“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.”
― Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor
Last evening we went to see the English National Opera‘s production of Billy Budd, written by Benjamin Britten and first performed in 1951. My daughter, Stephanie is an opera fanatic and was privileged to sit through several of the rehearsals prior to the opening.
I had just flown in from the US that day and was expecting to spend most of the three hours napping. However, I was truly captivated (although I did receive one or two nudges from Stephanie in the second act). While the staging was modern and stark and the songs less than memorable, there was a profound leadership lesson contained in the story.
Originally written as a novel by Herman Melville (of Moby Dick fame), the story features a handsome young sailor, Billy Budd, pressed into service on the British warship, Indomitable in 1796. Billy is wrongly accused by the Master of Arms of talking mutiny, even though Captain Vere knows he is innocent and that the Master of Arms has a vendetta against the young man. Through a cruel twist of fate, Billy, who is a stammerer, cannot verbally defend himself against the accusations and out of frustration strikes the Master of Arms, who falls, hits his head and dies in front of the Captain. Wrongly accused of mutiny, but guilty of striking a superior officer. A very crappy situation.
Now comes the interesting and profound leadership lesson. What should the Captain do?
Never let the rules rule out common sense!
Leaders must constantly walk the fine lines between the law, common sense and the greater good. In this case, the law was clear. The penalty for striking a superior officer is death by hanging. Common sense says that Mr. Claggart, the Master of Arms, provoked the situation and was definitely lying about the crime. In this case, the Captain believed that discipline aboard a fighting vessel, with enemy French ships recently sighted, was the greater good. He ordered Billy Budd hanged the next day.
For those of us who understand the power of corporate culture, there is an equally powerful culture aboard a warship that pertains to the beliefs and collective spirit of the fighting men. In this case, the Captain, totally out of touch with the feelings of the men, misjudged the culture, believing discipline was the most important ingredient on board the warship. When Billy was hanged the crew revolted, having to be quelled by the officers and Marines on board. As a result respect for the Captain and trust in authority was severely damaged. Captain Vere was forever haunted by his lack of leadership courage during that fateful event. Good stuff for an opera, but even more enlightening when we look at the situation through the lens of leadership.
Managers do things right; leaders do the right thing! ~Peter Drucker
Tight Lines . . .