Lessons learned in the deep: what a submariner can teach you about leadership and grit

“It was amazing, it was horrible, but most of all — it was.” — LCDR Krysten Ellis, Gender Integration on U.S. Submarines, Naval Postgraduate School

Lietenant Commander Krysten Ellis, U.S. Navy (right)

I first talked to Krysten Ellis when she had just been assigned to her first submarine several years ago, an interview I wrote up for Open Salon. In our first discussion, Ellis talked about growing up with a father who worked on subs, and how that inspired her own career.

“So many people around me when I was young were part of the submarine life,” she says. “I remember being able only to send twenty-five word messages to my dad, because communications were so limited (when he was on deployment),” she says.

Ellis is a supply officer, one of two roles women officers serve on the submarines. Other women officers are “nuc”s, or nuclear trained officers. Ellis started out teaching at the Nuclear Power School when women were not permitted on submarines. In 2007, she made a lateral transfer to the supply corps with the hope that one day she might have the chance to serve on subs. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates notified Congress of the Navy’s intent to lift the ban on women in submarines in February 2010, she immediately applied for the Women in Submarines program. The first women reported to submarine duty the following fall.

An Ohio Class Submarine, frequently known as a “boomer”

In part because of the logistical arrangement of the submarines into officer staterooms holding three or four officers, Ellis was assigned to a submarine with three other women junior officers. Quarters for any person are tight: “They’re really small quarters,” Ellis says, “my rack was so small it was hard to turn over.” In Ellis’s master’s thesis she explains further: “The racks used in officer berthing are nearly identical to those used in enlisted berthing, but are located in shared staterooms that are secured by doors rather than curtains.”

Though well prepared for her submarine duty, Ellis still remembers the first year as difficult. “Everyone’s just trying to get their quals, their dolphins,” she says. “You might do a 6 hour shift, then your regular job and then tasks toward your qual. There were a few months where I didn’t sleep more than two or three hours a night.” Qualification was critical to any measure of respect on a submarine; those who had not yet earned their “pins” were dubbed “non-quals,” and treated sometimes damagingly without respect or civility.


Then she found her momentum. “Once you start learning enough to contribute things really start to even out,” she says. “You develop really strong bonds with the 150 people on the boat. Women really contribute in the force because we sometimes have a softer touch, especially for any of the guys having a harder time.” Ellis managed ten sailors on board, covering logistics and culinary specialities.

Though a supply officer might only serve one tour on a submarine, Ellis was able to serve on two.

“Both of the tours were really different,” she says. “Your bosses have a huge impact on your quality of life especially as you are establishing boundaries for the first time.

One commander tried to set boundaries that didn’t make any sense. “If there was a concern with one of the women officers, even though she reported to him and had no relation to my area, he would ask me to step in. I had to explain that it wasn’t my department, that it was his responsibility as a leader.” This was an area challenging to many of the supply officers on board ship, who as women and as department heads were relied upon in many cases to advise the command team or serve as mentors for the young women officers even in different roles and departments.

Ellis and a coauthor establish leadership and climate as critical to the success of integrating women in their paper: “Of all the factors that contributed to the integration experience, leadership and climate likely have the largest effect, and this effect is lasting.”

The other ship though, she says she would stay with forever if she’d had the chance.

“The bonds you build are almost like special warfare units,” she says. “For us it’s once you get qualified, once you get your fish. Whether you’re black, white or purple, you’re judged on your technical ability and ability to contribute.”

Unlike the experience of the aviators interviewed in previous weeks, Ellis and her “girls,” as she affectionately calls the other submarine qualified women, did not experience open hostility from their male counterparts as a rule. Sexual harassment and integration training was required before women arrived at their subs, and most women submariners found the initial integration painful only because of the male reticence as a result of that training inhibiting more natural communication.

Both men and women have to face the reality of missions on a submarine. “On an Ohio-class sub you don’t see the sun for two to four months,” Ellis tells me.

I mention I think being underwater for four months would make me crazy, and she laughs.

“You’re so busy on board you rarely notice,” she says.

An Ohio class submarine

The Navy has eighteen nuclear powered submarined in the Ohio Class, sometimes called “boomers,” fourteen ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and four later converted to guided missile submarines (SSGN), with missions of strategic nuclear deterrence and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The former carry fifty percent of the U.S. active inventory of strategic thermonuclear warheads and are frequently called Trident submarines. The latter are equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon missiles fired through torpedo tubes, as well as the ability to deploy special operations forces. Ellis has served on both. While both are lethal ships, Ellis’ scariest memory on the sub had to do with the laundry room.

“There’s one room on board with a couple of giant dryers and small washing machines,” says Ellis. “You never leave laundry unattended because it’s one of the places on the ship most likely to have a fire.”

For a submarine which doesn’t surface for up to four months at a time, a fire is one of the worst things that can happen.

“I woke up one night from a dead sleep to an alarm and knew something bad was happening. I put on my coveralls in less than a minute and opened my state room door. People were running back and forth in various states of undress grabbing firefighting gear. I tried to find something to help but within a minute of the alarm sounding, all the equipment had already been taken, so I went to my normal damage control station.

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We’re in a confined space over two hundred feet below the surface of the ocean. The fire was put out, but it was a wake up call. Not only to the possibility and danger of fire, but a real comfort in the incredible competence and response of the crew.

