If in doubt, speak out

20th May 2005 at 01:00
On June 22 , 1893, the 11 battleships of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean fleet were on exercise off the Lebanon coast. They were steaming in two parallel lines, 1,200 yards apart when the commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir George Tryon, decided to cause the fleet to reverse direction by ordering the two leading ships to turn inwards towards each other, with the other ships following.

A huge mistake. There wasn't room for the lines to turn inwards, and the two lead ships collided. One, HMS Victoria, sank, with the loss of 357 lives, including Tryon. From the moment the order was given to the moment of collision several minutes passed, during which the Admiral's second-in-command and several other senior officers knew the disaster was coming. All of them, though, were afraid to challenge him.

The irony is that Tryon, a brilliant officer with a massive reputation, was very much ahead of his time in stressing that subordinates should use their initiative and not blindly follow orders. The trouble was, though, that his big personality cancelled all of that out.

Tryon made a mighty, uncharacteristic mistake. It happens. Perhaps it's understandable that junior staff wouldn't speak up. What's unforgivable is that his second-in-command, Admiral Albert Markham, failed to do so.

Consequently, he's the real culprit here. Markham's level of experience and high rank should have empowered him to challenge the order, firmly and decisively, eyeball to eyeball.

Lessons for us? There are two, I guess. If you're a leader - of a subject, a department or a school - you need to be sure that your slogans "My door is always open!", "Remember we're a team," "We all have something to learn from each other" aren't contradicted by your body language, frowning face, visible impatience or unavailability. Any or all of these can make people feel guilty about approaching you.

Second, if you're a deputy or assistant, you carry the heavy responsibility for being the one who will articulate and challenge with the doubts that all of you will feel sometimes. If you can't stifle your reluctance and say, for example, "Please sit down and listen. This is something you must hear," you may in danger of letting down those who look to you for your own level of leadership.

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