’Everyone is a leader at some level,’ retired Rear Admiral Tom Kearney tells Picatinny audience

By Eric KowalJuly 11, 2023

Rear Adm. (Ret) Tom Kearney visited Picatinny Arsenal on June 27 to speak to installation employees about his varied experience that began by enlisting in the U.S. Navy as a Seaman Recruit to being commissioned as an officer.
Rear Adm. (Ret) Tom Kearney visited Picatinny Arsenal on June 27 to speak to installation employees about his varied experience that began by enlisting in the U.S. Navy as a Seaman Recruit to being commissioned as an officer. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Todd Mozes) VIEW ORIGINAL

PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. - Rear Adm. (Ret) Tom Kearney visited Picatinny Arsenal on June 27 to speak to installation employees about his varied experience that began by enlisting in the U.S. Navy as a Seaman Recruit to being commissioned as an officer.

Kearny also described how he served as Vice Commander of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), the role of submarines in the Navy, his experience setting a submarine record, handling an emergency at sea, and leadership principles.

The presentation, held in the Lindner Conference Center, was part of the U.S. Army garrison Picatinny Arsenal’s continued leadership speaker series.

While the majority of the Picatinny workforce consists of Department of the Army civilians, Kearney’s comparison to nautical missions was well received and attended by many Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) who work on post.

“The submarine really is like a microcosm of a city, much like here at Picatinny,” Kearney said. “The way an organization works, from a leadership perspective, really is the same. I have spent a lot of time driving nuclear submarines and doing highly classified, national-level missions which are unique, but the leadership principles are not.”

The admiral noted that no matter if you are driving a nuclear submarine or working at the lowest level of an organization, a problem is a problem, and arriving at resolution is a process.

“Today there are about 8 billion people on the planet,” Kearney said. “The numbers may vary a little bit, but most people would agree that the maximum number of people ever on the planet was about 100 billion. When you take all the DNA combinations that humans have in us, the different combinations that are possible are more than seven trillion. So, there is not a single person on the planet, today or ever, or most likely ever will be, the same.

“When you as a leader are faced with a challenge, if someone is coming to you with a question or an issue, we need to understand that that person is coming to us with a unique situation that has never been seen before. There may be similarities, but every aspect of what that person is bringing to the table for you to help them resolve is completely unique and never seen before. That is why I think the value of continued leadership training is important.”

Kearney grew up in nearby Mine Hill, New Jersey, and enlisted in the Navy in 1978. He was commissioned via the Villanova University Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps program in 1984 with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. Additionally, he holds a master’s degree in political science (international relations) from Villanova University and is certified as a level III program manager by the Defense Acquisition University.

He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2016 after serving for over 34 years, spending 22 years in the operational Submarine Force and 12 years directing acquisition programs at the Naval Sea Systems Command.

During his first 22 years in the Navy, Kearney rose to the level of Commanding Officer of two nuclear submarines, and although the exact time is classified, the rear admiral’s unit accomplished the fastest under sea crossing of the Arctic, a record to this day.

Kearney commanded the USS Alexandria (SSN 757) from June 2003 to December 2005. During this period, his ship was awarded the Battle Effectiveness Award for operational excellence; was runner up for the prestigious Battenberg Cup Award for top ship in the Atlantic Fleet; and received the Navy Unit Commendation for operations conducted during the first around the world deployment via the Arctic by a U.S. submarine.

“There are two things I think that a leader needs to do,” Kearney said as he reflected on his career. “One, is set the tone for the organization that you are leading, both the internal and external interactions, and then two, remove the obstacles in the way of your people doing their job.

“Remove is an active verb. You need to not only identify obstacles but remove those obstacles. An active leader needs to be out looking for those types of problems and then solving them.”

The admiral discussed how even the smallest problem such as room temperature can throw an organization off. If one individual is uncomfortable it can disrupt the battle rhythm and ultimately cause disruption among the ranks.

“Some of the more junior individuals may feel that they are not impactful or that they are of great value to the organization,” Kearney said, observing that their issues may not be heard by those at the top of the organization.

“Their inability to perform at a higher level is because of their belief that they are not needed at a higher level. You as a leader need to kind of get down on the ground with those individuals and make sure that they understand the importance of their job to the overall mission and organization.”

Today Kearney is an independent consultant advising and supporting more than a dozen large and small defense related businesses including five Fortune 100 Companies. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Naval Surface Technology Innovation Consortium, which supports research, development, testing, and integration of complex naval warfare systems across a broad range of technology areas and disciplines. As the Executive Director, Kearney serves as the principle point of contact for the 900+ NSTIC consortium members and all associated government departments and agencies.

Following his at-sea assignments he became a Navy Acquisition Professional and directed a variety of Navy Acquisition programs, leading more than 500 personnel and managing annual budgets of more than $1 billion with several years of Foreign Military Sales expertise. Upon selection to Rear Admiral, he served as the Vice Commander (Chief Operating Officer) of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), a $30 billion a year and 50,000-person organization responsible for the design, procurement, and support of all US Navy ships, submarines, and aircraft carriers.

“I contend that everyone is a leader at some level,” said in closing remarks.  “Even the most junior person that shows up to your ship, your platoon, your garrison, your office, whatever it is, that person is going to be the reference source for the very next person that comes in. They are going to ask, ‘How do we fill out this form? How do we do this?’ That person is going to be leading them and you need to recognize that and ensure that you bring leadership training to the entire organization, not just the top levels. Everyone is a leader. I’ll say that again, everyone is a leader even when not asking for that position or title specifically.”

As a longtime friend of the Admiral, Kathy Ferguson, a plans specialist in the garrison’s Plans, Analysis, and Integration Office planned and coordinated Kearney’s presentation as part of the garrison’s leadership speaker series, an integral part of U.S. Army Installation Management Command's (IMCOM) Service Culture Campaign (SCC).

“There are individuals, like Kathy, who are working on their own to bring these guest speakers in, taking the initiative to brief senior leadership, and it is a testament of their character and the importance of this leadership series,” said Lt. Col. Alexander D. Burgos, Picatinny Arsenal garrison commander.

The leadership speaker series will continue throughout the year. Notification of upcoming events will be sent to the Picatinny Arsenal workforce via email.