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Sailing into history: Reflection on Navy experience brings lessons for business

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  • Nov 23, 2017
Sailing into history: Reflection on Navy experience brings lessons for business

HMCS Saskatchewan

Walter E. Frost/City of Vancouver archives

When the HMCS Saskatchewan – a ship that was part of the Canadian Navy’s training squadron – ran aground on Roberts Bank, just south of Vancouver, B.C., on Oct. 16, 1975, it was more than just an unfortunate accident.

Three issues caused the mishap:

  • The Commanding Officer of the HMCS Saskatchewan briefly left an unqualified officer in charge of the ship;
  • A junior officer in training gave an incorrect ship position to the HMCS Saskatchewan’s Navigating Officer (NAVO) who accepted it without checking and based his course recommendation to his Commanding Officer on the wrong position; and,
  • The NAVO of another ship within that training squadron unit, travelling behind the HMCS Saskatchewan, saw the impending danger, but did not recommend to his Commanding Officer that he warn HMCS Saskatchewan’s Commanding Officer.

Associate Professor Glenn Rowe was the NAVO on that ship travelling behind the HMCS Saskatchewan.

Reflecting on the incident, Rowe says he didn’t recommend warning HMCS Saskatchewan because he thought they had the situation under control. At the time, Rowe said he thought they were following the tradition of “standing into danger,” a practice of allowing junior officers in training the chance to almost make errors. He had learned this from another unit of that training squadron where he had trained and experienced his own near mishaps as part of training.

His research paper in progress, Standing into danger: The transfer of a strong organizational culture from one business unit to another within a relatedly diversified multi-business enterprise,” reveals the transfer of aspects of a strong organizational culture across business units of a multi-business enterprise can have disastrous consequences. In the case of the HMCS Saskatchewan, Rowe brought the culture from another unit of the training squadron to this unit and therefore didn’t follow its practice of sending a warning in such a situation.

The power of self-reflection

The paper uses auto-ethnography, a form of research in which an author uses self-reflection to explore a personal experience more broadly. Rowe is the lead author and the experience is from his previous 22-year Canadian Navy career. One of his co-authors, Ken Nason – now a business consultant – also served in the same unit where Rowe trained and had once been Rowe’s boss. While not a participant in the HMCS Saskatchewan incident, Nason is familiar with the organizational culture that influenced Rowe’s behaviour. The other co-author, James O’Brien, PhD ’09, is an associate professor at Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University, and has previous Canadian Army experience.

Although the culture of standing into danger was a competitive advantage in the unit where Rowe trained and allowed it to develop highly qualified officers who could handle stressful situations, Rowe said there was a downside when he inadvertently brought that culture with him to another training unit. Someone else on Rowe’s ship, unfamiliar with the other training unit’s culture, might have recommended warning Saskatchewan of the threat. Rowe’s ship was originally from the operational squadron and had been seconded to the training squadron unit.

“It was the transfer of the culture that was the problem, not the culture itself,” he said. “I’d brought what I’d learned to this other training squadron unit and the practices weren’t the same.”

Previous research has suggested that core competencies can be transferred within relatedly diversified multi-business enterprises. While there are some examples of positive outcomes, such as professors being capable of teaching within several different, but related, programs, Rowe cautions this isn’t always the case.

“What corporate leaders are trying to do is say we’re going to be better off as a corporate entity if we transfer a top-tier leader from one business unit to another – that’s the transfer of a core competency,” he said. “What I’m suggesting is let’s think this through a little more carefully because here’s a story where a source of sustained competitive advantage (i.e., a core competence) was transferred inappropriately and it did not go well. One could argue it had a corporate net negative impact on performance.”

Lessons from the NHL

Rowe is also working on related research on the NHL, where he has found only two general managers, three coaches, and one captain who won a Stanley Cup with one team could do it with a second team in the same position. The NHL data supports the notion that transferring a core competence (i.e., top-tier leaders in the case of the NHL) may not lead to top-tier performance (i.e., winning a Stanley Cup) for the second team. 

“To me, it’s fascinating that it’s so difficult. It’s clearly not just about moving from one position with one team to the same position with another. It would suggest there is not a corporate net benefit in shifting a core competency,” he said. “Using the NHL data sharpens what we can learn and apply to corporate-level strategy.”  

This isn’t the first time Rowe has used a naval context to explore important organizational issues. A previous paper, “Navy stories: Behaviour versus professional control,” examined issues related to professional and behaviour controls, socialization, and organizational effectiveness.

His Ivey Business Journal article also outlines leadership lessons learned in the Canadian Navy.


  • Glenn Rowe
  • Organizational Behaviour
  • Research
  • PhD