Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900 — 1986) is famous for whipping into shape the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet and the nuclear industry after it. His driving and domineering attitude was often unpopular, but it led to incredible success, making him “the greatest engineer of all time,” according to President Jimmy Carter.
One of his infamous techniques involved putting candidates off-guard in an interview. As described by Daniel Yergin in “The Quest“:
When interviewing candidates for the nuclear navy, Rickover would, in order to throw them off and test them, seat them in chairs with shortened front legs and at the same time position them so that the sunlight streamed through specially adjusted venetian blinds straight into their eyes. That way “they had to maintain their wits,” he explained, “while they were sliding off the chair.”
He would even punish bad answers. As described in a “60 Minutes” interview with Diane Sawyer:
SAWYER: And what about those that you brought in and made stand in the broom closet?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: Well, they came in, they gave stupid answers. So I thought I’d give them a chance to think. I’d put them in there for a couple of hours, three hours, and it gave them plenty of time to think.
SAWYER: But what were you trying to do with these young men who came in to you?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: I was trying to draw out of them what they had potentially in them.
He followed a similar approach to leadership. From Yergin:
To accomplish his goals, Rickover built a cadre of highly skilled and highly trained officers for the nuclear navy, who were constantly pushed to operate at peak standards of performance. If that meant being a taskmaster and a martinet, Rickover would be a taskmaster and a martinet. Even a minor oversight or deviation from Rickover’s very high standards would likely mean that an officer would be “denuked” — ejected from the nuclear service.
Rickover’s leadership in the nuclear industry helped the industry reach extraordinary gains in efficiency and safety, including improvements after the Three Mile Island scare.