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Compounding interest of disasters in the making

A previous article (“Rickover’s and airmail pilots’ disaster avoidance method”) recalled Admiral Hyman Rickover, who initiated and was in full charge of the US Navy’s submarine program.

He required that either the CEOs or top managers of all suppliers and maintenance companies must be on board the submarines during dive tests. There were no catastrophic accidents during all the decades he was in charge.

The admiral’s additional principle that brought about his success was to insist on a most rigorous selection of people in his team. However, this principle often came by defeating bureaucrats’ heavy hands, which created much animosity among his higher ups. The way he overcame them offers insights.

Time Magazine dedicated a cover article to Admiral Rickover on January 11, 1954. It describes how he redesigned the defective motors on the submarine S-48. To build the motors, he had to fight with his superiors against slipshod ways of doing things.

The article notes, “These activities got him commendation, but won few friends and no preferment.” It quotes a friend saying that Rickover had little tolerance for mediocrity, none for stupidity and mediocrity: “If a man is dumb, Rickover thinks he ought to be dead.”

Rickover did not conceal his opinions and many of the officers he regarded as dumb had grown into admirals, cruising the Pentagon. They had not forgotten or forgiven.

Meanwhile, in July 1951 the Navy’s selection board for promotions, consisting of nine admirals, passed Rickover over twice, in spite of pleas from his superiors in the Bureau of Ships and from the secretary of the Navy.

Those decisions almost ended his career in the Navy. But Rickover’s reputation by then was such that the press and the Congress