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Lessons in Leadership for Teams in

Crimson Tide (1995)

- Vedant Prusty (MME 2017)

This Document is an edited and redacted version of the original submitted


to MSM as part of an assignment in January 2018. For more details, please
contact the author Vedant Prusty, at vedprix@gmail.com

Individual Assignment - Leadership & High-Performance Teams

Professor Philippe Leliaert


Lessons in Leadership for Teams in Crimson Tide (1995) – LHPT Ind. Assn. 2

Abstract

This report discusses Leadership and High-Performance Teams in the context of the

movie Crimson Tide (1995). (Scott et al., 1995) It explores the leadership styles, mannerisms,

various stages of team development, interpersonal communication and its impact on tasks at

hand. A brief plot summary will guide the user in terms of the context. This is done using a

general analysis of various characters and events associated with them during the course of the

USS Alabama’s voyage. Towards the end of each character, specific styles, ways of leadership

and team development/functioning are identified. Lessons learned from an organizational

context are highlighted throughout. Alternatives as to how these could have been different are

suggested, even though that would mean the movie would basically have no plot (in the absence

of arguments between the Captain and his Executive Officer)

Plot Summary – Crimson Tide

Crimson Tide, released in 1995, played around the dilemma of Who should have the

final authority over the launch of Nuclear Missile? Following the cold war, this question

disturbed the entire military world. Should a Nuclear missile be launched as an error on the

part of a military officer, a nuclear holocaust would be inevitable in the world.

32 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Rebel Forces (including factions within the

Russian Army) are taking control of military bases in Russia. Led by Radchenko, they now

have control over a facility with Nuclear Missiles. The Russian Government assures the USA

that Nuclear Launch codes are safe. President Clinton orders US Military forces to set

DEFCON 4 (Defense Condition – a US national military threat level designator). The USS

Alabama, a Nuclear Submarine has its Executive Officer (XO – second in command in a vessel)

down with appendicitis. Therefore, its captain, Ramsey (played by Gene Hackman) has

recruited Lt. Cdr. Hunter (played by Denzel Washington) as his new XO. The movie revolves

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around the difference in viewpoints of the two characters. The Alabama is ordered to patrol the

Pacific Ocean, ready to release its Nuclear Arsenal of SLBMs should Radchenko gain access

to Nuclear Codes and decide to launch.

As the submarine is underway, a fire breaks out in the kitchen. Immediately after this

is extinguished, and before a complete check for ALL-CLEAR is completed, Capt. Ramsey

orders a Missile Launch Drill, in the middle of the confusion. The life of one officer is lost.

While on patrol, an enemy submarine is detected on radar. The Alabama dives while carrying

out evasive maneuvers. Soon, an Emergency Action Message (EAM) is received via radio,

informing the Alabama that Russian Nuclear Launch codes have been compromised and the

Alabama is to arm its missiles and prepare to hover to the surface to launch them. As the

Alabama arms its SLBMs and continues to dive deep to avoid the enemy Akula Class

Submarine, it begins to receive another EAM. But due to a high depth, the message (which is

about the Nuclear Missiles) reception is incomplete and it cannot be authenticated. The enemy

sub detects the Alabama. While evading torpedoes, Alabama’s radio antenna is damaged. As

it now begins to return to the surface, there is an argument between the captain and his XO

about the course of action to be taken. The message might have been an order to stop the SLBM

launch, the rebels might have surrendered. Launching might lead to a Nuclear War started by

the USA. The captain feels launching the missiles is the right thing to do since the new message

is incomplete, and they must carry on with their original orders. As per protocol, unless the

Captain and the XO both agree, a nuclear SLBM cannot be launched. The Captain tries to get

his XO arrested for arguing. The XO relieves the Captain of his duty and takes the Conn

(Control of Vessel). Soon, after surviving another fight with the enemy sub, the Captain escapes

his confinement to retake control of the ship by force using arms. The XO and his men are

arrested and locked up. As the Captain prepares to launch missiles, the XO also escapes with

his men and makes it to the Control Room just in time to stop the launch. The Weapons Officer

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is meanwhile threated to launch the missiles by the captain. The scene culminates as both the

Captain and his XO are at the bridge, waiting three minutes (since Russian Missiles can launch

in 4 minutes) for the radio officer Rivetti to complete repairing the radio, failing which, they

launch their SLBMs. Finally, the EAM comes through, and the orders are to NOT fire as the

Russians rebels had surrendered.

Introduction

The tendency is always to differentiate a better leader from the other who is not as good.

