Thursday, August 1, 2013

Rise to the Occasion?

There is a saying that people are fond of, and it is almost totally false: ‘Rise to the Occasion.’  The truth is, with very few exceptions, people don’t rise to the occasion, they fall back to the occasion, in the sense that when things become tense and difficult they will fall back on their training and mental and physical conditioning, on what they have learned and how they have been taught to act.  Even in the event of a single individual who acts with great courage under extreme circumstances, the odds are that there was some training, some conditioning that took place that led him to be that way.  Whether from his parents or a teacher or a coach, someone planted and nurtured a seed that had matured and was present when he stumbled into what Teddy Roosevelt called ‘his crowded hour.’  This is particularly true among groups.  Thus, when Marines hear gunfire and immediately head towards the firefight it is because that is the sum-total of their training.  And it is a testimony to their leaders who have instilled this response – particularly in a group where the fear of one individual can engender nearly universal panic.

And so, when you see groups of men acting heroically, it is well to take note, and ask yourself some questions on the leadership that produced such men. 

All of which came to mind the other day – July 30th – the 68th anniversary of one of the great tragedies in the history of the US Navy.

For most of America it is an event that they know of only because of that greatest of all summer movies: “Jaws” and the character Quint (played by the inestimable Robert Shaw) who recounts the story – a true story that fit well into the movie - behind one scar on his arm, one that he got from removing a tattoo.

The Tattoo in question was the USS INDIANAPOLIS, a heavy cruiser built in the 1930s and which served as flagship for Admiral Spruance through much of World War II.  In the spring of 1945 it went back to California for some repairs, and then carried to Tinian key components of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.  On July 30th, shortly after midnight INDIANAPOLIS was torpedoed and sank in less than 20 minutes, probably less than 10, though exact numbers are obviously hard to come by.

Of the 1196 men onboard, between 900 and 1000 made it into the water.  Because of some egregious breakdowns in command and control and oversight the ship was not reported as missing for 4 days, and the men in the water were spotted more by serendipity then anything else.  Most of the men in the water were actually in the water, with only a lifejacket, presenting nothing much more than little black dots in the water – the black dots because their heads were covered in oil that spilled from their ship as she sank.  The aircraft that spotted them had been sent out to look for them, but having witnessed, and participated at least tangentially in, a number of rescues at sea, spotting people in the water is seemingly impossible – much harder then it would seem, or as it is portrayed in movies and the like.

By the time ships moved in to pick them up, only 317 men were pulled from the sea, one of whom died shortly after being rescued.  Thus, of the 1196 men aboard ship, 880 died, and somewhere ‘north’ of 600 died after getting safely off the ship.  To compound it, the Navy then engaged in a witch-hunt to blame someone, and ended up pinning the blame on the Captain, Charles B. McVay, rather than accept blame for what was a monumental error and tragedy.  Captain McVay is the only man in the history of the US Navy to have been court-martialed and for losing a ship during war.  (The US Navy lost more than 700 ships during WWII, only Captain McVay was court-martialed). I read somewhere, and I don’t know the veracity of this comment, that he was the only man – among both the allies or the axis powers – who was court-martialed during WWII for losing his ship in combat.

It is a long and complicated story and I encourage everyone to spend a few minutes researching it, because the real story is in the heroism and courage and leadership of the men in the water.  I was fortunate to know one of them: Captain (then LCDR) Lewis Haynes, the ship’s surgeon, and the senior officer with the largest single group of survivors in the 4+ days in the ocean.

Captain Haynes was a good friend of my father, and I remember him visiting when I was young – but old enough to understand what he was saying.  He didn’t speak about it much, and in fact I only remember one time that he told us the whole story, and I can see him to this day sitting in our den, quietly telling the story, trying to hold back the emotion.  He was one of the finest men and finest officers I ever met.  What I have learned since then is that the quality of leadership that had been shown by the officers and chiefs of INDIANAPOLIS is central to their incredible performance in their long purgatory in the ocean.

The lessons that stand out among all others – and they apply to any and every organization that is trying to achieve great things or be ready for any situation: you must train your people as hard as you can, you must set high standards and maintain them, and most importantly, no matter how high the standards, the senior leadership must adhere to even higher standards – of both performance and behavior.


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