Last modified on 11 September 2014, at 18:08

Hyman G. Rickover

It is said that a wise man who stands firm is a statesman, and a foolish man who stands firm is a catastrophe.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, U.S. Navy, (27 January 19008 July 1986) was known as the "Father of the Nuclear Navy".

QuotesEdit

I believe it is the duty of each of us to act as if the fate of the world depended on him. Admittedly, one man by himself cannot do the job. However, one man can make a difference...
You might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil...
Attempts to limit war have always failed. The lesson of history is when a war starts every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon it has available.
  • Sit down before fact with an open mind. Be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads or you learn nothing. Don’t push out figures when facts are going in the opposite direction.
    • As quoted in Business Insider, December 2010.
  • I'll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn't have any life — fish or anything. Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet—and probably in the entire system—reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin... Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible... Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it... I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. Have I given you an answer to your question?
    • On the hazards of nuclear power. Testimony to Congress (28 January 1982); published in Economics of Defense Policy: Hearing before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., Pt. 1 (1982)
  • I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. That's why I am such a great exponent of stopping this whole nonsense of war. Unfortunately limits — attempts to limit war have always failed. The lesson of history is when a war starts every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon it has available. ... Therefore, we must expect that if another war — a serious war — breaks out, we will use nuclear energy in some form.
    • On his reasoning in developing the nuclear arsenal of the US and on the prospects of nuclear war. Testimony to Congress (28 January 1982); published in Economics of Defense Policy: Hearing before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., Pt. 1 (1982)
  • If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won't.
    • As quoted in The New York Times (3 November 1986)
  • Above all, we should bear in mind that our liberty is not an end in itself; it is a means to win respect for human dignity for all classes of our society.
    • Thoughts on Man's Purpose in Life (1982)

Paper Reactors, Real Reactors (1953)Edit

"Paper Reactors, Real Reactors" (5 June 1953); Stating they were comments from the early 1950's Rickover read some of these statements as part of his testimony before Congress, published in AEC Authorizing Legislation: Hearings Before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (1970), p. 1702
It is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed.
  • An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

    On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

  • The tools of the academic designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone sees it.
  • The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of "mere technical details." The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solution requires manpower, time and money.
  • Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decision without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of reactor technology, and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For a large part those involved with the academic reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen. Since they are innocently unaware of the real but hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence. Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.
  • Yet it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed. It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forthrightly as possible.

US Naval Postgraduate School Address (1954)Edit

Address delivered to US Naval Postgraduate School (16 March 1954)
Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches.
  • Some of the ideas I try to get across to the people who work for me are the following:
1. More than ambition, more than ability, it is rules that limit contribution; rules are the lowest common denominator of human behavior. They are a substitute for rational thought.
2. Sit down before fact with an open mind. Be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you learn nothing. Don't push out figures when facts are going in the opposite direction.
3. Free discussion requires an atmosphere unembarrassed by any suggestion of authority or even respect. If a subordinate always agrees with his superior he is a useless part of the organization. In this connection there is a story of Admiral Sims when he was on duty in London in World War I. He called a conscientious hard-working officer in to him to explain why he was dissatisfied with the officer's work. The officer blushed and stammered when Sims pointed out that in all the time they had been working together the officer had never once disagreed with Sims.
4. All men are by nature conservative but conservatism in the military profession is a source of danger to the country. One must be ready to change his line sharply and suddenly, with no concern for the prejudices and memories of what was yesterday. To rest upon formula is a slumber that, prolonged, means death.
5. Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches.
6. Do not regard loyalty as a personal matter. A greater loyalty is one to the Navy or to the Country. When you know you are absolutely right, and when you are unable to do anything about it, complete military subordination to rules becomes a form of cowardice.
7. To doubt one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man. Don't defend past actions; what is right today may be wrong tomorrow. Don't be consistent; consistency is the refuge of fools.
8. Thoughts arising from practical experience may be a bridle or a spur.
9. Optimism and stupidity are nearly synonymous.
10. Avoid over-coordination. We have all observed months-long delays caused by an effort to bring all activities into complete agreement with a proposed policy or procedure. While the coordinating machinery is slowly grinding away, the original purpose is often lost. The essence of the proposals is being worn down as the persons most concerned impatiently await the decision. The process has been aptly called coordinating to death.
11. A system under which it takes three men to check what one is doing is not control; it is systematic strangulation.
12. A man, by working 24 hours a day, could multiply himself 3 times. To multiply himself more than 3 times the only recourse is to train others to take over some of his work.

