I served in the US Army, National Guard and Army Reserve for 28 years. I served as an Infantry officer for most of that time. As young Infantry officers, we studied leadership and group dynamics over and over. Studying leadership has become a favorite past-time for me. One fundamental principle of Army leadership is that a leader never takes advantage of his position. He always places his soldiers’ welfare ahead of his own. For example, in the field during training, we should never eat before our men eat. We should never "sneak off" to get a shower if our men could not do the same.
This principle was violated, sometimes. But, even in the violation, it helped confirm the rule. We, my colleagues and friends, always avoided serving in military units that violated this basic leadership principle. We knew leaders who placed their own comfort before that of their soldiers. We always found it shameful and abhorrent.
In a war zone, I saw leaders again place their own welfare ahead of the troops they commanded. It was, fortunately, rare, but it did occur. I understand that the Cruise Ship Captain who abandoned his ship before his passengers evacuated violated several laws of the sea. He had a duty to see to their evacuation before securing his own safety. Cpt Schettino was ordered by a Coast Guard commander back to his cruise ship to coordinate the evacuation. Cpt Schettino merely responded that it was too dark to go back to his ship.
It is easy to criticize the captain. The word "cowardice" has emerged. But, I prefer to wait a little longer to learn more about what happened. One of the wonderful tools provided by the Army is the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). The CALL Center historians and writers research and write up the best war vignettes and battles – most of these stories concern leadership in many different contexts. At one time, i was sure that I had read them all. CALL produces more every year, so now, I am long behind. One paper I recall looked solely at what leadership traits made effective combat leaders. That is, what could we look to in training or education to help mold good leaders under stress. Physical conditioning perhaps? Knowledge of weapon systems? Surely, prior combat experience would make a big difference. No, in the end, it was none of these things.
The paper’s conclusion was that closeness to your buddies, a sense of comraderie was the only reasonably good predictor of success in that most stressful of situations, combat. Readers may be familiar with the Mel Gibson movie, "We Were Soldiers." The movie concerned an Infantry battalion during a pivotal battle in the Viet Nam War. The movie was based on a book with the same name. Then Lt.-Col. Hal Moore commanded the Infantry troops. LTC Moore’s battle turned out well against overwhelming odds. His battalion survived when sheer force of numbers should have decimated his soldiers.
But, those who have not read the book do not know that the second half ot the book concerned a second battle with an entirely different Infantry battalion. That second battle was a disaster. The second battalion walked into a well planned and well-executed ambush. The commander was a seasoned veteran with solid combat experience. But, as the battle unfolded, the commander was said to have been dis-engaged. In effect, he withdrew from the carnage and let his subordinate leaders react on their own. The battalion commander was new to the unit. He had just joined them shortly before the battle. Emotionally, he was not really a part of the unit. When the situation devolved to gut instinct, the new commander’s instinct was to sit under a tree during the horrific ambush.
Did Cpt. Schettino just join the ship before the cruise? Did he have reason to feel disaffected from his crew and passengers? Nothing can justify running away from a situation that demanded the ship’s captain more than ever. He is still a "dirtbag," in my opinion. But, still, i prefer to wait and hear the rest of the story. How many office managers have a reason to feel dis-affected from their subordinate employees? How many employees suffer because a manager is ill-trained for the task at hand?
In the Army, we call this phenomenon "sh– rolls downhill." The leader at the top sets the standard for everyone s/he supervises. They set the tone for the rest of the company. In the business world, we call this phenomenon poor training and poorly run companies result in many lawsuits.