Sinking the Lusitania

I learned early this week that an old friend and colleague was fired from his job as a city manager after serving his community for more than 18 years. I was saddened to hear the news and was struck by some similarities to a situation I am currently reading about in the book, Dead Wake, which recounts the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania in World War I.

The captain of the Lusitania, William Turner, was a highly experienced officer with a long and distinguished record in his profession. Like my colleague, he demonstrated not only skillful management, but also successful leadership that included some bold initiatives. Unfortunately for Captain Turner, he was placed in a dangerous situation by circumstances largely beyond his control and then singled out for blame by people who arguably were far more culpable than he was for the loss of his ship. Captain Turner was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing after a thorough and grueling investigation. The judge who decided the case observed that Captain Turner was a, “brave but unlucky man.” I’m not sure I completely agree with that analysis because the Captain stayed on the bridge of his ship until it went underwater and then was lucky enough to bob to the surface as it went down. He then survived an extended dunking in 55° water before being pulled aboard a lifeboat. Some people never forgave the captain for surviving the attack on his ship when more than 1,000 other innocent victims did not.

Accepting a leadership position means assuming both explicit and implicit responsibilities. Explicitly, people expect leaders to achieve goals and competently perform their duties while observing generally accepted rules of conduct. Implicitly, leaders are often expected to take the blame for failures real or imagined regardless of their role in the matter. Highly paid CEO’s in the private sector often use this rationale to explain salaries that, in some cases, may be several hundred times higher than those of the average workers in their company. Captain Turner and my friend accepted this implicit responsibility as part of the price of doing and enjoying important work.

The city my colleague managed did not sink after his 18 years as manager, but rather seems to be doing better today than it has at any time in its long history. The city council provided no explanation to the public about their decision, so it’s hard to know why they felt the need for change. Captain Turner went on to command other ships, and I’m confident my friend will find plenty of opportunities to serve as a city manager. Character and ability overcomes difficulties in life, including unfair and self-serving attempts to blame others for random misfortune or contrived failure.