It had been one of my guys in the laundry room washing clothes. The next field day (an all-hands cleaning day) I went into the laundry room and blew everything down with low pressure air, every last bit of lint. I decided the laundry room would be my cleaning station.”

The grit Ellis displays is apparent in the decisiveness and attention to detail. It is a part of Ellis’s character, and one she attributes to the culture of the crew on the submarine. There is “little forgiveness for incompetence, mistakes, and especially lethargy,” she writes in her thesis.

As with other women with grit, Ellis’s frustrations are less with the work and more with some of the side effects of her gender. “I had a good friend in one of the guys on board and people started talking about what they thought was happening, when there was nothing to talk about,” she says. “It’s frustrating, but I had to hold him at arm’s length to manage perceptions. Either you manage misperceptions and rumors directly, or you have to keep things at arm’s length. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.”

LCDR Krysten Ellis

“Another time I called a senior enlisted guy on my team with information he needed to know and his wife was upset. He thought maybe if his wife met me and my boyfriend, it would be better, so we arranged to meet at the food court in the exchange, all four of us. It wasn’t better. She started to scream at me in a public place.”

Women in our culture have been taught to apologize for things that aren’t their responsibility,” she says. “It’s unfortunate when these things happen.”

Why would Ellis say to a new ensign? “Have women mentors, but have more male mentors…there are more of them and you can learn from everyone.

Service in the Navy is tough on sailors and on relationships. Despite the challenges of submarine life and work, Ellis suggests the difficulty of balancing this life with relationships resulted in her hardest lesson.

“I was forward deployed for 13 months and struggled to maintain relationships, resulting in a very solitary life for a while.” she says. “My husband and I, dual military, grew apart and separated when I came home. Even my closest family became somewhat estranged after the complications of keeping in touch.

It was very difficult to wake up one day and realize how profoundly alone I felt and it took months and years to build many of those ties anew. It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t their fault… but relationships are a two way street, until you deploy. At that point, you have to make it your responsibility and understand that if you don’t, everything and everyone back home will be completely foreign when you return. Everyone needs a strong support structure, and now I know that I must work extra hard to maintain it… not just for them, but for me as well.

Only two of the original eighteen women nuclear submariners are choosing to stay in the Navy. “Most are married to other officers,” Ellis says, “and it’s really difficult to get the Navy to assign you to the same station.”


With respect to grit, Ellis says “When I think of GRIT, I think of two things: (1) Something rough that smoothes a surface down to a polish and (2) a mental toughness or experience that makes any difficulty seem surmountable. I’ve had a number of experiences that polished me into who I am and have helped me to have a brighter outlook when negative things happen. As a woman, I really believe that we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard to be successful in a hyper-masculine occupation. Whether right or not, societally driven or not, what people perceive of us holds a double standard. “


Anne of Green Gables

A story of a fiery girl in a man’s world. She is independent, yet mischievous, and finds her way in an uncertain world.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals

Though I’m not a fan of the title, it is a story of a man who lived in Tarawa, Kiribati for two years and his experiences. Tarawa was one of the islands I visited in Pacific Partnership, so it reminded me of my adventures there. It is a beautiful culture, it reminds me of how important and great travel really is.

James and the Giant Peach

The story of the most unlikely of friends… Ronald Dahl spins amazing tales of true friendship.

To Kill a Mockingbird

For so many reasons this book is special. Until you put a face to the name of a monster (Boo Radley), you never know that he can be your friend and greatest strength. It’s interesting now that I look on the integration of women on submarines, I used a similar phrase to explain the transition. Once people put a face to the monster, that was integration changes in our case, there was really no monster at all. Expectations and fears can create monsters out of nothing.

The Color Purple

This book showed me some of the cruelties in the world and that no one is immune to them. One is never alone though and there is strength and courage to be found, even in the most horrible of places and circumstances.

“Just like any habit, (developing grit) takes patience, determination and time. You can’t magically become more assertive and determined overnight. There is also the balance that women have to find between being a leader and being perceived as bossy. Women generally have a softer touch when it comes to relationship skills, a swift change would have consequences and likely push people away.

To work on it, learn more about the boundaries of personal, business and strategic relationships. Know that you don’t have to be everyone’s best friend and that even your best friend shouldn’t have the ability to roll over you for every want and need. Practice balance.”

LCDR Krysten Ellis

In January of 2015, the Navy began accepting applications from enlisted women to serve on submarines as well. The first are due to report this year.

Ellis is an outspoken proponent of women serving on submarines, and both speaks and writes about the issue. In her thesis at the Naval Postgraduate school, she attributes her passion for the submarine community and her strength of character to her parents: “ My father is a submariner, naval officer, and my first hero. Growing up with the submarine family is what pushed me toward achieving my dream of being assigned to a sub. My mother was in the Army when she married my father. She instilled in me the fiercest determination and independence that promoted self-reliance and stubbornness.”


What would she tell a new Ensign? “I would tell myself to not be quite so serious. Enjoy the small victories but learn from the mistakes. Make sure you know what YOU want, not what others want of you.”

Also, to “know what you want to get out of life and your future. It doesn’t matter why or how you joined, but it does matter to how long or if you’re going to stay. Also, technical expertise and charisma will get you the furthest in your career.”




Shannon H. Polson, Author, Veteran and Founder

LEADERSHIP. GRIT. PURPOSE. The Grit Factor AVAILABLE NOW: https://amzn.to/2GJOnJw Founder: thegritinstitute.com Committed to veterans and women in leadership.