUBA divers that would do work on the ship underwater. When you want to have divers work on the ship, you “hang” these tags, and when the work is done you “clear” them. To ensure these tags are hung properly and cleared safely, there is a system of checks where a representative for the divers will come onto the ship and authorize the tags to be cleared. They have to (back then anyways) sign out of the tags on the computer, and then physically sign on a sheet for every tag that is authorized to be cleared. So the divers came down, signed out of the tags on the computer, and I went ahead and authorized for the tags to be cleared. The mechanic went around and cleared the tags, and I checked them all, and went to go file the paperwork, at which point I realized I had fucked up big time.

The divers, you see, hadn’t signed for the individual tags. I had, at that point, committed a tagout violation by clearing tags that weren’t properly authorized to be cleared. Tagout violations are treated as a huge deal, because they are a huge deal, because the tagout system is what keeps people from being killed when they work on equipment. It has to be respected and little mistakes could easily get someone hurt. The proper answer was to go report to the Engineer and the Captain what I had done.

Then again, this wasn’t really a big deal. The diver’s tags exist to keep divers safe. If there are no divers in the water, they don’t really have a point. And the divers were not in the water, they had no intention of going in the water, and were in fact not authorized to go into the water. So really I had just made a paperwork error. And in my scenario, I knew what would happen if I reported my tagout violation. I would be relieved as EDO. I would let down the whole team, and someone else would have to take my spot. Besides having shucked my duty onto someone else, me getting fired from the EDO job would probably cause more delays, which would hurt the guys, and someone else would have to learn all the things that I had learned to do the job. And on a personal level, it would be a failure on my part and I would be reprimanded. So I lied.

This turned into like 1800 words so I split it into two parts. Come back next week for the thrilling conclusion.

Decisions II: Regret

Emory S. Land Executes Operation AJAX

US Navy again.

Having just written about decisions, and having just watched a documentary on Robert McNamara, I wanted to write a follow-up. Towards the end of the documentary the interviewer asks Bob there if he had any regrets about the war. I decided a while ago that when it came to regret in decision-making, that would have a very specific meaning for me.

If you make enough decisions clearly some of them will go poorly. But as I wrote in the last blog post, you can never know the counter-factual about your decisions. If decisions go poorly, you should look back and analyze what went wrong and how it could have gone better, in order to extract lessons learned from the event. If there was a bad outcome, you should look back and be sad about the negative consequences of the decision. But that’s not the same as regret. A lot of things become more clear in hindsight, and forces and factors will play out how they play out after your decision is made. Instead, I would reserve regret for decisions you knew you had made wrongly or poorly at the time you made them. Regret is reserved not for decisions that necessarily went poorly, but for decisions where you did not do your best in making them.

Back on the submarine, we would have critiques and a common “root cause” people tried to cite for when things went wrong is that they felt rushed, or had an “undue sense of urgency.” This usually actually translated into “it was near the end of the work day and I wanted to go home, so I rushed the work.” So our XO called us into the wardroom one day and clarified that “an undue sense of urgency” would be reserved for situations where someone was holding a gun to your head and telling you to get it done.

Flash forward a bit and we’re in the shipyard in shift work. The days in shift work are endless and we were coming up on a deadline to get out of there. I was the Reactor Control Assistant at the time, and the division was supposed to get a piece of testing done. If we didn’t get the testing done, we couldn’t leave the shipyard when we wanted, and this would have made people upset. I got relieved from my shift as Engineering Duty Officer, and was trying to help get the maintenance started per the schedule. The on-watch EDO didn’t want to do the maintenance. I pushed where I thought appropriate, but it was getting late and the the guys that were supposed to do the maintenance were coming up on 20 hours without sleep, and the maintenance was supposed to take several hours. So I gave up and went to the wardroom to work on my own qualifications.

There I found the XO. I sat down and he asked me about the maintenance my division was supposed to get started. I explained that I Just Couldn’t Get It Done. Then this man, that had explained that an “undue sense of urgency” was “someone holding a gun to your head,” he looked me straight in the eye and said to me “you know, sometimes you wish you could just take people out back and shoot them.”

The XO and I did not have the greatest relationship. This was not friendly banter. I understood that he was talking directly to me and about me. And reflecting on the gun comment, I thought I had top-cover. This was exactly the undue sense of urgency he talked about, and if things went poorly I would walk into the critique and say proudly exactly why I thought that sense of urgency was undue. So I got up, left the wardroom, and went back to the engineroom to Just Make It Happen. I cajoled the EDO, and told him the Division Chief and I would personally supervise the thing. So he relented and let us do it.

The guys were pissed. They were not happy about this. They needed sleep. They too were going to just be coming back up on watch soon. They were exhausted. But we felt like we needed to make this happen, and I felt like I had been threatened. So I “supervised” the maintenance but mostly I was standing guard to wake guys up in case the XO or the Naval Reactors rep came around the corner. My guys were falling asleep in the midst of this maintenance. This was Reactor Controls Division maintenance too, on the systems that monitor the nuclear reactor. I was myself falling asleep standing up but since I was standing I was slightly more awake than the guys.

And the whole thing went fine. We completed the maintenance. No mistakes. We reviewed and submitted the paperwork. We did our bit and after a lot of other stuff the ship left the shipyard on time (well, way delayed, but “on time” on the delayed timeline).

The decision to go ahead and push that maintenance is one of my bigger regrets.

That maintenance did not need to get done. It was going to prevent the ship from getting underway if it wasn’t completed, and a delay would have delayed other things, but no lives were in the balance here. It would have been annoying and caused a lot of headaches to get delayed, but no one would have been unsafe. But because I felt some pressure from my chain of command, I went ahead and made it happen. I set a bad precedent for my guys, and overturned every discussion we had ever had about fatigue and safety and the importance of doing reactor controls division maintenance right.

And most importantly, the whole time I knew the right answer. The right answer would have been to push back, to say, look, it’s impossible to get this done right now, my guys are too fatigued, and here’s the schedule for getting it done. It doesn’t matter what the XO said or a theoretical threat to get taken out back, I was there as an officer in the US Navy to make the right decision even when there is pressure to do the wrong thing. And I failed that test. I reflected and learned and grew from that experience, and I was young and inexperienced as a leader and decision-maker, but I don’t get that decision back. If I had just been stupid and made the wrong decision out of stupidity, I could forgive myself for that. But because I didn’t do my best in making the decision that day, I regret it. It wouldn’t be the last or the worst decision I came to regret, but it was an early one and indicative of the framework I would eventually develop.