Herman Wouk

Author Herman Wouk at his home in Palm Springs in 2000. (Los Angeles Times)

It’s strange how things happen. As some of you’ll be aware, I found out a few short weeks ago, while I was on break, that Herman Wouk, one of my favorite authors, was still alive at 103. That was from a post at Warsclerotic that reminded us that Winds of War/War and Remembrance are available on YouTube. I’ve been watching them (binge-watching, really).  Between them, especially the books, they form perhaps the best overall history of World War II.

That was from an article there by the site’s editor, Joseph Wouk, and I commented how much his dad’s writing, going back to The Caine Mutiny when I was perhaps eight years old, had taught me some lessons that had stood the test of time. Joseph kindly informed that his father was still alive and nearing his 104th birthday.

Sadly, he didn’t make it, dying last Friday, writing till the end. That remarkable since his first novel was published shortly after World War II, in which he served as an officer in a destroyer minesweeper, which will sound familiar to anyone who has ever read about the Caine or seen the play or movie adapted from it.

As I told Joseph, The Caine taught me much about organizations and how they work and has stuck with me. In fact, I wrote about it back in 2013, in a post titled Of Mutiny and Education.  What is interesting about what is probably a somewhat inaccurate book review in it, is that I hadn’t read the book in probably 30 years, and a fair amount of it stuck with me. And allowed me to draw lessons from it. And, you know, that article still has lessons for us, as well.

Not surprisingly he’s been eulogized all over the world. You can find quite a few at Warsclerotic. I rather like the one in the LA Times.

Herman Wouk, the prolific and immensely popular writer who explored the moral fallout of World War II in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny” and other widely read books that gave Americans a raw look at the horrors and consequences of war, has died at his Palm Springs home, where he wrote many of his acclaimed novels.

Wouk, who was honored by the Library of Congress in September 2008 with its first lifetime achievement award for fiction writing, died in his sleep Friday at the age of 103, his literary agent Amy Rennert told the Associated Press. Wouk was working on a book at the time of his death, Rennert said.

As a writer, Wouk considered his most “vaultingly ambitious” work the twin novels “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” about “the great catastrophe of our time,” World War II. Critics, however, considered “The Caine Mutiny” to be his finest work.

Taut and focused, the book is a riveting exploration of power, personal freedom and responsibility. “Caine” won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for literature and was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for more than two years, selling more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and Britain in the first few years after its publication.

In the novel, Wouk creates one of American literature’s most fascinating characters, Philip Francis Queeg, the captain of the U.S. destroyer-minesweeper Caine, who is removed from his command by a lower-ranking officer in the middle of a typhoon.

In one of the book’s most famous scenes, concerning the theft of the captain’s strawberries, Queeg lapses into paranoid incoherence as he is questioned during his court-martial. He pulls a pair of ball bearings from his pocket and obsessively shuffles them in his hand:

“Ah, but the strawberries! That’s, that’s where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with, with geometric logic, that, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist. And I would have produced that key if they hadn’t pulled the Caine out of action. I, I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer. (He pauses, realizing that he has been ranting.)

“Naturally, I can only cover these things from memory.”

Keep reading, nor would it hurt any of us to revisit these works, to learn again how we won the war, but more how we treat people to accomplish our mission, and even more, perhaps, to simply enjoy ourselves. Like a good storytelling father, Herman Wouk brings us a lesson while entertaining us with a ripping yarn.

Rest in peace sir, knowing you are missed, and your memory honored.

Of Mutiny and Education

Cover of "The Caine Mutiny (Collector's E...

Cover of The Caine Mutiny (Collector’s Edition)

 

Growing up one of my favorite books was The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. He wrote it shortly after the Second World War and it was pretty much his first best-seller.

It tells the story of Willie Keith a pampered young man, and a bit of a momma’s boy, as he joins the Navy during the war, and becomes a pretty good officer. Like everybody coming out of officer’s school he wants to be on a shiny new battleship or aircraft carrier, but he’s assign to the Caine, a rusty old 4 pipe destroyer now converted to a destroyer minesweeper. He’s pretty surly, and has a lot of trouble adapting to serving in a ship that looks like a wreck, and he therefore runs afoul of his CO, Captain de Vriess, usually over silly stuff.