But in a setting, as the one presented here, there was simply no one right path to be taken. Let

us begin understanding our setting better. A military, therefore typically hierarchal organization

operates on the USS Alabama. Orders are to be given by the captain. Traditionally, the XO

must agree to them, and pass them on. The rest of the crew must follow. Autocratic leadership

is apt for the situation since Delegation or Democratic styles would basically lead to a complete

break down of command and control in the vessel. The Officers form the key team players,

with the captain and his XO at the helm. The Weapons Officer in our case, with the control

over SLBM launch, is critical to the team. As expected from any military setting, its all about

“Protocol, Protocol, and Protocol”.

We now analyze each key character’s leadership/followership style and attributes.

Captain Ramsey

Captain Ramsey is the stereotype of “been there, done that”. To his team members, he

has seen it all (timestamp 10:55 in the movie). Autocratic and old-school, he simply does not

like to take a no for an answer. He considers himself a simple man, or at least likes to call

himself that (00:22:00). But Hunter is right to understand him otherwise, of being more

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complex than what meets the eye. Hunter does not believe he needs to feel the pulse of his men.

Orders are orders, and they need to be executed. In his own words, “We are here to preserve

democracy, not to practice it” (00:33:06). But as hard as he may appear on the outside, Ramsey

can be seen feeling insecure about his authority. He knows well that Hunter connects with

people on the boat, including petty officers. Ramsey seeks privacy. He clarifies to Hunter that

when he needs to argue with him, he MUST do it in private, not publicly. (00:32:15). In a

certain way, Ramsey is right about this though. In an organizational setting, employees must

not be allowed to perceive a disagreement or cold-war between the top management personnel.

They need to see a unified command. The moment an employee sees disagreement on the top

levels of management, it leaves him room to challenge ideas, question the aims and missions

of the team, etc. In a military setting especially, this is dreadful.

Ramsey also likes to test his XO. We might dare to say, he enjoys instigating him. This

is most evident at 1:40:00 when he mentions the racist comment about Lipizzaner stallions (an

elite horse breed) being all white. Also in an attempt to sound stone-cold, he says the death of

Marichek (the officer who died in the kitchen fire) was not caused by the fire itself, but by his

300 pounds of fat! (Marichek was overweight). Ramsey is ready to threaten a soldier’s life if

needed. He threatens to kill a petty officer in the Weapons division in order to convince Weps

to launch the missiles under time-constraint. For Ramsey, its either his way, or the highway!

“You repeat this order, or I will find somebody who will” – Ramsey (00:58:30). When retaking

control of the Bridge, he says “Any officers or chiefs feel you have been unjustly caught up in

this thing, you stand with me now”. He doesn’t really offer much of an option. (1:23:00)

Similarly, at 00:49:00 when XO tries to talk to him about the urgent situation, the Captain

simply doesn’t listen and makes him wait! At 00:57:10, he hardly waits to hear the XOs

viewpoint on the matter about the second EAM and the decision to launch. The Captain

effectively does not respect emotional intelligence and other viewpoints. When heading a team

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on a critical mission (especially doing so with a critical team member, one where all your orders

need to be verified by the XO, putting a lot on the stake), this can be disastrous as the movie

plot shows. “Mr. Hunter, I’ve made a decision. I’m captain of this boat. Now shut the f**k

up!” – Hunter (00:57:56)

Ramsey also likes to assert his command every now and then. It is interesting to note

how he uses the 1MC ( 1 Main Circuit - the Submarine’s public address circuit) channel within

the sub to address the entire submarine’s workforce directly. Every now and then, he makes it

clear to them that he is present, asserts his control, and gives direct orders without options.

When Hunter (the XO) suggests to him privately that his crew could use a pat on the back to

ease the nervousness, he simply goes on MC to tell them “Any crew member who feels he can’t

handle the situation, can leave the ship now”! He repeats this behavior at 1:33:00 to clarify his

presence at the helm and control. Perhaps another indication of his deep-rooted insecurity?

“I’m the commander of this fu**ing ship. Give me the God damned key” (1:39)

All said and done, Ramsey is a very good judge of character. He is straight headed and

takes his time to assess the XO. He gives enough time to Forming, Norming and Storming

(Tuckman, 1965) with respect to his XO, having ample private conversations with him. At

1:16:02 when two officers come to “rescue him”, he tells them that they need to get Weps on

their side. “We gotta have Weps. He’s the key”. Without Weps, Ramsey knew he could not

launch the missiles. Identifying the key and critical members of a team is important. It is even

more important to get their support before any major decision is taken, such as organizational

change plans.

