Down Periscope: The Submarine Crew that Grew Taller

Kent Keithby Dr. Kent M. Keith
Chief Executive Officer
Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership Asia
Monday, October 14, 2013


Down PeriscopeDown Periscope is a 1996 film starring Kelsey Grammar as Tom Dodge, a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy. Twice, Dodge has been turned down for command. Admiral Winslow decides to give Dodge a final chance to prove he is worthy by devising a war game to test the U. S. Navy’s harbor defenses. He assigns Dodge the USS Stingray, a run-down diesel submarine commissioned in 1958. Dodge’s task is to be a non-conventional, renegade captain who leads a rebel diesel against the U. S. nuclear navy. “Don’t think by the book, think like a pirate,” Winslow tells him.

Admiral Graham, the bad guy in the movie, wants Dodge to fail. So he hand picks all the “strange” or “useless” members of the submarine corps he can find and assigns them to Dodge for the war game. Furthermore, Graham decides to assign a woman officer to the submarine as a “trial program” to see how well a female officer can work with men. As the movie begins, all the cards are stacked against Dodge—he just can’t succeed.

Dodge does succeed, of course, partly because it’s a feel-good movie, but also because in his own zany way, he does what servant-leaders do. He begins by accepting the crew he has been assigned. He teases them and he cajoles them, but above all, he accepts them, and they know it. When they realize that Dodge accepts them, they become committed to him, and together they become an idiosyncratic but effective team.

While he accepts the crew for who and what they are, Dodge knows that he also needs to draw out their best and help them grow. So he gets the athlete in the crew to climb the conning tower in the dark and rain when they need to string up some lights. He gets the sonar officer to imitate whale songs in order to mislead a nuclear sub. And he takes a big risk to help Lt. Lake, the female officer, grow. Dodge wants Lt. Lake to guide the submarine between the propellers of a tanker so they can escape radar detection by the Navy fleet. He knows she is qualified or capable of doing to do it, but she declines. Dodge takes over, intentionally doing it badly until, at the last minute, she steps in, barking out the right orders and saving them from disaster. Afterwards, she beams. She did it.

In The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf urged us to be tolerant of the imperfections of others. He argued that even a person who is immature, stumbling, inept, or lazy is capable of great dedication and heroism if he is wisely led. The servant-leader welds together an effective team of imperfect people “by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.” At the end of Down Periscope, the triumphant crew marches onto the dock in formation and salutes Admiral Winslow. It is not the same crew that first greeted Lt. Commander Dodge at the beginning of the movie. They have all grown taller.

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