New Vulnerabilities

Societies change. Sometimes slowly over centuries, sometimes quickly over a period of decades. When we view the net result of the changes favorably, we are apt to it call it progress.

Prior to the Secret Service Director’s resignation over a series of alarming lapses (the events are listed here) I was thinking about a rule I’d first come across reading Charlie Munger. In the U.S. Navy if a ship runs aground, the Captain is dismissed. Period. There are no mitigating factors to consider. It doesn’t matter who was at the helm. This rule can sometimes seem unfair to the dismissed captain, but there is a very good moral reason for it: to protect system integrity. In some situations tolerating some unfairness ensures the promotion of the greater good. In this case the system is protected by ensuring that all captains who make poor decisions are fired. The only way to be 100% sure this happens is to fire all of the captains who run aground. Thus, excellent captains with the best skills are sometimes dismissed to make sure a bad captain doesn’t slip by.

What does this have to do with change and progress? Well, nothing (unless you consider it relevant that the former Director was a woman, which is indicative of changes in the U.S. over the past few decades). But it did get me searching for that Charlie Munger rule. And that led me to this opinion piece by a retired U.S. Navy Captain. In this piece, the captain describes an increase in captain firings and his views on the consequences of a mixed gender navy [emphasis added].

…ship captains get relieved for two primary reasons: operational misconduct and personal misconduct. … Operational misconduct should be thought of as (almost exclusively) collision or grounding… captains have been getting relieved for this sort of misadventure for as long as ships have been at sea… [and is] considered to be the cost of doing business on the high seas… This brings us to “personal misconduct,” and the cause of the dramatic rise in firings in the past decade.

…you cannot put young, healthy men and women into a small box, send them away for extended periods of isolation, and not expect them to interact dynamically…After all, this is the instinctual behavior that has kept our species going for 250,000 years. Greatly compounding this phenomenon is our growing interconnectedness. …with unlimited access resulting from unlimited communications, everybody can know [about on-board activities]. Accusations can be instant and anonymous.

Not only are captains expected, as throughout history, to be excellent in terms of their ability to command a ship, but now they are on the front line of making a fully integrated crew work in seamless, sexless harmony.

Until some sort of equilibrium is reached, our captains will continue to live in positions of exquisite vulnerability. … Rather than be upset, best to simply accept this new reality. …we simply need to accept these firings as a new cost of doing business.

And that is why I emphasized that progress is usually about net result of changes.

I’m sure some readers will reflexively classify the captain’s views as defense of the “boys will be boys and can’t help themselves” attitude. I don’t read it that way. (Perhaps the captain is sexist or has other traits that some readers would find imperfect and intolerable, but this article is all I know of him.)

Instead, I see the captain discussing the net result of changes. Women can serve alongside men in the armed forces. He claims this changes crew dynamics and interactions, which in turn requires new skills for captains. His opinion is that unless those dynamics – some deeply rooted in biology – change, a higher rate of captain firings will continue. Thus, in the world that exists, for some period of time a change in gender opportunity will be accompanied by a change in captain behavior and higher leadership turnover. There is a net, at least for now.

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