The Idealcast with Gene Kim by IT Revolution

Leadership Development and Balancing Creativity and Control with Admiral John Richardson

April 1, 2021

In the first episode of Season 2 of The Idealcast, Gene Kim speaks with Admiral John Richardson, who served as Chief of Naval Operations for four years, the top officer in the Navy. Before that, Admiral Richardson served as director of the US Naval Reactors, which is comprehensively responsible for the safe and reliable operation of the US Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion program.


In part one of this two-part conversation, Kim and Admiral Richardson explore how the Department of Defense and the armed services can lead the way to respond effectively to the digital disruption agenda. Admiral Richardson discusses how he operationalized creating a high velocity learning dynamic across the entire US Navy. He also presents his theories on how we need to balance compliance and creativity. And finally, he presents some amazing examples of how to strip away the barnacles from processes, those layers of controls and supervision that may have crept in over the decades.


Also joining the conversation is Dr. Steve Spear, who has written extensively about the US Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program program in his book The High-Velocity Edge.




Admiral John Richardson served as the Chief of Naval Operations for four years, which is the professional head of the US Navy. While in the Navy, Richardson served in the submarine force and commanded the attack submarine USS Honolulu in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for which he was awarded the Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale Inspirational Leadership Award. He also served as the Director of Naval Reactors, responsible for the design, safety, certification, operating standards, material control, maintenance, disposal, and regulatory oversight of over 100 nuclear power plants operating on nuclear-powered warships deployed around the world.


Since his retirement in August 2019, he has joined the boards of several major corporations and other organizations, including Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, and Exelon, a Fortune 100 company that operates the largest fleet of nuclear plants in America and delivers power to over 10 million customers. 


Dr. Steve Spear (DBA MS MS) is principal for HVE LLC, the award-winning author of The High-Velocity Edge, and patent holder for the See to Solve Real Time Alert System. A Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School and a Senior Fellow at the Institute, Dr. Spear’s work focuses on accelerating learning dynamics within organizations so that they know better and faster what to do and how to do it. This has been informed and tested in practice in multiple industries including heavy industry, high tech design, biopharm R&D, healthcare delivery and other social services, US Army rapid equipping, and US Navy readiness.  

Visit Steve Spear's Website



  • Why high-velocity learning was so important to Admiral Richardson when he was the Chief of Naval Operations.
  • How Admiral Richardson operationalized creating a high velocity learning dynamic across the entire US Navy.
  • His views on the need to balance compliance and creativity.
  • Specific advice on what leaders must do when the balance tilts too much toward compliance and has taken away people’s ability to unleash their full creative potential.
  • Examples of how to strip away the barnacles from processes.
  • Why radical delegations are so important.
  • How Admiral Richardson came to believe that creating leadership communities and connections are essential.
  • Where software competencies must show up in modern organizations.






[00:00] Intro

[01:54] Meet Admiral John Richardson

[04:00] Responding effectively to the digital disruption agenda

[07:05] Admiral Richardson in his own words and his Act 2

[08:27] Meet Steve Spear

[09:29] How Steve’s work caught Admiral Richardson’s attention

[11:46] Admiral Richardson’s efforts to create a learning dynamic

[19:18] A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority

[27:01] What he does with leader who’s afraid of the concept

[28:48] Contrasts between learning culture and compliance culture

[37:37] Fingerspitzengefühl

[41:03] Steve’s thoughts on compliance vs creativity

[43:47] Leadership development and compliance control

[48:38] Addressing near misses

[56:29] DevOps Enterprise Summit 2021 in Europe

[57:52] Scar tissue processes

[1:01:22] Finding a balance with leaders

[1:09:43] The story behind general Eisenhower and General Patton

[1:14:02] The three layers of creativity

[1:27:23] How technology changed a sense of community

[1:33:30] Admiral Richardson’s working relationships in the Navy

[1:42:19] Where the software capabilities need to show up

[1:48:02] Navy Leader Development Framework Version 3.0

[1:51:22] Outro

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