“Don’t be a prisoner to things you can’t control”: Lessons from a sinking submarine

John McNally, vice president of professional services at Riverbed Technology, explains how his Naval training prepared him for high-stakes business situations.

by Éilis Cronin
Last Updated: 05 Sep 2023

Picture this: you and a select crew of Naval officers are thousands of leagues under the sea, sealed within a metal submarine. But there’s a problem. Sea water is pouring in from an open hatch and the pressure to spring into action is building. What do you do first? You know you need to stop the water from filling the space, but how? And who should do what?

In a high-pressure situation such as this, many of us would probably let panic take over. But for John McNally, vice president of professional services at software developer Riverbed Technology, staying calm, thinking rationally and trusting his team is what saved him.

“The key thing in all situations is to remain calm. When you’re in a submarine, there’s no-one else there to help you. It’s just you and your shipmates. You need to understand the role you’re playing in those situations and have complete faith and trust in the people around you.”

McNally left school at 16, but the northeast of England offered few job opportunities, so he joined the Navy in 1990 and served for seven years. He remembers a time where the team had to move the submarine to avoid a large ferry coming towards them - all with limited power.

“You have to remain calm in those situations and look at the options available to you. You can’t just jump into what you think is the most immediate solution. You have to weigh up your options.”

The power of staying calm

Even after leaving the Navy and beginning his career in tech, McNally has used this technique in high-stakes business situations. “We don’t always have the luxury of sitting back and letting things resolve themselves without intervention. Leaders need to give a solution to the people whose job it is to fix problems, without immediately jumping in to save the day.”

Doing this creates a sense of psychological safety among employees; when allowed to find solutions on their own, without a leader immediately coming to the rescue, employees will be more likely to stay calm when faced with a problem. He says: “99% of the time they’ve got a better solution than me”.

He’s seen this happen in real time; there have been situations at Riverbed where the network for a trading bank might have gone down, halting any trading and sometimes costing millions of dollars an hour. “We’ve got the technology to help them pinpoint why this might be happening, but remaining calm and taking things step by step helps you sift out all of the noise.”

Cohesive teams

McNally has been putting this into practice at his software company. When he joined in 2014 as director of professional services, Riverbed was struggling with a lack of direction. There was a lot of confusion about what the company objectives were, even within his own department. “If I asked three or four different people they’d all have different answers,” he says.

To get everyone on the same page, he first asked himself what he had been employed to do and what his own objectives were, before cascading them throughout his department and the wider company along with possible ways to achieve those goals.

McNally has since moved up the ranks within Riverbed to vice president of professional services, a role where his coping skills have made an impact on his leadership style. He says he is able to get a lot out of people, encouraging them to focus on their strengths in high-stakes situations instead of forcing them to “do something a few times that they don’t want to do”.

McNally accepts that there is always the opportunity to be better, more efficient and more productive with things that are within our control, but as long as a team has cohesion, a clear objective and vision, a high-stakes situation can be resolved.

Differences in training

Staying calm is, of course, pretty standard protocol for any leader in a stressful situation. Read any business management handbook and you’ll probably find the same - if not similar - instructions. But for McNally, the coping skills he learnt from his time in the Navy provided him with a rulebook to use in any situation in business.

“There’s a set way of doing things in the Navy, but I’m able to adapt when situations develop and change course. I had the opportunity to play out different scenarios and work out whether there was enough time for a solution to take effect or give positive results.

“It’s a bit like a football coach playing out different game scenarios. I often feel as though executives don’t spend enough time doing this, especially because there are always things we cannot control.

As he says: “don’t be a prisoner of the things you cannot change.”