The atmosphere in a Trident nuclear submarine is generally calm and quiet. Even pipe joints are cushioned to prevent noise that might tip off a pursuer. The Trident ranks among the world’s most dangerous weapons—swift, silent, and armed with 24 long-range missiles carrying 192 nuclear warheads. Trident crews are the cream of the Navy crop, and even the sailors who fix the plumbing exhibit a white-collar decorum. The culture aboard ship is a low-key, collegial one in which sailors learn to speak softly and share close quarters with an ever-changing roster of shipmates. Being subject to strict security restrictions enhances a sense of elitism and pride. To move up and take charge of a Trident submarine is an extraordinary feat in the Navy—fewer than half the officers qualified for such commands ever get them. When Michael Alfonso took charge of the USS Florida, the crew welcomed his arrival. They knew he was one of them—a career Navy man who joined up as a teenager and moved up through the ranks. Past shipmates remembered him as basically a loner, who could be brusque but generally pleasant enough. Neighbors on shore found Alfonso to be an unfailingly polite man who kept mostly to himself. The crew’s delight in their new captain was short-lived. Commander Alfonso moved swiftly to assume command, admonishing his sailors that he would push them hard. He wasn’t joking— soon after the Florida slipped into deep waters to begin a postoverhaul shakedown cruise, the new captain loudly and publicly reprimanded those whose performance he considered lacking. Chief Petty Officer Donald MacArthur, chief of the navigation division, was only one of those who suffered Alfonso’s anger personally. During training exercises, MacArthur was having trouble keeping the boat at periscope depth because of rough seas. Alfonso announced loudly, “You’re disqualified.” He then precipitously relieved him of his diving duty until he could be recertified by extra practice. Word of the incident spread quickly. Crew members, accustomed to the Navy’s adage of “praise in public, penalize in private,” were shocked. It didn’t take long for this type of behavior to have an impact on the crew, according to Petty Officer Aaron Carmody: “People didn’t tell him when something was wrong. You’re not supposed to be afraid of your captain, to tell him stuff. But nobody wanted to.” The captain’s outbursts weren’t always connected with job performance. He bawled out the supply officer, the executive officer, and the chief of the boat because the soda dispenser he used to pour himself a glass of Coke one day contained Mr. Pibb instead. He exploded when he arrived unexpectedly at a late-night meal and found the fork at his place setting missing. Soon, a newsletter titled The Underground was being circulated by the boat’s plumbers, who used sophomoric humor to spread the word about the captain’s outbursts over such petty matters. By the time the sub reached Hawaii for its “Tactical Readiness Evaluation,” an intense week-long series of inspections by staff officers, the crew was almost completely alienated. Although the ship tested well, inspectors sent word to Rear Admiral Paul Sullivan that something seemed to be wrong on board, with severely strained relations between captain and crew. On the Trident’s last evening of patrol, much of the crew celebrated with a film night—they chose The Caine Mutiny and Crimson Tide, both movies about Navy skippers who face mutinies and are relieved of command at sea. When Humphrey Bogart, playing the captain of the fictional USS Caine, exploded over a missing quart of strawberries, someone shouted, “Hey, sound familiar?” When they reached home port, the sailors slumped ashore. “Physically and mentally, we were just beat into the ground,” recalls one. Concerned about reports that the crew seemed “despondent,” Admiral Sullivan launched an informal inquiry that eventually led him to relieve Alfonso of his command. It was the first-ever firing of a Trident submarine commander. “He had the chance of a lifetime to experience the magic of command, and he squandered it,” Sullivan said. “Fear and intimidation lead to certain ruin.” Alfonso himself seemed dumbfounded by Admiral Sullivan’s actions, pointing out that the USS Florida under his command posted “the best-ever grades assigned for certifications and inspections for a postoverhaul Trident submarine.”
1. Analyze Alfonso’s impact on the crew in terms of love versus fear. What might account for the fact that he behaved so strongly as captain of the USS Florida?
2. Which do you think a leader should be more concerned about aboard a nuclear submarine— high certification grades or high-quality interpersonal relationships? Do you agree with Admiral Sullivan’s decision to fire Alfonso? Discuss.
3. Discuss Commander Alfonso’s level of emotional intelligence in terms of the four components listed in the chapter. What advice would you give him?