He does notice though, that while it seems to him that a lot of Naval Regulations get ignored the Caine is always where it needs to be to do the job. He credits this to the executive officer, Steve Maryk, who before the war was a fisherman. But he still longs for the spit and polish navy of his dreams. When the Captain is promoted out, he is overjoyed to find that the new captain is a spit and polish and follow all the regulations guy. Funny part is that it doesn’t work all that well, and morale gets very bad. Eventually the ship is caught, along with the rest of the 3d Fleet, in a typhoon off Okinawa, and they are having a great deal of trouble with the ship.

Finally the Exec relieves the captain and turns the bow into the wind, with Keith concurring presumably saving the ship at the cost of a mutiny. Following on this the ship is off the line while Maryk is court-martialed for Mutiny. Keith ends up with a letter of reprimand and command of the ship with orders to return to the east coast after the war so the ship can be scrapped.

It’s a good yarn, and I recommend it highly, and like all good yarns it has a moral.

At some point on of the other officers tells Keith the secret:

“The navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.”

Think about that for a while. Isn’t that pretty much what any large organization is? If it works at all, a large organization doesn’t necessarily have to be efficient but, it cannot be allowed to fail (in the organization’s terms) in any catastrophic way. In the Navy’s case, it must win battles. It doesn’t have to promote the best man, it doesn’t even have to keep everybody alive but, It must win battles and the war. That is it’s whole reason for being.

If you’ve ever been around the military, you know there are at least 4 ways to do anything, 1) The right way; 2) The wrong way; 3) The Navy way; and 4) my way, and that comes from experience. What Capt. de Vriess was doing along with LT Maryk was doing what had to be done to remain operational while ignoring most of the rest, and it worked very well as long as they had people who understood the goals and aspirations of their unit (The Caine).

So what is my point, other than a book review of a book published in about 1948? This is how all large organizations act if they are more concerned about something other than executing their mission. They write all the details down so that a computer can do every job, but nobody has any allowance for common sense.

Sound familiar?

To me it sound a lot like suspending a kindergarten student for eating his Pop-tart into the shape of a gun and saying “bang”. Not to mention a lot of the other stories that come out of American life lately.

Mark Esposito, writing on Jonathon Turley’s blog has thought and written about this as well, and done a better job of researching it than I have, here is some of his thinking

In Maryland, a seven-year-old boy is suspended from his school under its “zero tolerance” policy because he nibbles a pastry into the shape of a handgun and says “Bang!” “Bang!” (Here).  In California,  a high school principal refuses to let an ambulance come onto a football filed to tend to a seriously injured player citing school board rules. (Here). A nurse at a home for the aged ignores the furtive pleas of a 911 dispatcher and refuses to perform CPR on a woman dying of cardiac arrest because she says its policy not to do it.  (Here). She won’t even get someone else to do it.

These grotesque examples of indifference to any form of reason are becoming all too common as we find ourselves governed more by rules than by the judgment of people.  These stories got me thinking about the need for rules in a complicated society and their limitations. It also got me wondering why wisdom and its country cousin, common sense, have been banished from most every discussion of decision making. Here’s John Maynard Keynes in his famous treatise on decision making, Treatise of Probability, discussing how to make the right decision:

If, therefore, the question of right action is under all circumstances a determinate problem, it must be in virtue of an intuitive judgment directed to the situation as a whole, and not in virtue of an arithmetical deduction derived from a series of separate judgments directed to the individual alternatives each treated in isolation.

Armed with that little tidbit, I searched the entire work and found exactly zero uses of the word “wisdom” in Professor Keynes’ detailed analysis of doing the right thing. How can that be?

Wisdom is a an old-fashioned word. It hearkens back to Solomon and Solon. To Plato and Socrates. Aristotle explained that practical wisdom is one part moral will and one part moral skill. It means a human action premised on experience or intuition that achieves the best possible moral result.  Not efficient. Not effective. Not even the most profitable. But the most moral result.

At its core, it is about the time and thought necessary to achieve deep understanding.  Both are in short supply these days as we measure our progress by how far we’ve gotten or by how much we have obtained and how fast we did it. The process by which we achieved these things is less important that the result. And it is this philosophy that has laid waste to ethics, judgment, and most importantly wisdom. In this race to “Just Win Baby,” we have ossified our capacity for wisdom under a steady stream of rules, regulations, guidelines, and protocols. But why?

