Imagine you’re a senior officer on a small minesweeper in the US Navy during the Second World War. Your first experience of action is when your ship, the USS Caine, takes part in an attack on an island under Japanese control.
The captain, Philip Queeg, has only recently joined the Caine. On the day before you enter Japanese waters, he delivers an eloquent speech to the officers calling for bravery and the need to set an example to the men.
As you approach the islands, the Japanese shore batteries open fire. The US fleet, including the Caine, returns fire, and the warships, with their big guns, cause havoc on the islands.
But the battle is not entirely one-sided; some of the ships take direct hits, the air is filled with acrid smoke and the noise is deafening.
While all of this is happening, you are on the bridge, and you suddenly realise that Queeg, who should be directing operations, is missing. You then notice that he is constantly moving away from the side of the ship exposed to the shore and its gun batteries.
Watching him closely, you notice he is terrified.
This incident is related in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Caine Mutiny, written by Herman Wouk. Wouk served in the US Navy during the war, and it was there that he saw how heroically men behave under pressure. It was also where he saw some atrocious management decisions, and these he weaves into The Caine Mutiny.
The worst example
Queeg is an amalgam of real-life officers that Wouk knew, and is the worst possible leader and manager imaginable. In civilian life, his staff would have left him as fast as possible, but this is war.
His team members are not employees who can escape his bullying and demeaning style.
They are trapped on the ship, and subject to harsh disciplinary steps, even extending to execution in the most extreme cases.
Here are examples of how Queeg operates:
- He demands courage and punishes people who displays a lack of it, but is himself a coward. He sets an extremely poor example to his crew, and as a result destroys any possibility of gaining respect or loyalty from his men. They do as he orders only to avoid the consequences of punishment.
- If they question or resist his orders, he castigates them and calls them thick-skulled and stupid in front of their colleagues. He threatens to place them on order and issues demerits, which go onto their records.
- He is a bully. He picks on the weakest member of the team time and again, overwhelming him with orders to carry out pointless tasks and deliver meaningless reports.
- He never gives credit to anyone; if he makes a mistake, he is quick to blame others. The word ‘apology’ does not exist in his vocabulary.
- He is the ultimate nit-picking, ‘do-it-by-the-book’ autocrat. Even after the harshest battle conditions imaginable, he insists that his exhausted crew complete their paperwork before anyone can get some desperately needed sleep.
- He has no concept of team-building. All that matters to him is that his men obey his orders, no matter how misguided they might be. The Navy rule book gave him the power and he issues the orders, and no matter how inappropriate, woe betide the crewman or officer who talks back.
Does this look familiar?
In the end, his attitudes and methods catch up with him, hence the name of the book: he faces a mutiny, and he deserves it.
Do you find yourself making some of the same mistakes Queeg makes?
Do you think being a boss means simply bossing everyone around? Do you find yourself responding to questions with “Because I’m the boss”?
If so, beware.
You might not be going to war, but you are nonetheless risking a lot: your employees cannot deliver their best, and your business could be suffering.