A Leadership Lesson from Billy Budd (the Opera)

“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 MelvilleBilly 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 . . .

John R Childress


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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