May 15, 2024

What Repair Shop Owners Can Learn From a Navy Commander

What Repair Shop Owners Can Learn From a Navy Commander

At first glance, the rescue and repair of a guided missile destroyer might not have a ton in common with a diesel repair shop.

Let’s start with the obvious. A guided missile destroyer floats. A diesel repair shop (usually) does not. The destroyer is owned and run by the U.S. Navy. The repair shop is owned by one or two (or maybe a few more) people. Most significantly, the destroyer can face extraordinary danger. The repair shop, usually, does not.

But the ship and the shop have more in common than you might think. They’re both critical to safety in different ways—the ship guarding our country, the repair shop guarding the roads. And they both require highly trained crews and skilled leadership.

That was the theme Commander Kirk Lippold (USN-Retired) touched on during the opening session of Diesel Connect 2024. He’s certainly in a position to know; on October 12, 2000, his ship—the guided missile destroyer Cole—was refueling in Aden, Yemen, when it was attacked in a suicide bombing later claimed by al-Qaeda. Seventeen sailors perished, 39 were wounded, and the ship herself had a massive hole blown in her side.

Commander Lippold and his crew looked after each other and saved their vessel: the Cole is still in service.


No one is born with a wrench in their hand. They might pick one up later and show an affinity for it, but they still need to learn how to use the thing. Similarly, no one arrives on this planet ready to put a highly advanced warship through its paces.

Hence training.

Lots and lots of training.

“We have procedures for reasons,” the commander said to the audience. “Safety of personnel. Safety of equipment.”

He took great pride in the training of the Cole’s crew, noting that when the ship headed for the Mediterranean in August 2000, all the officers were at the rail. It was the enlisted that got them underway. He prized the men and women under his command, and trusted them to know what to do in any situation.

Mere months later, on October 12, his trust in his crew was put to the ultimate test.


Because the Cole was refueling when the bombers struck, many initially wondered if it had suffered a fuel explosion. That was already a dangerous predicament—but they didn’t know for sure. Lippold and his crew had to find out what had happened to the ship before they did anything else.

When the worst happens, most people run the other way. Not the Cole crew; they headed towards the danger to find out what was going on. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” the commander said, adding that you need to adapt and adjust on the fly. “I knew something bad had happened to the ship…but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”

He realized the jagged hole in the side of the ship had been blown inward, which meant the explosion had been caused by an outside device.

This was no fuel explosion. The ship had been attacked.

Much has been written about what happened to the Cole, so we won’t go too much into it here. The crew’s extensive training did not extend to this situation; it was, in short, “totally unanticipated.”

When the worst happens, the commander said, “You make the best decisions you can based on the information you have at that moment.”

The crew fell back on the training they did have. They split themselves into three groups:

  • Damage control: To determine how badly injured the Cole was and how they could keep her afloat.
  • Triage: To treat the injured and begin collecting the dead.
  • Security: To prevent another attack.

Damage control, unsurprisingly, was #1 on everyone’s radar. Commander Lippold recalled aching to speak with his wounded sailors, but the Cole had to take priority—they were all about to have much, much larger problems if the ship ended up sinking.

So they worked. They cut electricity to the damaged area. They stopped the fuel pumps. They put out fires. They dealt with flooding. They cut into twisted metal and crushed compartments to rescue their crewmates. For want of a better phrase, they worked their asses off for their ship and each other. They may not have been trained for this exact scenario, but that no longer mattered. They had assigned themselves their mission—save the ship, save themselves—and they worked together to see it through.

Here, Commander Lippold noted that the crew accomplished a hell of a lot on their own, without receiving a barrage of orders from him or his XO. “The last thing I needed to do as captain was walk in and take charge without the full context of what was going on,” he said.

Again, the work required on a damaged destroyer is far different from that of a diesel repair shop, but the same principle applies: When you trust your people to do the right thing, it’s much less nerve-wracking to step back and let them get their work done.


Unfortunately, there is no one-and-done class or silver bullet or special protein shake that will turn you into the kind of leader that will elevate everyone around you.

(We know. We were hoping for that, too.)

What you can do, however, is follow the seven pillars that Commander Lippold focused on when describing good leadership. You can bring all of these pillars into a diesel repair shop, by the way (or almost any other field):

  • Professional competence: Your people must be highly trained and ready to handle the work they’re expected to do. If a sailor made a mistake, Lippold looked at himself first. “Did I train them right?” he asked. “Where did we go wrong?” Then he would sit down with the sailor and find a way to make things better.
  • Make decisions: Not making a decision is a decision unto itself. As a leader, you’ve got to take action—even if you aren’t sure which action is correct.
  • Trust your people: Lippold drove this one home several times. Your people are the experts in what they do.
  • Focus and vision: Zero in on the core issues you’ll have to think about in the near future and further out.
  • Communicate: Very few of us are actually clairvoyant. Talk to your people, and open up the doors for them to talk to you, too. Let them know what’s expected of them. And again, listen to them when they talk to you. Ask them how you can help them grow.
  • Integrity: The commander identified integrity as making the right moral and ethical decisions, regardless of the consequences. It’s also the foundation of many good businesses—and an important component of a sterling reputation.
  • Resiliency: Times will get tough. Not every day is a good one. When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. Or, in Navy terms, “Don’t give up the ship.” Basically, you want your business to be able to weather whatever storm Mother Nature throws at it.


In the end, while strong leadership is an incomparable asset, it’s the people who are getting things done that are the most valuable to your shop. “You have to be able to listen to [your people] but also take non-verbal cues,” the commodore told attendees. That means keeping your eyes and ears open—and not burying your face in a digital device when working with your people.

“When someone brings you a problem, pay attention to them,” he said. “Put the phone down.”

You also need to take proper care of your people. In the case of the Cole, that meant making sure sailors were getting rest, and that they were able to deal with encroaching PTSD while keeping the ship afloat. In the case of a repair shop, that might translate to proper tools and equipment, processes and procedures to ensure safety, and a comfortable salary.

Take care of them, and they’ll take care of you—and keep your shop shipshape.

Suz Baldwin