May 23, 2024
War Room has asked the question before "What's the best movie to teach leadership?" Everyone has their favorite. Todd Moulton is back with an outstanding example in Crimson Tide. Released in 1995, the movie pits a submarine commander, CAPT Ramsey against his executive officer, LCDR Hunter, in a tense standoff over the launch of the ship's nuclear weapons. It's a fast-paced thriller that Todd holds up as a stellar example of toxic leadership. The sub commander, played by Gene Hackman, demonstrates an inability to adapt to changing situations, failing to apply critical thinking and an over-reliance on intuition. All of this combined creates a toxic environment that comes to a head at the worst time and nearly starts a nuclear war. Sadly supported by real world headlines of relieved leaders that demonstrate some of CAPT Ramsey's worst leadership traits, Crimson Tide is a fantastic study of what not to do.

Military service members typically receive training on leadership theories and techniques, but there is little teaching on identifying non-adaptive leadership.

The recent rash of United States’ military leaders relieved from their positions demonstrates that the organization sometimes misidentifies quality individuals to lead. These miscues transpire for various reasons, but military professions must attempt to recognize traits not conducive to leadership and remove these personnel from the service. Military service members typically receive training on leadership theories and techniques, but there is little teaching on identifying non-adaptive leadership.

Enter Hollywood. Crimson Tide is a quintessential military movie: fast paced, dramatic, and filled with quotable dialogue. The movie focuses on the USS Alabama’s commander, who faces a decision whether or not to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike based on incomplete information. The movie centers on the power struggle between Captain Frank Ramsey, the USS Alabama’s command officer (CO), portrayed by Gene Hackman, and his executive officer (XO), Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter, portrayed by Denzel Washington. The USS Alabama receives a National Command Authority (NCA) message authorizing the submarine to launch its nuclear missiles after Russian separatists gain access to nuclear weapons and begin to fuel the missiles. However, as the submarine maneuvers into position to launch, the crew receives a second message, interrupted by a communications malfunction, which potentially tells the submarine to stand down. The two main characters verbally and physically challenge each other on their respective authorities to launch a pre-emptive strike under the NCA’s first message. As the USS Alabama’s CO, Captain Ramsey has the appropriate authorities to launch nuclear missiles, once the captain received an authenticated NCA message. However, as a safeguard against accidental launches, two senior officers must retrieve keys from a safe to launch the missiles. The XO is a more cautious individual and wishes to see the full second message and validate the need for a launch, leading him to non-concur with the CO and mutiny to prevent the CO from firing the nuclear missiles. Even though the movie exaggerates the leadership conflicts, the motion picture is an appropriate learning tool to demonstrate advantages and detractions on certain leadership types.

Crimson Tide offers an examination of various leadership styles which exist in every military. It is true that the movie injects a healthy dose of drama into leadership situations and disagreements to convey a better story. However, Crimson Tide provides a visual depiction of leadership conflict and resolution that individuals would not as easily digest by reading a historical book on leadership toxicity or watching a military documentary, such as the 2008 documentary series Carrier showing real life on board the USS Nimitz. Moreover, studies find that 65 percent of the general population are optical learners, justifying the utilization of a movie to teach about leadership attributes. Crimson Tide displays exemplary and poor leadership traits in an over-the-top manner, which in reality are often subtle and sometimes difficult to identify leading to latent toxic environments. In combination with military leadership doctrine, Crimson Tide is an ancillary aid to present leadership in action.

The services have their respective leadership doctrines, which discuss the qualities leaders should possess. The singular attribute crosscutting the disparate publications is the need for leaders to have humility and encourage feedback. The U.S. Army doctrine publication (ADP) 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession encapsulates this succinctly, “A leader with the right level of humility is a willing learner, maintains accurate self-awareness, and seeks out others’ input and feedback.” Even with leadership doctrine and the varying leadership training, instances of military leaders’ inability to escape their mental rigidity and entertain and accept contrarian information remain rampant in the services. Two recent and high-profile examples include former Air Force general officers, Major General Dawn Dunlop and Brigadier General Jennifer Grant. The inspector general cited environments where these general officers belittled their subordinates and did not listen to feedback. Instead, Maj Gen Dunlop and Brig Gen Grant created an atmosphere where those underneath them were terrified to give the generals any bad news. According to their biographies, the generals attended several civilian and military leadership courses, yet their actions did not reflect this training.     

Captain Frank Ramsey is the USS Alabama’s captain selected by the U.S. Navy due to his combat experience and decisive nature. However, many of Ramsey’s leadership attributes are also rigid and divisive, causing a dangerous and mutinous environment. Crimson Tide presents an opportunity to dissect Captain Ramsey’s character and identify leadership traits, which are not advantageous to building cohesion and educate military personnel to challenge such understated stagnant behaviors and build environments favorable to personal and professional growth.

