Tuesday, May 27, 2014
THOUGHTS ON LEADERSHIP AND COMMAND, FROM TWO WRITERS AND A GENERAL
In my review of The Caine Mutiny, I mentioned that the happy-go-lucky protagonist, Willie, eventually becomes a captain, and apparently a good one, too:
Even at anchor, on an idle, forgotten old ship, Willie experienced the strange sensations of the first days of a new captain: a shrinking of his personal identity, and a stretching out of his nerve ends to all the spaces and machinery of his ship. He developed the apprehensive listening ears of a young mother; the ears listened in on his sleep; he never quite slept, not the way he had before. He had the sense of having been reduced from an individual to a sort of brain of a composite animal, the crew and ship combined.
Achieving this sort of “feel” for an organization is of course far simpler when the organization consists of a fairly small number of people, like the crew of a destroyer-minesweeper or a very-early-stage startup. But it is challenging even in these circumstances, and many leaders of modest-sized organizations never really accomplish “a stretching out of their nerve ends” to all aspects of the organization. When the organization is very large and complex–too many people to ever meet personally, many geographical locations, a range of activities beyond the detailed comprehension of any one human mind–achieving a true sense of what is going on is much harder–it is to a substantial extent a matter of creating effective organization structures, choosing the right subordinate leaders, and establishing measurement and incentive systems which tend toward encouraging useful behavior rather than useless or damaging behavior…in addition to personal attributes such as curiosity, realistic sense of life, and ability to learn and to listen.
Whether the organization be large or small, the leader is far more likely to achieve the kind of depth understanding that Wouk describes if he has a strong sense of personal responsibility and interest in the organization, its people, and its mission. I’m reminded of some thoughts expressed by General William Slim, who commanded British and allied forces in Burma during WWII, following his defeat by the Japanese:
The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing that I had attempted…Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory–for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it. He will go over in his mind the events of the campaign. ‘Here,’ he will think, ‘I went wrong; here I took counsel of my fears when I should have been bold; there I should have waited to gather strength, not struck piecemeal; at such a moment I failed to grasp opportunity when it was presented to me.’ He will remember the soldiers whom he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. he will recall the look in the eyes of men who trusted him. ‘I have failed them,’ he will say to himself, ‘and failed my country!’ He will see himself for what he is–a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn on himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood.
And then he must stop! For, if he is ever to command in battle again, he must shake off these regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off these atacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat–they are more than from victory.
The first paragraph of the above expresses the reaction of the true leader to his organization’s failure. As Antoine de St-Exupery wrote: ”A chief is a man who takes responsibility. He does not say, ‘my men were defeated,’ he says, ‘I was defeated.’”
Can anyone imagine that Barack Obama, confronted with any the failures that have occurred on his watch–Benghazi, the Obamacare roll-out, take your pick–has engaged in the kind of soul-searching that General Slim described?
Indeed, can anyone imagine that Obama has ever seriously felt the burden of his immense responsibility? In The Caine Mutiny, even the snarky and weasley intellectual Tom Keefer feels something of this when he becomes the ship’s captain. As he later explains to Willie:
“I want to tell you something, Willie. I feel more sympathy for Queeg than you ever will, unless you get a command. You can’t understand command till you’ve had it. It’s the loneliest, most oppressive job in the whole world. It’s a nightmare, unless you’re an ox. You’re forever teetering along a tiny path of correct decisions and good luck that meanders through an infinite gloom of possible mistakes. At any moment you can commit a hundred manslaughters.”
Mistakes by an American President can of course result in far worse things than a hundred manslaughters, yet I doubt that Obama has ever risen even to the Keefer level in comprehending the seriousness of his actions.
The problem is not just Obama, although he provides a particularly egregious example of it. I think we are plagued in America today–especially in government, journalism, and the “nonprofit” world, but also to a certain nontrivial degree in business–with people who obtain great power or at least great influence but who utterly lack a concomitant sense of responsibility. And the reason for this, I believe, is very largely the growth of credentialism and its associated sense of entitlement.
When a leader has too much of a sense of entitlement and too little of a sense of responsibility, it is unlikely that he will do the hard, difficult work involved in establishing the “stretching out of nerve ends” required to really understand the organization that he is supposed to be running. Also, the same education that gave him his sense of entitlement also likely gave him a toolkit of abstractions that allow him to think he understands his organization, its environment, and its challenges far better than he actually does.
Monday, May 26, 2014
MEMORIAL DAY 2014
Neptunus Lex, when first posting a link to this music video, remarked:
They all are.