The Rickover Effect (1992)Edit

Quotations of Rickover from The Rickover Effect (1992) by Theodore Rockwell, ISBN 1-55750-702-3
  • It is said that a wise man who stands firm is a statesman, and a foolish man who stands firm is a catastrophe.
  • Nothing so sharpens the thought process as writing down one's arguments. Weaknesses overlooked in oral discussion become painfully obvious on the written page.
  • The Quakers have an excellent approach to thinking through difficult problems, where a number of intelligent and responsible people must work together. They meet as equals, and anyone who has an idea speaks up. There are no parliamentary procedures and no coercion from the Chair. They continue the discussion until unanimity is reached. I want you guys to do that. Get in a room with no phones and leave orders that you are not to be disturbed. And sit there until you can deal with each other as individuals, not as spokesmen for either organization.
  • You know that answer to that, don’t you. You don’t need me to tell you.
  • Any one detail, followed through to its source, will usually reveal the general state of readiness of the whole organization.
The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.
  • I believe it is the duty of each of us to act as if the fate of the world depended on him. Admittedly, one man by himself cannot do the job. However, one man can make a difference... We must live for the future of the human race, and not for our own comfort or success.
  • One must create the ability in his staff to generate clear, forceful arguments for opposing viewpoints as well as for their own. Open discussions and disagreements must be encouraged, so that all sides of an issue are fully explored.
  • In greek mythology, Antaeus was a giant who was strong as long as he had contact with the earth. When he was lifted from the earth he lost strength. So it is with engineers. They must not become isolated from the real world...
  • The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.
It is a human inclination to hope things will work out, despite evidence or doubt to the contrary. A successful manager must resist this temptation...
  • As a guide to engineering ethics, I should like to commend to you a liberal adaptation of the injunction contained in the oath of Hippocrates that the professional man do nothing that will harm his client. Since engineering is a profession which affects the material basis of everyone’s life, there is almost always an unconsulted third party involved in any contact between the engineer and those who employ him — and that is the country, the people as a whole. These, too, are the engineer’s clients, albeit involuntarily. Engineering ethics ought therefore to safeguard their interests most carefully. Knowing more about the public effects his work will have, the engineer ought to consider himself an “officer of the court” and keep the general interest always in mind.
  • The man in charge must concern himself with details. If he does not consider them important, neither will his subordinates. Yet “the devil is in the details.” It is hard and monotonous to pay attention to seemingly minor matters. In my work, I probably spend about ninety-nine percent of my time on what others may call petty details. Most managers would rather focus on lofty policy matters. But when the details are ignored, the project fails. No infusion of policy or lofty ideals can then correct the situation.
  • What it takes to do a job will not be learned from management courses. It is principally a matter of experience, the proper attitude, and common sense — none of which can be taught in a classroom... Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done.
  • It is a human inclination to hope things will work out, despite evidence or doubt to the contrary. A successful manager must resist this temptation. This is particularly hard if one has invested much time and energy on a project and thus has come to feel possessive about it. Although it is not easy to admit what a person once thought correct now appears to be wrong, one must discipline himself to face the facts objectively and make the necessary changes — regardless of the consequences to himself. The man in charge must personally set the example in this respect. He must be able, in effect, to "kill his own child" if necessary and must require his subordinates to do likewise.
One must permit his people the freedom to seek added work and greater responsibility...
  • When doing a job — any job — one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in that job forever. He must look after his work just as conscientiously, as though it were his own business and his own money. If he feels he is only a temporary custodian, or that the job is just a stepping stone to a higher position, his actions will not take into account the long-term interests of the organization. His lack of commitment to the present job will be perceived by those who work for him, and they, likewise, will tend not to care. Too many spend their entire working lives looking for the next job. When one feels he owns his present job and acts that way, he need have no concern about his next job.
  • To do a job effectively, one must set priorities. Too many people let their "in" basket set the priorities. On any given day, unimportant but interesting trivia pass through an office; one must not permit these to monopolize his time. The human tendency is to while away time with unimportant matters that do not require mental effort or energy. Since they can be easily resolved, they give a false sense of accomplishment. The manager must exert self-discipline to ensure that his energy is focused where it is truly needed.
Face facts.
  • One must permit his people the freedom to seek added work and greater responsibility. In my organization, there are no formal job descriptions or organization charts. Responsibilities are defined in a general way, so that people are not circumscribed. All are permitted to do as they think best and to go to anyone and anywhere for help. Each person is then limited only by his own ability.
  • As subordinates develop, work should be constantly added so that no one can finish his job. This serves as a prod and a challenge. It brings out their capabilities and frees the manager to assume added responsibilities. As members of the organization become capable of assuming new and more difficult duties, they develop pride in doing the job well. This attitude soon permeates the entire organization.
  • Responsibility is a unique concept... You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you... If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.
Develop the capacity to learn from experience.
  • Rickover management objectives:
  • Require rising standards of adequacy.
  • Be technically self-sufficient.
  • Face facts.
  • Respect even small amounts of radiation.
  • Require adherence to the concept of total responsibility.
  • Develop the capacity to learn from experience.
  • Administration is, or ought to be, a necessary overhead to aid production, and should at all times be kept as low as possible.
  • They all have excellent resumes... So what I’m trying to find out is how they will behave under pressure. Will they lie, or bluff, or panic, or wilt? Or will they continue to function with some modicum of competence and integrity?
    • Discussing his style of interviewing all officers who entered the Naval Reactors program.
  • Everything new endangers something old. A new machine replaces human hands; a new source of power threatens old businesses; a new trade route wipes out the supremacy of old ports and brings prosperity to new ones. This is the price that must be paid for progress and it is worth it.


MisattributedEdit

  • Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.
    • Though Rickover quoted this, he did not claim to be the author of the statement. Using it in "The World of the Uneducated" in The Saturday Evening Post (28 November 1959), he prefaces it with "As the unknown sage puts it..." — It has sometimes been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but without definite citation.
  • You have to learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make them all yourself.

Quotes about RickoverEdit

  • Why not the best?
    • This was the title of a book by Jimmy Carter; though the title was inspired by a job interview Carter had with Rickover, this phrasing was not used by Rickover himself:
I had applied for nuclear submarine program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job... Finally he asked me a question and I thought I could redeem myself. He said, "How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?" ... I swelled my chest with pride and answered, "Sir, I stood 59th in a class of 820!" I sat back to wait for the congratulations — which never came.
Instead the question: "Did you do your best?"
I started to say, "Yes, sir," but I remembered who this was... I finally gulped and said, "No sir, I didn't always do my best." He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget — or to answer. He said, "Why not?"
  • I don't mean to suggest... that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong. But the greatness of the American military service, and particularly the greatness of the Navy, is symbolized in this ceremony today, because this man, who is controversial, this man, who comes up with unorthodox ideas, did not become submerged by the bureaucracy, because once genius is submerged by bureaucracy, a nation is doomed to mediocrity.

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