Factors that Empowered and Constrained Captain Ramsey

Captain Frank Ramsey possessed multiple elements that empowered him as a leader on the submarine. Captain Ramsey derived his authority from the hierarchical mission command structure that anointed him as the boat’s commander. If he ordered anyone on the vessel to conduct a moral, ethical, and legal act, they were required to follow his command. This permitted him a wide range of power within the submarine’s confines. Captain Ramsey also had a solid sense of himself, which culminated in a high level of self-confidence that affected every decision he made during the underway period and resonated with some of the officers. His “battle wisdom” previously served him well during combat operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf Wars, thus encouraging him to make quick and decisive actions during the Russian crisis.

Captain Ramsey also displayed psychological hardiness throughout the patrol by remaining calm during stressful events, which enabled him to make critical choices with little input from his crew. He predicted his decisions on Navy doctrine, submarine tactics, techniques, and procedures, and his previous experience, which made it difficult for his crew to question his judgment. The NCA’s unambiguous objective to launch nuclear weapons against Russian rebels if this group began to fuel their own weapons of mass destruction enabled Captain Ramsey to swiftly make decisions. Captain Ramsey’s focused efforts on meeting this goal, his commanding presence, and the perceived notion that Russian rebels launched a nuclear strike against the United States inspired some crewmembers to join him in his mutiny against LCDR Hunter, the XO. While Captain Ramsey was a capable leader, especially in clearly defined situations, he encountered numerous constraints during a fluid crisis, which negated his limited critical thinking capacity. 

Internal and external factors constrained Captain Ramsey’s leadership during the crisis with the Russian rebels. Captain Ramsey’s inability to realize that his autocratic personality was not conducive to the fluctuating environment surrounding him was the foundational constraint that hampered his leadership. Captain Ramsey’s overconfidence in his leadership style and resistance to change resulted from the culmination of his “successful” thirty-year career and idolized status within the submarine community. His arrogant leadership manner fostered a centralized and un-collaborative atmosphere, which began to erode LCDR Hunter’s trust in Ramsey’s decision-making and resulted in the XO’s assumption of command. Additionally, Captain Ramsey’s unwillingness to establish a coalition style leadership setting amongst his officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and include them in any decision-making process made some within in this cadre question his judgment when LCDR Hunter challenged Ramsey’s orders to launch the submarine’s nuclear missiles.

Another element that inhibited Captain Ramsey was his failure to break away from his cognitive biases, especially his confirmation bias. He actively dismissed information that weakened his illusory correlation between the events in eastern Russia and the need for the submarine to launch nuclear weapons. Instead, he rooted his decisions in inflexible doctrine and did not question his intuition, even though LCDR Hunter offered a valid contradicting viewpoint. The limitations on Captain Ramsey’s leadership demonstrate that he was not a critical thinker. Captain Ramsey did not apply mental agility, creativity, or adaptability in analyzing the enemy or situation around him, thus guiding the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Sean McBride, a South Korean based battalion commander, displayed an abrasive leadership style akin to Captain Ramsey’s rigid nature. The army relieved Lt. Col McBride due to his erratic behavior, a lack of guidance, direction, or communication to his subordinates and the battalion’s non-collaborative environment. Moreover, the army report cited LTC McBride’s “old school” leadership traits as contributing to negative and stressful working conditions. These “old school” leadership techniques were caustic and led to a toxic environment, where his personnel did not want to engage with him or his leadership much like Captain Ramsey and the USS Alabama’s crew.

Captain Ramsey’s fixation on faithfully following higher-level orders set an example for his crew to blindly follow authority and not question one’s superiors, leading to the dangerous possibility of groupthink.

Captain Ramsey’s Ability to Lead an Environment of Change

Captain Ramsey never led an environment of change, and his actions reinforced a static way of thinking amongst the submarine’s crew that nearly resulted in a nuclear holocaust. He did not attempt to adapt his leadership behavior to the evolving crisis. Instead, he relied on previous experiences to guide his decision-making process and maintained his autocratic leadership style. Captain Ramsey was highly visible to crew, but he reinforced a non-collaborative environment that centered on a centralized chain of command that did not invite criticism from his subordinates. He viewed any dissention from his crew as an affront to his judgment and capabilities, thus demonstrating himself to be a “lone ranger”, who thought he was always right. Captain Ramsey did not possess social competency beyond a superficial level. He held conversations with his men, but his interpersonal skills were lacking and he rarely tried to get to know his men, exasperating the atmosphere of autocracy he created. Captain Ramsey’s fixation on faithfully following higher-level orders set an example for his crew to blindly follow authority and not question one’s superiors, leading to the dangerous possibility of groupthink. His outright rejection of possible conflicting information from LCDR Hunter regarding the outcome of the Russian rebellion, displayed Ramsey’s unwillingness to deviate from his antiquated Cold War mentality and a lack of critical thinking.   

Captain Ramsey demonstrated his capacity to be a great submarine tactician and handled his day-to-day job well, but he failed to lead change within his command by not developing his subordinates. Ramsey should have been the individual stepping out and driving change, but instead he was a transactional leader whose focus was carrying out the mission with little regard for the development of his crew’s capabilities. Captain Ramsey did not think his responsibility was to cultivate and unleash the younger talent that surrounded him to attain the collective goal of making the submarine a more effective and efficient war machine. His refusal to delegate any decision down to his crew, even to the executive officer, illustrated Ramsey’s aversion to the smallest amount of change. Captain Ramsey’s lack of critical thinking, adaptability, and desire to train and enhance his men’s aptitude resulted in an atmosphere void of transformational ideas that almost culminated in an accidental nuclear first strike.