Friday, May 23, 2014
GEOGRAPHY AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Imagine a Republican governor slashed Pennsylvania’s regulations and taxes. Imagine a Republican President and Congress slashed federal regulations and taxes.
Would that do anything to ensure a tech boom in central Pennsylvania?
Why? Go try to convince an Ivy League computer engineer to move to the near suburbs of NYC. No prob. Now try to pitch them on moving 3 hours from NYC to Amish country. Impossible. Charles Murray’s Super Zips win every time.
Put another way: Rand Paul might be able to solicit Silicon Valley donor dollars to Kentucky, but he’ll never export Kentucky values to the Valley.
RTWT, and the comments.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
NAUTICAL BOOK REVIEW: THE CAINE MUTINY
Just about everyone has seen the movie based on this book, featuring Humphrey Bogart’s famous performance as Captain Queeg. The movie is indeed excellent–the book is even better, and contains a lot that is absent from the film. And while the film ends basically after the court-martial scene, the book continue to follow the USS Caine and key characters for the duration of the war. In this review, I won’t worry about spoilers re plot elements that were included in the movie, but will try to minimize them as far as other aspects of the book are concerned. After summarizing the story, I’ll comment on some of the issue raised by the book. (A recent article, referencing The Caine Mutiny, refers to Wouk as “the first neoconservative.”)
Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg, a rigid and insecure man, is appointed during WWII to the command of Caine, a decrepit old destroyer-minesweeper…the ship and its slovenly-appearing crew are described as being part of the ”hoodlum navy.” This is Queeg’s first command, and he is desperately concerned to make it a success, deeply afraid of making a mistake which will lead to his failure. Ironically, it is specifically this fear of failure and perceived need for perfection which is responsible for many, perhaps most, of his troubles. When Caine runs aground the first time Queeg takes her out, he fails to submit the required grounding report for fear of higher authority’s reaction. When the ship cuts her own towline while assigned to target-towing duty, Queeg cannot make up him mind whether or not to attempt recovery of the drifting target–and radios in for instructions. Incidents like these do not inspire confidence in Queeg on the part of his superiors.
The officers and crew of Caine also lose confidence in the captain as his obsessive-compulsive behavior becomes increasingly problematic. As a result of several incidents during combat, there are also concerns about Queeg’s personal courage. While no one aboard Caine likes Queeg once they get to know him, the captain’s most vocal critic is an officer named Thomas Keefer, an intellectual who is an aspiring novelist. Keefer has a cynical attitude toward the Navy, which he refers to as “a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots,” and advises Willie Keith, a young officer who is his subordinate, that “If you’re not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one.”
The ship’s executive officer is Steve Maryk. In civilian life a commercial fisherman, Maryk now hopes to make the Navy his career. Maryk is a fine seaman and a good leader, but not a highly-educated man–he is somewhat in awe of Tom Keefer’s intellectual attainments.
In repeated conversations, Keefer tells Maryk that the captain must be mentally ill, using psychological jargon and concepts that Maryk does not pretend to understand. Maryk is concerned enough about Queeg’s behavior that he begins keeping a “medical log” on Queeg, with the idea of presenting this to higher authority if necessary and possible. The time seems right when Caine shares an anchorage with the battleship carrying Admiral Halsey: Maryk takes his log, takes Keefer in tow, and heads over to the New Jersey to see if they can speak with the Admiral. But Keefer, at the last moment, chickens out, asserting that Halsey, with his experience aboard large well-managed ships, would never be able to understand the state of things aboard a hoodlum-navy ship like Caine, and that raising the issue with him would only get the two of them in trouble. Feeling unable to make the case without support, Maryk gives up on talking to Halsey and the two officers return to Caine.
But soon thereafter, the old ship encounters a typhooon. Fleet course is 180 degrees, due south–away from the wind–and Queeg refuses to adopt the safer course of heading into the wind even though communication with other ships, as well as radar contact, has been lost.
An unbelievably big gray wave loomed on the port side, high over the bridge. It came smashing down. Water spouted into the wheelhouse from the open wing, flooding to Willie’s knees. The water felt surprisingly warm and sticky, like blood. “Sir, we’re shipping water on the goddamn bridge!” said Maryk shrilly. “We’ve got to come around into the wind!”
“Heading 245, sir.” Stilwell’s voice was sobbing. “She ain’t answering to the engines at all, sir!”