Speaking at a TED conference in 2009, Professor Barry Schwartz examined the problem and offered an explanation in the context of a study done of hospital janitors. Schwartz looked at the job descriptions of  the janitors.  The explanations of employment were big on such rudimentary tasks as cleaning, restocking, and sanitation, but not one mention of anything involving human interaction. As professor Schwartz remarked “the job could just as easily have been done in a mortuary as in a hospital.” But that assessment did not match what the janitors considered the most important aspect of their jobs. In responses to questioning from researchers, one janitor, Mike,  explained the most important thing about his job was caring for patients. Like the time he stopped mopping a floor because Mr. Jones was finally up and around from surgery and had just left his bed to get some exercise.  Another custodian,  Charlene, told of ignoring the orders of a supervisor to vacuum the visitors lounge because family members of a patient who dutifully arrived every day to be with their loved one were finally getting a chance to take a nap.  And, Luke, who scrubbed the floor of a comatose patient’s room twice because the emotionally drained father at the bedside didn’t see it the first time and insisted it be done. No argument. No rebuttal. No peevishness of any sort. Just compassion. [..]

Continue reading Shackling Our Wisdom With Rules

Do you see his point? It’s pretty obvious isn’t it? Or is it?

Let’s take the schools for an example. What is the mission of a public school?

Is it:

  1. To educate our young in the basics they need to survive?
  2. To indoctrinate our young to be dependent on government all their life?
  3. To provide jobs for teachers
  4.  To provide jobs for administrators
  5. To provide union dues for union leadership
  6. To provide union dues for political lobbying

Or some combination.

Maybe that is part (maybe even a large part) of the problems we see in our society, is the mission of the organization what we think it is, or has it mutated into something that was not anticipated.

How do we, if this is the problem, get these organizations back to their original mission?

 

 

Leadership and Management in America; What’s the Problem Here? Part 1

Note that this started out as a post and it grew so long that it has now turned into four. I’m not going to make any excuses for that as I think everything we are writing about here is important. So these will be coming out over the next day. Some may interest you more than others but, they are all pieces of the puzzle that we as a nation, as businesses, and as leaders need to solve.

We seem to be having moral and morale problems in American society, both business and military today. I have been seeing a lot of stuff coming in in the last few weeks, and I’ll be referring to a number of them here.

First, I’m going to tell you a bit about my background, Most of you know that I am a Lineman, an Electrician, and now an operations manager. In a few days I’ll celebrate 41st Anniversary of my certification as a journeyman lineman. It was a few years later that I wired my first house as an independent electrical contractor. So, I’ve been around and seen a lot.

I think I’ve written before about how I came up. My dad was the General Manager of an REA electric coop, before that he was a lineman and a project superintendent. One of the anomalies in my life is that my parents were in their forties when I was born, and that is reflected in me. Essentially, It was almost like most of my generation being raised by their grandparents. I’m not complaining, what I missed in playing catch and football was more than made up for in life lessons.

Dad taught, without I think even realizing it, how things had been done in my industry even before the Depression. For instance, I know how to set a pole with the biggest piece of equipment being a man. Do I wish to ever do it again that way? No, it’s damned hard work, takes at least 5 men and a couple hours but, a lot of your power lines were built that way. Same thing with climbing poles. Dad’s knees gave out sometime around 1950 when he was a bit over 40. In fact, he told me one time that if he had known what was coming, he would have stuck it out without taking the manager’s job, I didn’t then, and don’t now, completely believe that, knowing how he detested dealing with fools overeducated superiors but, there you are.

Incidentally, if you are one of those people with your whole Love Me Wall covered with diplomas, degree, certificates, and pictures of you with political celebrities you might be interested in what people like me think when we see it. We think you’re a fool, and probably incompetent, too. Why? Because if you haven’t done it for real, you haven’t done it. At best you’re a crony capitalist. That is not meant to diminish real accomplishments, like engineering degrees from Purdue or MIT, J.D. Diplomas (if you’re an attorney), the shadow box containing your military ribbons, although remember a lot of us recognize them, the one for no cavities won’t buy much respect

The thing is, in an REA Coop, like anybody else where there is a lender providing the money, there are rules pertaining to almost anything and how you do it. Somebody described it, I think Herman Wouk in The Caine Mutiny, as a system designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. Add to that the rigid safety rules for working on power lines and suddenly you have a system that is stagnant, where nothing ever changes. Or do you?

It all depends, whether you have a leader, or a manager. In dad’s case, when he went in to the office, lines were worked dead, pretty much always, beyond changing an insulator. This was mostly because you either climbed the pole on hooks or a ladder. It was possible to change a pole hot but, it was a big deal, almost never done on distribution lines.