Ramsey has a ‘heroic’ (Gosling & Mintzberg, 2003) management style. For him what

matters is what can be measured. He enjoys going by the book (literally down to exact

procedure. Even though the second EAM might have been about disarming the SLBMs, he

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wanted to go ahead and fire since protocol dictated that they follow primary orders in the

absence of any second authenticated order.) Ramsey sits at the helm of ‘Command and Control

Model” believing he can’t be vulnerable, and is not allowed to show weakness. His leadership

style can be defined as a combination of Autocratic and Coercive, ready to punish people by

his authority when needed. (He simply refuses to listen to his XO and commands that he should

be arrested for not agreeing with the captain.) [See Situational Leadership by Hersey and

Blanchard]. (Hersey & Blanchard, 1977) In conclusion, Ramsey can be viewed as an Expert,

always thinking he is right and tending to view collaboration as a waste of time. He neither

desires nor values emotional intelligence. (Rooke & Torbert, 2005) Refer the discussion about

whether dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a correct move, in the

Officers Mess. Ramsey says it was ‘damn’ right and should have been done again if required.

(00:21:20)

Lt. Cdr. Hunter (Executive Officer)

From the very beginning, XO Hunter is portrayed as a calm, balanced and warm

personality. (In fact, adding all the parts about a family life, a little daughter, a loving wife

kissing him goodbye, etc. might just have been the Directors way of getting us to “like” hunter

more!) A straight headed personality, well trained from Harvard, he reciprocates the

importance that Ramsey gives to Forming, Norming, and Storming. He takes his time to

understand the Captain. At 00:06:00 he takes his time to not react unnecessarily to the jokes

cracked by the captain when they meet to discuss his role as the new XO. He maintains this

“watchful behavior” while smoking a cigar with the captain (00:17:00), viewing the sunset just

before the Alabama dives underwater. As the captain says, he “knew to shut up and enjoy the

view”, instead of talking it away and trying to impress the captain. Hunter keeps his calm, (as

well as his resolve to his position) when he diplomatically answers that if he thought the

Hiroshima bombing was a mistake, he would not be on the boat. (Officer Mess Scene 00:22:00)

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He believes that Ramsey is hardly a simple man! This scene forms the crux of the Norming

and Storming stage of team development. In the presence of all officers, the captain and his

XO debate the true nature of war. Opinions are fast forming, and tensions in the scene are high

(refer expression and pause on Ramsey’s face at 00:24:06).

Hunters’ first mistake: At 00:26:30. Hunter openly questions the Captain’s motives for

running the Missile Launch Readiness drill immediately after the fire. He does this in the

presence of petty officers and enlisted men, perhaps not a very good move. To undermine a

higher authority openly in the presence of other team members without a first discussion with

the captain is not looked upon as a United chain of command! As Ramsey said, he should have

discussed this privately!

Hunter has the “pulse of his men”. He personally attends to the fire at the kitchen

(Director adds to our sympathy and support for him) while he was in the middle of his work-

out. At 38:00, he scolds Rivetti for an unwarranted fight in the submarine. But he ends with an

anecdote about the true Silver Surfer. Similarly, at 1:22:00, he speaks to the Radio Officer in

words that he can understand. He compares the Officer to Scotty and himself to Kirk (from

Star Trek). He speaks the language of the people. He connects with them; indications of a

Collaborative mindset, giving due importance to relationships. (Rooke & Torbert, 2005)

Whether this is called for in a military setting is another debate of course.

Hunters’ respect for the stages of team development is evident again at 00:35:00 when

Weps advices him to watch out for the captain and “give him a little room. Let him get to know

you”, instead of reacting immediately. Hunter takes this advice and moves on to watch and

learn the Captain’s motives. At 00:57:00, Hunter tries his best to convince the captain calmly

of his views. He speaks privately and softly, trying to avoid other crew members realizing there

is an argument. He continues to maintain his calm as the Captain blurts out an accuses him of

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Lessons in Leadership for Teams in Crimson Tide (1995) – LHPT Ind. Assn. 9

Mutiny. But, when the time comes, he is ready to make the hard decision and assert authority

when he relieves the captain.

When Hunter does take control of the ship from the captain, he offers men who are not

interested in following him the opportunity to relieve themselves of their duty, without any

consequences. (01:01:28). This is contrary to the captain, who later hardly offers an option to

the crew when he retakes control of the ship. A crew under such circumstances will naturally

tend to support Hunter, since he seems to be the good cop! (even though autocracy is what is

needed in military settings) Lesson learned: no matter the situation, playing the emotion card

will probably always work.