The Caine rolled almost completely over on its port side. Everybody in the wheelhouse except Stilwell went sliding across the streaming deck and piled up against the windows. The sea was under their noses, dashing up against the glass. ”Mr Maryk, the light on this gyro just went out!” screamed Stilwell, clinging desperately to the wheel. The wind howled and shrieked in Willie’s ears. He lay on his face on the deck, tumbling around in salt water, flailing for a grip at something solid.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
ANNOUNCING THE NAUTICAL BOOK PROJECT
The Classical Unities are three principles of drama (derived , or perhaps misderived, from Aristotle) which, according to certain Italian and French literary critics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, should govern the construction of any drama. They are:
–unity of action: a single plot line with no sub-plots
–unity of place: the events should be constrained to a single location
–unity of time: the events should be limited to the period of a single day
One of the reasons that nautically-oriented fiction can be so powerful, I think, is that by its nature it often establishes certain unities: the action typically occurs in a single place…albeit a moveable one, the ship…with a consistent cast of characters belonging to that place…and, although unity of time in the strict classical sense of all action occurring within a single day may be rare, another sort of unity of time is often established in that events occur over the course of a single voyage.
I’m launching an ongoing project to post reviews of worthwhile nautical fiction, recent and not-so-recent, well-known and not-so-well-known. All ChicagoBoyz and ChicagoGrrlz authors are invited to participate. Movies may also be included under this review category, as may some nonfiction books, especially personal memoirs.
Books/movies I’m planning to review myself, in the not-too-distant future, include: The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk…TheHornblower series, by C S Forester, and White Jacket, by Herman Melville. Also To the Last Salute, by Captain Georg von Trapp (yes, that Captain von Trapp.)
Other books definitely deserving of reviews as part of this project include the nautical novels of Joseph Conrad, Melville’s Moby Dick and Billy Budd, and Nicholas Montsarrat’s The Cruel Sea.
Please post your suggestions for worthwhile books for this project in comments; also, for Chicago Boyz and Grrlz and anyone else who feels especially motivated, any books you would particularly like to sign up to review. I see this as an ongoing project since the universe of books under this category is vast.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
RERUN: A NEGLECTED BUT SIGNIFICANT ANNIVERSARY
‘When the crocus blossoms,’ hiss the women in Berlin,
‘He will press the button, and the battle will begin.
When the crocus blossoms, up the German knights will go,
And flame and fume and filthiness will terminate the foe…
When the crocus blossoms, not a neutral will remain.’
(A P Herbert, Spring Song, quoted in To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne)
On May 10, 1940, German forces launched an attack against Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Few people among the Allies imagined that France would collapse in only six weeks: Churchill, for example, had a high opinion of the fighting qualities of the French army. But collapse is what happened, of course, and we are still all living with the consequences. General Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young Captain on the French staff, wrote in 1967:
The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.
If it’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. If France had held up to the German assault as effectively as it was expected to do, World War II would probably have never reached the nightmare levels that it in fact did reach. The Hitler regime might well have fallen. The Holocaust would never have happened. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.
This campaign has never received much attention in America; it tends to be regarded as something that happened before the “real” war started. Indeed, many denizens of the Anglosphere seem to believe that the French basically gave up without a fight–which is a considerable exaggeration given the French casualties of around 90,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. But I think the fall of France deserves serious study, and that some of the root causes of the defeat are scarily relevant to today’s world.
First, I will very briefly summarize the campaign from a military standpoint, and will then shift focus to the social and political factors involved in the defeat.
Saturday, May 10, 2014
CORPORATE CULTURE, GEORGE WESTINGHOUSE, AND FORD'S NEW CEO
Bill Waddell writes about a product-quality decision made by Mark Fields, who will shortly become CEO at Ford…and about the reaction of then-and-current CEO Alan Mulally:
Early on his tenure at Ford Mulally implemented a process in a weekly review meeting whereby the execs color coded their status reports – green for those on target, yellow for those running behind and red for any project in serious trouble.
No one had ever brought a red project to the meeting when Fields learned that there was a serious defect in the roll out of the first Edge cars. Customers and dealers were anxiously waiting for the Edge and it was a critical part of Ford’s strategy.
According to “Once Upon a Car” – a great book about the crises in the auto industry when the economic bottom fell out in 2008:
“Fields had two choices, neither one of them good. He could ship the Edges that worked, restart production, and hope the glitch could be found and fixed on the fly. Or he could delay the launch and be the first executive to go into Mulally’s Thursday-morning meeting with a big fat red dot on his weekly progress sheet. He sat down with his team in Dearborn and made the call. “We are not going to ship a vehicle before it is ready,” he said. ‘We just can’t . We have to delay it. I’m going to have to call it a red.’ His staff members looked at him. He could almost feel their pity.
