(Well – that took a little longer than I thought it should (3 years?) but Blagojevich finally found out he did something wrong. A few years ago, the incredulous way he said “I did nothing wrong” compelled me to write a few words on blame. I’m re-posting now in honor of …accountability.)
After years spent over the ocean looking for lost, endangered, ill, or otherwise seriously troubled boaters, I have noticed something very common in most search and rescue cases.With the exception of a few medical evacuations (an accident is an accident), all emergencies at sea have a latent common denominator; regardless of the variables that define the emergency.In all but the most complex accidents, the cause of the emergency can be traced back to a bad decision made by the captain, and often made before leaving the dock.In other words, it’s always the captain’s fault.Think about this long enough and your experience will discover contradictions to the theory, but they will be weak contradictions at best.At the end of the day (or voyage), all things being equal, with the exceptions noted; when the Coast Guard’s search and rescue (SAR) alarm goes off, you can bet your next paycheck that some skipper somewhere screwed up.
In the past I have been so convinced of my theory (and my own infallible perception) that I included my opinion about a skipper’s complete culpability into articles and lectures to the boating public. I’ve been a guest speaker at more than a few yacht club lunches or dinners. Not being a one to pull punches when so convinced, invariably I would get to the part where I blame them for all their woes and the Coast Guard’s often sleepless nights on duty. Some of them grunt and some of them nod (the nodders have never called the Coast Guard for help), but in the end they all draw my meaning from the semantics and almost never throw food. Good sea captains understand something I think. There is no one outside the boat. It is the complete isolation of being afloat that dooms captains to the burden of ultimate responsibility: No one else is there and in charge of anything but the captain.
On land, when challenged about the condition of one thing or the practice of another, we can always point back to our predecessors or to the side to some outside variable that is well out of our control. On land, with so many people coming and going, adding their part to the operation of day to day things, we are supplied with an increasing number of persons to point at when things go wrong. Ashore, fault is flexible. It is much easier to look outside our circle of responsibility for the problem and for a minute, the people looking to us for answers can be confused by the fog we draw their attention to when we point. Sea captains don’t have that luxury. When they look outside the boat, there is nothing but the sea looking back. I’m jealous. Because it is the luxury of assigning blame that makes leadership ashore such a difficult task. Blame is a function of management (usually damage control) but accepting responsibility, the captain’s bane, realizing that~ “It’s all my fault.” is the polestar of a leader. Shame on those who assign blame when accepting it is imperative. This is what I have believed and preached to anyone who would listen. Had I known I was talking about myself I would have shut-up.
A few years ago, safely entrenched in the ambiguity of being an E-5 – the military equivalent of a line worker – I was listed as up for promotion and told by my supervisor, “Yup, pick someone to take over your position, train em, and you come down here and run the shop.” Oh sure, I acted confident enough. All I said was, “Done.” But I had heard clearly, “…you come down here and run the shop.”