Lieutenant Colonel Armando Gonzalez, United States Marine Corps (USMC) is a less dramatic example of Captain Ramsey’s aforementioned characteristics. Lt Col Gonzalez was the Marine Corps squadron CO in Yuma, Arizona in 2016, who the USMC relieved of command for creating a toxic work environment and making racial and gender specific slurs against particular groups. Yet, his superiors commented on his leadership and ethics and viewed him as an ideal Marine, much like the navy viewed Captain Ramsey. Lt. Col. Gonzalez’s subordinates attempted to discuss the deteriorating working atmosphere, yet the staff was unsuccessful in changing the CO’s demeanor. Rather than developing his personnel and evolving the command’s transformation, LtCol Gonzalez fomented malignant conditions for the people the USMC entrusted him with.         

Captain Ramsey’s critical thinking and decision-making skills

Captain Ramsey rarely displayed any critical thinking capacity throughout the Russian crisis and demonstrated that he was unable to employ the reflection-in-action approach to ascertain if he was making the right decisions in an uncertain environment. Upon receiving the NCA message to launch a nuclear strike against the Russian rebels, Captain Ramsey’s thought process automatically locked him into step-by-step execution procedures to release the weapons. These procedures, based on inflexible Navy doctrine, offered Ramsey little room to critically think about his quickly changing situation and anchored him into employing heuristics he developed over his career. Captain Ramsey immediately rejected the possibility that the NCA’s second message was an order ceasing the nuclear strike due to his unwillingness to remain open to new information that contradicted his biases and intuition. The availability heuristic and the retrievability and hindsight bias clouded his thinking and judgments. Captain Ramsey mentally referenced his combat experience in Panama and the Persian Gulf War and Soviet Union doctrine when engaging the Russian rebels. His poor self-awareness was due to his previous successes during these two wars and alludes to why he did not learn during the crisis. He used these events as a basis for his decision-making, even though the situation and tactics employed by the rebels were completely different from anything he witnessed in his past. The culmination of his biases and reliance on intuition resulted in Ramsey’s flawed choices and his removal by LCDR Hunter.

Additionally, he did not attempt to understand the evolving episode or consider the subsequent effects his actions would have on the world. Captain Ramsey demonstrated that he was incapable or unwilling to learn how to critically think when LCDR Hunter attempted to explain to him that even if the USS Alabama did not fire its missile, another submarine would hit the intended target, thus giving Ramsey the latitude to wait for the second message. If Captain Ramsey had hesitated and waited for the second message, it would have gone against the military’s nature to avoid “reframing” operational logic during a campaign and carrying out orders as issued, especially in a time of war. He wedded himself to the hierarchical military structure and obeyed his orders without considering contradictory perspectives. Captain Ramsey also relied on his intuition, which was flawed, making his actions dangerous. He never questioned whether his mental models were applicable to the crisis, which Ramsey should have done before making the decision to fire the missiles. Even as more information became available to him, which showed that nuclear war was possibly avoidable, his intuition told him that he was right in his decisions and that he needed to continue to complete the mission.

The navy relieved Commander Jesus Cordero, the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station Sicily in 2018. According to official reports, Commander Cordero created a “shaky” work atmosphere where the CO could “freak out” at any moment. Moreover, Commander Cordero never wanted to hear how his predecessor did things and was adamant that his methods were the correct way. His subordinates were reluctant to relay him bad news in fear of the commander’s reaction. Commander Cordero seemed to rely on his intuition and continue to employ leadership traits and decision-making that had gotten him to a command position, which mimicked Captain Ramsey’s style. Commander Cordero did not seem to want to entertain feedback from his command and try to improve how he conducted himself and ran his command.


From the U.S. military’s perspective, Captain Frank Ramsey was a model officer. He performed well in combat situations through confident decision-making and his officer corps held him in high esteem. Yet, internally to the submarine, Captain Ramsey was an apathetic leader, whose attention for his own persona often eclipsed his care for his personnel. This mindset created an environment often bordering on toxicity. Moreover, Captain Ramsey’s arrogance allowed little room for outside inputs, dangerously narrowing his rationale. Captain Ramsey also heavily relied on his experiences to inform his judgements, impairing his critical thinking capacity. Although Hollywood movies overly dramatize events, Crimson Tide provides an excellent character in Captain Ramsey to study and recognize leadership traits to not emulate, oppose, and attrite to ensure military personnel have atmospheres to cultivate comradery and their professional and personal capabilities.    

Lieutenant Commander Todd Moulton is in the U.S. Navy and is the officer in charge at Joint Reserve Intelligence Center near Detroit, Michigan. He is also an Information Warfare (IW) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). He is a graduate of the Air University, National Intelligence University, Seton Hall University, and University of Michigan.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: The ballistic missile submarine USS Alabama (SSBN 731) moors at the Marginal Pier at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor after a strategic deterrent patrol.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Ray Narimatsu/Released

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