A 23-year old leadership lesson from the Persian Gulf

As elected leaders face the challenges of deteriorating government budget situations in Maryland and in local jurisdictions across the state, most have warned their constituents that “tough choices” lay ahead as they decide where to allocate limited financial resources and, conversely, where not to allocate them.

Few in history have faced a tougher choice in allocating limited resources than did U.S. Navy Captain Paul X. Rinn in the spring of 1988 as he stood on his sinking guided missile frigate, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, after it had hit an Iranian mine that caused tremendous damage to the ship deployed in the Persian Gulf.

Capt. Rinn, whose foot was broken by the force of the explosion, faced two equally perilous threats. His ship was taking on water fast through a 20-foot hole in its hull caused by the mine. Also, a ferocious fire created by the mine explosion engulfed the aft portion of the ship.

“It was a bizarre experience,” Rinn said during a lecture on leadership last August at the Naval Postgraduate School. “I could look up and see the fire burning above me and my shoes were filling with water at the same time.”

That’s when Rinn made the ultimate tough call. He ordered the ship’s crew to stop fighting the fire and to concentrate on the water that was pouring into the ship’s auxiliary machinery room. “You have to save that bulkhead or we’re going to lose the ship,” he recalled telling his crew.

It wasn’t easy but, following Rinn’s orders, the crew slowly won back the ship. They contained the flooding and restored power to the ship, which then enabled them to concentrate on the fire and, ultimately, to save the ship.

We’re not foundering in the Persian Gulf, but there are lessons to be learned from Rinn’s experience 23 years ago and half a world away.

Even after a devastating recession, Maryland and its local jurisdictions cannot yet be characterized as a sinking ship, though a few other states have been described that way. But from a fiscal standpoint, it’s fair to say that Maryland’s state and local governments are taking on water.

Governor Martin O’Malley, state lawmakers, county executives and mayors across the state face decisions on where to best deploy increasingly limited financial resources despite what appear to them as equally serious competing funding challenges.

Every looming need or issue, from environmental preservation to public health to economic development, has vocal and aggressive advocates communicating the virtues of their causes to policymakers.

All of these causes are worthy of attention. But, as Captain Rinn did on the slanting deck of the USS Roberts, our leaders must decide on the best order of priorities to which our government’s financial resources should be deployed.

With that in mind business advocates in Maryland should be heartened to hear pledges made by Governor O’Malley, Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others that they will place a strong focus on the deployment of fiscal resources to job creation and economic development.

Of course, our leaders must follow up their pledges by ensuring that government sets a welcoming and nurturing tone toward business and by maintaining decisive fiscal commitments to key prerequisites to a healthy business environment. Such prerequisites include an educated workforce, superior infrastructure – particularly transportation infrastructure – and strategic government investments and incentives that leverage strong business growth.

There will be many other “tough choices” ahead as our state recovers from a debilitating recession. But these are the right priorities for 2011 and for the immediate future. They relate directly to restoring the power of the private sector, which is the engine that will ultimately right Maryland’s fiscal ship and that will drive our future economic success and quality of life.


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