In the action that follows with the enemy sub, Hunter proves his leadership capability

during war as he protects the ship from complete annihilation. At 1:11:00, Hunter’s hesitancy

to give the order to close the hatch to prevent flooding of the boat, while losing the lives of

three sailors shows his higher emotional intelligence. Yet, he does make the order, proving to

his crew that he has it in him to do what needs to be done.

Hunter also senses the situation well. He was able to react well in time when he found

out that Zimmer was not at his post. He was right to suspect foul play, and advised Cobbs to

get a sidearm. Furthermore, he handed over keys of the entire ship to Rivetti, a petty seaman

he could trust. In an organizational context, we are often far too late to notice something is

going wrong. It is important for leaders to put in place key indicators to notice downfall in

performance or sales before they occur. Of course, this is easier said than done. Creating

Failsafes (like handing over the keys to Zimmer) is another important aspect. For example,

managers can put in place mechanisms to recover from loss, in the event that a change program

performs miserably and is unsuccessful! Good risk management is never extra work. A well-

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prepared recovery program can go a long way in re-stabilizing the organization which is just

coming out of a failed change program.

Hunter is a leader who focusses on reasoning out. This is evident starting from the

Officers Mess Scene where he explains his ideas about war. But also, later, (01:28:24) he uses

his reasoning to convince other members of his position when they are locked up after Ramsey

retook control. He understands the importance of making sure that every man on his team is

completely convinced of his ideas. Cobbs was only partially convinced. Hunter turned him

(like a Trier to Adopter in the Ling-He Simulation), thus ensuring every man on his team was

a hundred percent with him. A small well-trained army can wreak havoc! [For another

interesting approach to understanding how followers are turned to leaders, see (Marquet,

2012)]

Hunter as a Follower:

It is important to analyze Hunter as a Follower as well. He is after all the XO, the second

in command, not the first. He does have to take orders from the captain, while holding in him

the capacity to not agree with the captain and relieve him of his duty at any time. In such

situations, it is important to have the patience and calm of mind to not just give orders, but to

take them, and know exactly when to act against an order. At 01:39:00, when Hunter and his

men are surrounded by Ramsey, well-armed, he refuses to hand over the key. Ramsey digs his

fist into Hunter’s nose, but Hunter refuses to fight back. He is adamant about not giving up the

key, but he does not hit back at Captain Ramsey, maintaining the protocol of still being Second

in Command. A good leader must first be a good follower. Throughout the movie, Hunter

knows when to keep quiet and simply follow instructions (except when he spoke openly against

the decision for a missile test drill after the fire). As an effective Follower (Chaleff, 2009),

Hunter exhibits active and independent critical thinking, not hesitating to bring his concerns to

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Lessons in Leadership for Teams in Crimson Tide (1995) – LHPT Ind. Assn. 11

Ramsey (it’s a different matter that Ramsey does not want to hear them.) Importantly, the plot

proves that gut-feeling matters while taking decisions, and that its not always about EQ and

IQ!

Hunter has a combination of a Reflective, Collaborative and Worldly Mindset. Clearly

Reflective (Gosling & Mintzberg, 2003) since he questions the purpose of War itself! (“In the

Nuclear world, the true enemy is War itself” – Hunter 00:24:00) Collaborative since he feels

his men, their emotions, and speaks their language. And Worldly because contrary to Ramsey

who thinks Alabama has the sole responsibility to protect the USA, Hunter believes the

Alabama is a small part of a larger chain of command. If the USS Alabama does not fire,

“Redundancy” ensures that other US submarines will take charge and do the needful as per

National Military Command orders. (00:56:52) He believes the USS Alabama is too small a

player to make such a decision in a Nuclear World. With and Engaging mindset, he works

actively to network, integrate and gain the respect of others. He leans towards a democratic

style of leadership, trying to ensure he has support by convincing. In a military setting, this is

not apt. But in a mutiny setting, that’s his only option. Towards the beginning of the movie,

Hunter is depicted as an Achiever. (Rooke & Torbert, 2005) A flawless military career despite

being young, Harvard, etc. He likes to get the work done, and thinks logically. As the movie

progresses, he is exhibited as a Strategist. He can generate organizational and personal

transformations through convincing and reasoning. He is effective in sharing a vision across

his team, typical of an Alchemist. (He successfully convinced Weps to not pull the trigger. This

critical move bought him time) He is vigilant (sensed something was wrong when Zimmer was

missing) and recognizes the importance of principle, theory, and judgment.

