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The Unselfish Captain

November 26, 2009

It’s the kind of story that’s not very funny, but everybody laughed when they heard about it. Fortunately there was a happy ending.

“Captain Accused of Leaving Passengers on Sinking Ship” read the headline. It was a story so absurd that it caught everyone’s attention.

Could it really have been true? The captain and his senior officers commandeering the ship’s only two motorized life boats and making a quick get away from a sinking ship. Those that had counted on their leadership were left behind to fend for themselves.

There was no need for a metaphor, this was the real thing. Captain abandons ship in time of crisis, saves self while leaving others in peril. A story so shocking that it offended everyone’s sensibilities.

Had you ever heard such a story? Unfortunately it happens all too frequently, just not as dramatically.

The same morning papers that featured the story of the “Fleet Footed Captain” contained several other stories involving several “Captains of Industry”.

There was the story about the executives of Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company. It seems the board of directors approved a $3.5 million dollar severance package for certain executives several days before the once proud insurance giant was seized by State regulators. While the fates of the policy holders and employees were left in doubt, these “Captains of Industry” scurried for the life boats under the cover of darkness.

Then there’s the ever present figure of the nattily attired Charles Keating of savings and loan fame. Now penniless, he claims, just like the thousands that entrusted their savings to his failed institution. When not in court however, he leads a jet-set life style supported by what he alleges to be generous family and friends. It just so happens that these generous benefactors were once on the payroll of his failed savings and loan. I wonder whose money got into the lifeboats first when this ship headed down.

In the same edition of the Wall Street Journal that ridiculed the captain of the sinking ship, there was a story in which IBM employees were complaining about their CEO’s 35% pay increase at a time when many other employees hadn’t had a raise in over a year. Which direction is this ship heading?

As the “Captains of Industry” faced trouble waters on this day, their actions all too closely resembled those of the fleet footed Capt. Avranas off the coast of South Africa. There’s always an explanation of course, but the relationship of the Captain and the crew are never quite the same.

Capt. Avranus said, “When I order abandon ship, it doesn’t matter what time I leave. Abandon ship is for everybody. If some like to stay, they can stay.”

I’ve never known anyone that has wanted to remain on a sinking ship, but most employees don’t have the choice or the information on which to plan an early exit. An employee looks to his boss, as the captain of the ship, for leadership. It’s a special relationship built on trust. We expect more, and generally get more, from our Captains than a race to the life boats.

That same day’s paper contained a two sentence article on another company’s efforts to cut back in the face of a troubled economy. The article read, “the temporary salary reductions amount to 3% for clerical, secretarial, and technical employees; 5% for senior professionals and managers; 8% for general managers and directors; and 10% for officers.”

It sounds to me like this ship has a captain intent on weathering the troubled seas. An effective leader doesn’t feather his nest and then leave what’s left for the rest.

Unselfishness is expected and admired in leaders on the high seas and in higher management. There are privileges that go with positions of responsibility, but they shouldn’t be enjoyed during periods of hardship at the expense of others. Enjoy them when the time is right, but until then, let them be.

The price of leadership is the willingness to bear the hardships that you expect others to endure.

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