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John Boggs on Leadership: The Cain Mutiny — is your ship sinking?

It was a wonderful night.  My wife and I were home alone; any couple with children can happily identify with that sense of limited freedom.   OK, so what are going to do?  Have a great dinner, well not so great since I made the meal, paired  with a good wine, which made the meal seem all the better and topped off with my personal favorite—fudge brownies  with a fattening scoop of double churned vanilla nut ice cream!  Being the ever attentive husband we finish the night with a movie.  Yes, home alone means an uninterrupted movie.  It had to be a good one.  The selection was a “Chick-flick” yes, why not–“The Cain Mutiny” a perfect choice.  What woman can resist Humphrey Bogart and Van Johnson, certainly not many?  Thankfully, my wife is a good sport.

As we watched the movie, I was amazed at the number of leadership lessons that one could take away from the film.  Ostensibly, this is a movie about a U.S. Navy ship’s Captain, LtCmdr Philip Queeg (played by Humphrey Bogart), who shows signs of mental instability and jeopardizes the ships reputation and eventually it’s very survival.  If you have not seen the movie, take the time to see it.  If you are occupying a leadership position at your place of work, or aspire too in the future, this movie will be instructive. I submit to you there is one glaring leadership failure on the part of LtCmdr Queeg that any of us in a leadership position can make and many do make on a regular basis.  Had he not made this mistake there probably would not have been a movie worth watching.  What is it?  TRUST.

He failed at building a trusting relationship with his subordinates.

OK, HOLD IT!  I can hear many of you that have seen the movie disagreeing with me.   You are probably saying that LtCmdr Queeg was clearly suffering from some sort of mental illness.  He was totally unfit to command the ship and the executive officer (played by Van Johnson), did what he had to do in order to save the ship–good movie, end of story, right?  Wrong.

Let’s set the stage.  First, it is important to note that this is a mythical story.  There has never been a mutiny on a U.S. Navy ship—never.  The leadership training and development of Naval Officers is first rate.  The screening for command of a Navy Vessel is rigorous and thorough, a process any board of directors selecting their next CEO would envy.

The story—the time period is set at the height of World War II.  The place is the Pacific Ocean Theater of War.  The U.S.S. Cain, a mine sweeper, is a tired ship.  It had been in continuous action along with the fleet yet the crew did not have a sense of pride for their accomplishments.  It is clear that serving on a mine sweeper is not considered sexy or first rate.  No, the first in class, sexy ships are the destroyers, battleships and of course the emerging best in class—air craft carriers.  The outgoing ship’s captain validated for us, the viewers, that the mid-level and junior officers of the ship indeed viewed their service on the ship as unimportant.  They viewed themselves as being relegated to second class citizenry as a result of having to serve on a second class ship.  The everyday sailor reflected the leadership’s attitude in their daily activities from slovenly appearance to halfhearted efforts at doing their jobs.

In comes our main character and valuable leadership lesson icon, LtCmdr Queeg.  He is coming in as the new ship’s captain.  He is coming from the Atlantic Theater of War.  He is experienced.  He has served on a sexy ship, a destroyer that had been in action in the thick of it.  Undeniably, Queeg is qualified to command the Cain.

LtCmdr Queeg came into the job and quickly established a vision for the ship and its crew; a vision his officers could all agree with—to become the best ship in the fleet.  Immediately things went wrong for our captain. His methodology of becoming the best ship “…things can be done four ways: the right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and my way.”  This “my way” mindset unfolded by Queeg led him to discount any and all advice offered by his officers as well as belittling their efforts in carrying out their daily duties. He paid personal attention to the minutia of un-tucked shirts, while paying little attention to the greater issue of setting the course and direction of the ship.  He paid personal attention to missing strawberries displaying his prowess for investigating the inconsequential; while paying little attention to the greater issue of displaying sound judgment; something required of all effective leaders.  In the end our hero, Queeg, proved to be lacking in a critical area of executive leadership– decisiveness in the face of crisis. The Cain caught perilously in a typhoon with its very survival hanging in the balance, required quick and decisive action on the part of its captain to survive the battering winds and heavy seas of the typhoon. This seeming lack of decisive action led to the mutinous behavior of the ship’s executive officer, taking command away from the captain in order to navigate the ship to safety.

Our star example of leadership gone awry, LtCmdr Queeg came into his organization as any good CEO in any industry would.  He quickly assessed the condition of the ship and its crew.  He articulated a clear vision for the ship’s future—“…best ship in the fleet.”  He articulated a strategy—“…my way.”  Queeg failed to incorporate any of his subordinate leadership in either establishing a vision, albeit one was articulated that could not be questioned, or a strategy.  He micromanaged his subordinate leaders and publicly chastised them as well as his crew; the end result—loss of trust by the subordinate leadership and mutinous behavior in time of the ship’s greatest need for cooperative behavior.  When Queeg needed to capitalize on and leverage the talents of his subordinate leaders he simple could not.  His inability to trust in his subordinate leadership led to their inability to trust in him.  In the face of crisis there was no trust in the one ultimately responsible to be effective in bringing the ship and its crew to safety.

Great story, so what?  It is just a movie; these things don’t happen in real life.

OK, what would you make of this–a recent CEO of a fortune 500 search engine company was recently, and quite unceremoniously, fired by her board of directors.  Of the reasons cited in popular news articles was her inability to provide a clear strategy and the lack of being able to leverage the talent of her mid-level leadership.  It was further sited that much of her mid-level management left the company.  It is not news to say that people don’t leave their jobs; they leave their bosses, the civilian version of a mutiny.  That company remains in the news today, with questions about its very survival.

Leadership is a soft skill that in many instances its finer points are treated as superfluous. Taking the time to establish trust with your mid-level leaders; to ensure they understand the vision and strategy of the organization is paramount to continued success in the worst of times.  It is a simple law of nature that what goes up must come down.  Every organization in every industry, non-profit, for profit, education, health care, government, etc. experiences this undeniable law.  How the downs or storms are weathered can directly be attributed to the ability of the organization to leverage the talents of its subordinate leadership. In guiding Chrysler through its turbulent period Lee Iacocca once said that “Management is nothing more than motivating other people.” He paid close attention to the finer points of leadership.  He leveraged the talent he had at Chrysler, and guided the organization through the storm.

LtCmdr Queeg was qualified to command his ship.  When he needed the full talents of his leadership to pull together in one effort at a critical point in time; to counterbalance his short comings for the sake of the ships very survival, what he received was mutiny.  As you lead your organization, department, school, hospital, or whatever you lead when your storm comes, and it will, what will your mid-level leadership do?

Fortitude Consulting is in the business of Executive leadership and Strategy working with leaders to leverage talent to dramatically improve performance and rapidly exceed goals.