But, the times they were a changing, foresters, were having trouble climbing trees, that’s even more dangerous than climbing poles, and something new appeared on the scene. It was called a SkyworkerTM and it was a revelation. It was the first bucket truck, there had been platforms, towers, they called them, that went straight up from the truck, and self supporting ladders mounted on trucks, since about the war but, the bucket truck was insulated like a hot stick, so that you could literally bare hand a power line, and it could reach out to the sides of the truck, so you didn’t always have to park right under the line.

As in all industries that deal with things that can kill you quick, acceptance took a while. As it happens, in 1955, dad convinced his board to buy one, actually a demo unit. Talk about a difference, not only did you not have to climb the pole but, you could lift the energized wire out of the way. Now what had taken half a day could be done in a couple of hours. This made it feasible to replace anything up to poles without interrupting service. The replacement of the A-frame derrick with the hydraulic digger derrick a couple of years later made similar improvements. When I was working for a contractor, if we had a competent crew (usually we did) we could change a pole routinely in 15-30 minutes energized, with three men. Again, dad was one of the first. Why?

  1. He knew the job, he had been a lineman since the ’20s and had seen almost everything.

  2. He had been promoted to the position of authority where he could recommend the purchase and help in defining the role of the new equipment, while making sure that safety was not compromised. This included the new rescue procedures needed.

  3. He had the experience to reassure the field people that he was going to keep them safe and that this revolution wasn’t going to cost them their jobs. (Although it may have slowed down new hiring some).

  4. Most of all, he had the vision, foresight, and leadership to see how this would benefit the company, the employees, and most of all the client, the customer.

This is one major reason why companies should promote from within, or at least their own industry. The revolution I’ve outlined above would not have happened without the vision provided by men like dad, he was hardly the only one, but I knew him better. It’s been said before but, I’m going to say it again, If you are an operations company; it needs to be run by operators, everything else is support.

A lot of the trouble I see in American industry today is companies that do various things, meat packing, manufacturing, retailing, logistics, whatever, being run by accounting. That’s bass ackwards. If your company builds widgets, it should be run by people that know how to build widgets, the job of accounting is to keep score, the job of HR is to find the proper people. The job of neither, if your going to effectively build widgets for a profit, is to run the company. They are a support function, and a cost center, not a profit center. Most of them don’t understand this and think they know more than the operators.

Then there is this in my career.

We have been trying since the sixties to make life safe for 3 year olds or idiots, take your pick. The National Electric Code runs on a three year cycle. In 1968 it began requiring grounded outlets, which was a very good thing, when something went wrong with an appliance the current had a safe path to ground and would blow the fuse. That’s all well and good. In about 1975 the requirement became that the equipment grounding conductor become the same size, which if you understand the theory, it should have been from the beginning.

Then was developed in the 1980’s the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, which was designed to measure the current on the wires and if it wasn’t equal turn off the circuit. It’s a pretty good idea. It will protect you when you forget to unplug the toaster before rinsing it out in the sink.

Now we have Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters which detect arcs in your wiring and appliances. In fact, if you drive a metal staple too tight when you’re wiring a house, the AFCI will trip. It’s an OK device in many ways, and has probably stopped some fires from occurring.

We are also mandated now to use tamper resistant receptacles which prevent you from putting a bobby pin in an outlet.

All of these things will make your house safer when properly installed. But there is a downside. The circuit that feeds your bedroom costs about thirty dollars in material on the 1977 specification (current dollars). That same circuit wired to 2011 Code will cost about a hundred dollars in material, labor is roughly the same. Safety has a price, and so does regulation.

The most common example, of course, is your car. My first car was a 1963 Bel Air. It had headlights, taillights, parking lights, backup lights, a horn, bumpers, and lap belts which were optional.

In 1968, the government required side lights, and a locking and collapsible steering column, as well as a padded dashboard, in 1974 emission standards kicked in (killing mileage and power) as well as bumpers that would withstand a 5 mph impact. Now we have harnesses, child safety seats, air bags, and I don’t know what all. Why? To protect us from incompetents, why wouldn’t it have made more sense to teach people to drive effectively enough so they didn’t hit things?

Oh, that Bel Air, It cost less than $3,000, maybe less than $2000, new. What’s a new car worth now?

And that is one of our problems, we are protecting the incompetent at the expense of the productive. Apparently we have forgotten that life is dangerous, so dangerous in fact, that no one gets out of it alive. What would an American car be like if we hadn’t squandered all that engineering talent in protecting the incompetent? Nobody knows.

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