Leadership: We Are Not Amused


December 8,2008: The British Royal Navy was humiliated in March 2007, when fifteen sailors and marines were taken prisoner by an Iranian gunboat. The fifteen prisoners were held for 13 days in Iran, and turned it into a media circus, all at the expense of the Royal Navy.

The British personnel were involved in checking ships off the Iraqi coast for smugglers and terrorists. The fifteen British personnel were supposed to be protected from such seizure by the frigate they had come from. But the frigates officers screwed that up. This was a terrible embarrassment for the Royal Navy, and at the time they assumed the stiff-upper-lip position.

Those in charge were not punished, until now. Justice may not have been swift, but it was certain. Since the incident, the captain of the frigate was quietly relieved of command. Two vice admirals were retired, and the head of public relations for the Ministry of Defense (which botched the news aspects of the incident) is also out of a job. Several other officers and officials had their careers terminated, or damaged, by the way the affair was handled.

Reaction in Britain to all this led to mention of a certain admiral John Byng, who was executed in 1757 for not trying hard enough to dislodge the French from the island of Minorca. This execution was later described as done to "encourage the others (admirals)." In fact, Byng died because of bad publicity surrounding the earlier execution of a junior officer for the same "offense," while senior officers got less lethal punishment.

But it is a ancient naval tradition that someone must take responsibility and be punished when things go wrong. This attitude developed over the centuries because the seas are an unforgiving environment, and those put in charge of ships have absolute power, and absolute responsibility. So, to this day, in most navies, the senior officers can quickly (or, in this case eventually) lose their jobs if things go wrong.

Admiral Byngs demise was not all that unusual. In centuries past, many navy commanders have been executed for not doing all their boss expected of them. But 18th century Britain considered itself to be in a kinder and gentler age, thus the outcry after Byng was executed, instead of simply being dismissed (or exonerated, something his descendents still call for). Now, in 21st century Britain, the trend continues, as do the punishments.


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