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Weps (Peter Ince – Weapons Officer)

Weps, the Weapons Officer plays a key role in the movie, having control over the

launch trigger for the SLBMs. We analyze his actions in the context of Dilemmas in

Followership.

Weps is a close friend of Hunter. He spends time with his family at the beginning of

the movie, and had also served with him on the Baton Rouge. However, he exhibits good

followership when Hunter complains to him about the Captain’s decision about a Missile

Launch Readiness Drill after the Fire. Weps is not biased and believes the Captain was right.

He respects the captain as a veteran leader, who has his own way of working. He refuses to

take sides.

The dilemma for him begins when the Captains supporters are assembling a team to

revolt. The captain had made it clear that Weps was the key, and had to be recruited. Zimmer

and Westerguard think they can convince Weps easily (01:17:00). But this is not the case. Weps

is a strong and effective Follower (Kelley, 1988). He believes in protocol and “proper orders”.

He does not support Hunter because he knows him personally, but because he feels Hunter

follows the right procedure. It is a tipping point for him when Zimmer says “This is a mutiny,

Peter. There’s only two sides to a mutiny”. But even under the circumstances, as Weps allows

the Captains’ men to access sidearms, he does not take one himself as they storm in to retake

control from the XO. He clearly exhibits his reluctance to be a part of the Captain’s break-out

team.

Hunter surely notices this, for when he leaves the room after giving the Conn to the

Captain, he stares at Weps for a full 2 seconds into his eyes. (01:25:20) Weps is clearly in a

dilemma and Hunter knows this. Later Hunter calls up Weps to convince him not to use the

trigger, no matter what happens. As the captain orders to fire, Weps refuses despite having a

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gun at his head. This dilemma is what we try to understand from an organizational perspective.

What does a Follower do when he clearly knows he is critical to the team and his decision will

directly affect the outcome of a situation? There was no way for Weps to know which decision

would be right. He followed his instincts. But real life is not always so. Does a good follower

play on arguments between two leaders? Should he decide to simply take no action until a

leadership command is re-established? Life offers another funny alternative. Followers might

even use the opportunity of arguments between leaders to establish their own authority! (Refer

https://youtu.be/US7GgY5a4Ug?t=20s from Pirates of the Caribbean III) The Followers

Dilemma in such situations offers an interesting research topic perhaps.

Conclusion

It would be easy to take sides in this movie. As said earlier, perhaps the Director wanted

us to do so. However, as is clarified towards the end, even though Hunter might have been

proven right, Hunter and Ramsey “were both right, and also both wrong…” (01:48:05) The

system simply failed because the two senior officers did not work to resolve their difference

while preserving the chain of command. There is no saying that Ramsey was wrong. A war

requires a wartime leader, as was the case with Winston Churchill, not a democratic and

appeasing person at the helm. Ramsey with his long service record, and veteran status did what

he knew best – follow procedure and lead his men clear orders. Meanwhile, a mutiny requires

a calculating and convincing personality, capable of drawing support, and moving against the

tide. As Hunter rightly said at the end before the final EAM came through, “If I’m wrong, then

we’re at war. God help us all.”

Ramsey could surely have been more understanding of his crew’s feelings and

emotions. Hunter could have been less openly revolting from the beginning. But perhaps this

movie teaches us more about followership than leadership. Clearly, this team failed in the

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Performing stage despite each key member giving ample time to the three stages before that.

When to keep silent and follow, and when to question a decision without compromising the

teams desired outcome is a valuable lesson, often learned the hard way.

The movie placates our concerns in the end with the clarification: “Primary authority

and ability to fire Nuclear Missiles will no longer rest with U.S. Submarine Commanders…

Principal Control will reside with the President of the United States” In today’s context

though, we can’t really be sure if technology in North Korea allows that.

References

--- (1995) Crimson Tide ---

Chaleff, I. (2009). The courageous follower: Standing up to & for our leaders: Berrett-Koehler
Publishers.
Gosling, J., & Mintzberg, H. (2003). The five minds of a manager. harvard business review, 81(11), 54-
63.
Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1977). Situational leadership: California American University, Center
for Leadership Studies.
Kelley, R. E. (1988). In praise of followers: Harvard Business Review Case Services.
Marquet, L. D. (2012). Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level: Greenleaf
Book Group.
Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (2005). Seven transformations of leadership. harvard business review,
83(4), 66-76.
Scott, T., Washington, D., Hackman, G., Craven, M., Dzundza, G., & Mortensen, V. (1995). Crimson
tide: Hollywood Pictures.
Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological bulletin, 63(6), 384.

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