A Leadership Parable Disguised as a Crime Novel

June 8, 2021

“Captain Tom’s leadership sent ripples of pride and quality flowing throughout the ship. He created an esprit de corps that expressed itself on the flight deck, at mess, in the polish and gleam of every passageway. That turned even something as routine and burdensome as their daily FOD walkdown into something to look forward to.” — Steel Fear

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The other day someone asked me a question about whether “leadership” cropped up as an element in my new thriller, Steel Fear. After the conversation I realized something.

I’ve been writing Steel Fear my whole life.

The first book I wrote with Brandon (my Steel Fear coauthor) was his memoir The Red Circle, which told his story from childhood through SEAL training, deployment in Afghanistan, leading and revamping the SEAL sniper course, and exiting to the private sector. It was a huge book and covered a lot of ground. But there was one story, somewhere in the middle, that most caught my interest.

It was probably this one story that most connected the two of us. (And here we are, a decade and seven books later, still a writing team!) It was about an experience he had before he was a SEAL.

Two experiences, actually.

In 1995 he did a six-month tour in the Western Pacific as a helicopter sonar operator and rescue swimmer aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, a super-modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Hot stuff. (This is the ship of George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” scene.) It promised great excitement.

It was miserable. Six months of terrible morale, unkempt conditions, people getting sick, tedium and aggravation. Brandon came within a whisker of dying when a helo he was crewing almost went down I the Persian Gulf: pure pilot error. And no surprise. On that WestPac, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

A year goes by, and he’s booked on a second WestPac, this time on the USS Kitty Hawk, the oldest carrier in the navy. Pre-nuclear, an oil burner, kind of falling apart. Sailors privately call it “the Shitty Kitty.” And Brandon figures, if life on the Lincoln was miserable, this is gonna be sheer torture.

It was the opposite. An incredible, inspiring six months.

Two experiences, like night and day. Why? What made the difference?

Just one thing.

The captain.

The captain on the Kitty Hawk got on the 1MC (PA system) every morning and talked to the crew. Brought everyone up to date on where they were heading next, and why. Addressed complaints and issues. Inspired everyone on board—all 5,000-plus of them.

On the Lincoln, the captain never showed up. They never heard his voice, not once. And the place fell apart. It was a complete failure of leadership.

That was the story we told in The Red Circle, along with the leadership lessons Brandon learned from it, later reinforced by leaders both excellent and wretched.

But wait: it gets better. Because this is what eventually inspired our thriller.

On the Lincoln — the deployment with the terrible leadership — a series of terrible events occurred. There was a serial sexual predator on board. The guy would sneak up to the women’s showers, reach his hand in the door, switch off the lights, then run in and grab someone. It never escalated to outright rape, but it was plenty awful enough to creep everyone out and cast a pall of terror over the entire ship.

The man was never caught.

The leadership was completely incapable of handling the situation.

At the time, Brandon thought, What if these were murders?

And that is what created Steel Fear.

In the thriller (which takes place on the very same USS Abraham Lincoln as the actual ship of Brandon’s first WestPac) there is a serial killer who creates a pall of terror over the entire ship. But why? How does that happen?

The better question is: What allows such a thing to happen?

What causes morale at one business to suffer, while at a parallel business everyone is enthusiastic and full of energy? What causes one community, one congregation, one classroom, one symphony orchestra, one nonprofit to thrive and spread positivity to everything and everyone it touches — while another similar organization descends into unhappy chaos?

In my experience, the answer is invariably leadership.

In Steel Fear the serial killer exists and is allowed to flourish because of a terrible captain who generates a terrible on-board culture. Think of it as a weakened immune system. People get sick. The AC system goes on the blink. The lights stop working properly. And people start dying in terrible ways.

There are really two villains here. The actual killer. And the fragile-egoed, small-minded captain whose failed leadership creates a context for evil to take root.

As I thought about my friend’s question, it occurred to me that, like Brandon, I’ve been tracking this theme throughout my career.

As a teenager I apprenticed with my father, a choral conductor (one of the clearest examples of a follow-the-leader profession I know!). Back in my direct sales days I wrote a newsletter for my team; I called it The Leadership Letter. When I started ghost-writing other people’s memoirs I cowrote a book called Take the Lead (about leadership in the White House) and another called Real Leadership (about leadership in a Wall Street boardroom). After The Go-Giver came out our publisher asked Bob Burg and me to write another parable, so we did: The Go-Giver Leader.

All these writings and many others explore what happens when you have great leadership, and what happens when you have terrible leadership.

In Steel Fear, to show the contrast, we gave Brandon’s real-life captain from that fantastic Kitty Hawk deployment a cameo. (We even gave him his real-life name: Captain Tomaszeski.)

And it’s not just the two captains. There are more profiles in leadership scattered throughout the book — Lt. Kennedy, Sam Schofield, Harlan “Robbie” Jackson, Sister Mae, Cheryl “The Sheriff” Hawkins, Nikos Papadakis, Selena Kirkland, and more, each of them contributing their own unique take on leadership … the good, the bad, and the lethal.

If you do read Steel Fear, may I offer a suggestion to enhance the experience?

After you’ve read it through for the entertainment — the mysteries, the suspense, the untangling of the puzzles, the thrills and action, the characters — then go back and page through it a second time with just two questions in mind:

“What does this passage, this character, this situation, say about leadership?”

“And which character, or characters, are most like me?”

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You can preorder STEEL FEAR, and learn about a special Bonus Offer and forthcoming author events, at SteelFear.com.



  1. Adrian

    Thanks for including “symphony orchestra” in your examples. I’m living in the midst of that one!

    • John David Mann

      I thought of you when I wrote that! (Plus thinking of my experiences playing in Pop’s Bach ensembles!)


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