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.
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.