At the next business review, Fields took his seat, right next to Mulally. As luck would have it, he was the first executive to present. His mind raced. I’m going to get killed here , he thought. Then he took a deep breath and showed everyone the launch page with a large red dot on it. ‘The Edge launch is red,’ he said. ‘And we’re delaying it.’
Fields thought he felt people moving their chairs away from the table, away from him. Bringing bad news to senior management at Ford was typically avoided at all costs. Nobody wanted to even be near the culprit. The Thunderbird Room got very quiet. Everyone looked at Mulally, waiting for his reaction. A few seconds passed. Then Mulally turned toward Fields, stood up, and started clapping.
This reminds me of a story about entrepreneur/inventor/industrialist George Westinghouse, which I posted years ago as part of my Leadership Vignettes series, and re-posted more recently:
The date, sometime during the late 1800s. The scene, a Westinghouse Electric factory complex in Pittsburgh, with an unpaved yard between buildings. A young laborer–a recent immigrant–is trundling a wheelbarrow, filled with heavy copper ingots, over an iron slab which serves as a track across the yard. The wheelbarrow goes off the track and into the mud. As the laborer struggles to get it back on the track, other workers begin mocking him.
At that moment, a man in formal clothing is crossing the yard. It is George Westinghouse, founder and chief executive of the company. He wades into the mud and helps the man get the wheelbarrow back on the slab.
Not a word was said, but powerful messages were transmitted: when someone is having problems, you don’t laugh at him–you help him. When things go wrong, no one is too important to dive in and get his hands dirty.
This is a splendid example of how good organizational cultures are created: through the power of example. Think how much more effective Westinghouse’s action was than the mere posting of a “corporate values statement” containing phrases such as “we must respect our fellow employees at all times.” Not that such things lack value, but they are meaningless unless backed up by action.
It would have been very easy for Westinghouse to simply ignore the incident and continue on his way. After all, he was heading to a meeting about something–a multi-million-dollar bond issue, say–compared with which a wheelbarrow stuck in the mud would seem to pale in importance. But his instincts were the right ones.
(The story is from Empires of Light, by Jill Jonnes)
And similarly, Alan Mulally’s action in applauding Mark Fields’ bad news was far more effective than any poster or e-mail tag line to the effect that “transparency is our highest value,” or some such phrase.
Disclosure: I’m a Ford shareholder.
Wednesday, May 07, 2014
LIFE IN THE FULLY POLITICIZED SOCIETY
Many will remember Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech, in which she said:
Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed….You have to stay at the seat at the table of democracy with a man like Barack Obama not just on Tuesday but in a year from now, in four years from now, in eight years from now, you will have to be engaged.
We are going to have to change our conversation; we’re going to have to change our traditions, our history; we’re going to have to move into a different place as a nation.
…which is, of course, entirely consistent with the assertion made by Barack Obama himself, shortly before his first inauguration: ”We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”
It should be clear by now that all aspects of American life and society are rapidly becoming politicized. Obama has greatly accelerated this movement, but he didn’t initiate it. The “progressive” political movement, which now controls the Democratic Party, has for a long time been driving the politicization of anything and everything. The assertion “the personal is political”originated in the late 1960s…and, if the personal is political, then everything is political.
Some people, of course, like the politicization of everything–for some individuals, indeed, their lives would be meaningless without it. In his important memoir of growing up in Germany between the wars, Sebastian Haffner noted divergent reactions from people when the political and economic situation stabilized (temporarily, as we now know) during the Stresemann chancellorship:
The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.
But this return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:
A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.
To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.
I’m afraid we have quite a few people in America today who like having “the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions.” But for most people, especially for creative and emotionally-healthy people, the politicization of everything leads to a dreary and airless existence.
continued at Chicago Boyz
Thursday, May 01, 2014
WHEN FORMALISM KILLS
I’ve read a great deal about the French defeat of 1940, attempting to understand the military, political, and cultural factors behind this debacle. (Some of my conclusions can be found here.) I had not, however, encountered a report Picasso’s response to Matisse, when the latter asked him, “But what about our generals, what are they doing?”
According to this article, Picasso’s response was “Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts!”…ie, men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.
Picasso’s comment is entirely consistent with the observations of Andre Beaufre, in 1940 a young captain on the French staff and after the war a general. When Beaufre was promoted to a staff position…
I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.
I believe that the kind of formalism of which Picasso and Beaufre spoke is becoming increasingly dominant in many spheres of American society (though hopefully not the the degree to which it pervaded the inter-war French military…and that this malign phenomenon is largely a side effect of the higher-education bubble, although it is also being driven to a certain extent by the growth of government and the increasingly-abstract nature of much work.