Leader Servanthood

The next time you find yourself under the direction of an incompetent, overbearing leader, try getting in line.

If their experience was anything like mine, most Millennials grew up being admonished to “step out and step up,” to blaze their own trails, and to question authority. Affirmations of “incredible leadership potential” were abundant (usually just because of good grades), and we cheered Lt. Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) as he confronted and deposed Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) in Crimson Tide.

I expected to hear more of the same when I shipped out to Officer Training School, but much to my surprise the Hunter v. Ramsey clip was never played. Instead we dissected the relationship between Lt. Commander Phillip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) and his XO Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson) in The Caine Mutiny. Queeg does much to inspire reservations about his sanity, still more his ability as a commander, but to his credit Maryk initially defends his boss. Finally, however, after significant prodding by the other officers onboard, Maryk takes a line from Hunter and relieves Queeg of command.

But the story doesn’t end as easily for Maryk as it did for Hunter. At the outset of his court-martial, the magnitude of what he’s done, i.e. usurped the authority of one lawfully appointed over him, becomes apparent. It’s only after Queeg’s paranoia and instability are made embarrassingly clear that Maryk is acquitted of mutiny charges. But as the film concludes, Lt. Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer) who served as defense council for Maryk, interrupts the celebratory relief of the plaintiffs with these criticisms.

“Tell me, [Maryk]…Queeg came to you guys for help and you turned him down, didn’t you?” Maryk affirms, and Greenwald continues, “You didn’t approve of his conduct as an officer. He wasn’t worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You ragged him. You made up songs about him. If you’d given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up….You’re learning that you don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job or you’re no good!”

Because he’s got the job or you’re no good. That statement captures a few fundamentals of team dynamics that we would do well to remember. First, as soon as doubt is cast as to who’s in charge, a team can no longer be effective and in fact ceases to be a team; it becomes just a group of people. Second, followers who will only submit to capable leaders worthy of respect and loyalty are…well, good for nothing.

It’s true that we talk often about “servant leadership,” but that usually translates into nothing more than a CEO or president who’s willing to take out the trash every once in awhile. Dynamic followership means not being in a formal leadership position (something we Millenials have a hard time stomaching), always giving our superiors the benefit of the doubt, drawing attention away from their (inevitable) mistakes, and taking every opportunity to address and refer to them with respect. “Leader servanthood” is probably a better descriptor of the role we need to learn.

Most of us are hesitant to offer such “unmerited” support because–as de Tocqueville pointed out–Americans are enthralled with equality. G.K. Chesterton approached this topic from a characteristically unexpected but thoughtful line of reasoning and argued that equality actually requires us to fall in line. He affirmed Greenwald’s idea in What’s Wrong with the World:

“If an army actually consisted of nothing but Hanibals and Napoleons, it would still be better in the case of a surprise that they should not all give orders together. Nay, it would be better if the stupidest of them all gave the orders. Thus, we see that merely military subordination…rests on the equality of men.…discipline means that in certain frightfully rapid circumstances, one can trust anybody so long as he is not everybody. The military spirit does not mean…obeying the strongest and wisest man. On the contrary, the military spirit means, if anything, obeying the weakest and stupidest man, obeying him merely because he is a man, and not a thousand men. Submission to a weak man is discipline. Submission to a strong man is only servility.”

It’s an unfortunate commentary on the last half century that between The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Crimson Tide (1995) we decided to forgoe the resolute humility of discipline for a heedless servility. Here’s to following well.

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