What the 1923 Honda Point Disaster can tell us about leadership now

  • By James McCusker Business 101
  • Friday, October 23, 2015 4:09pm
  • Business

Evening did not come alone. Sunset on the 8th of September, 1923, brought fog along with it when it came to the California coast.

In those days before radar, before GPS displays, and before fathometers, navigating a ship near the rocky shore at night, in the fog, was a source of great anxiety. Most captains would proceed slowly, if at all, while sailors positioned in the bow tossed lead weights into the dark water and called out soundings.

The squadron of 14 U.S. Navy destroyers, though, took none of those precautions. Engaged in a speed run from San Francisco to San Diego to test new propulsion equipment it remained formed up in a single line, and continued on at 20 knots (about 23 miles per hour).

About 9 p.m., the squadron commander in the lead ship, believing they were one place when they were actually at another, ordered a turn…and each of the destroyers in turn, like a precision drill team, executed a turn to the left.

And, as fate (and bad judgment) would have it, the first six destroyers in line, one after the other, plowed into the rocky coast at 20 knots. Twenty-three sailors were killed and seven ships — one went aground while rescuing survivors — were totaled.

The incident, known as the “Honda Point Disaster,” became a staple of leadership courses and wardroom discussions. The incident was, and to a certain extent still is, used as an illustration of the conflicting goals in a situation where obeying an order is believed to endanger the ship.

Those conflicting goals are also brought to TV viewers each time “The Caine Mutiny” movie is aired, for the same question of following the order vs. saving the ship during a typhoon is at the heart of the movie’s story.

Few of us will have the experience of being responsible for the safety of a ship and its crew when given a questionable order while navigating in either a dense fog or a typhoon. Navigating today’s workplace is tough enough, though, and we really need a memorable example that everyone can relate to.

Author and executive coach Ira Chaleff was teaching a class on leader-follower relationships to a group of middle managers and asked if any of them could provide an instance of when disobeying an order was the right thing to do.

A young woman responded with an explanation of why she had brought a dog to class. The woman was assisting in the dog’s training as a guide dog and at this stage the animal was learning to be comfortable in busy, often noisy, social situations and to obey the basic commands she would be given in her work.

After successfully completing this training, the dog would next go to a more experienced trainer who, among other things, would teach her when to disobey those commands — a concept called intelligent disobedience.

Intelligent disobedience comes into play when there is a conflict in goals. A guide dog’s training is to obey commands, but the primary goal is the safety of the blind person. When the dog sees a hazard or threat that the human cannot, it is time for intelligent disobedience.

A fully trained guide dog will not allow the human to step into the path of an oncoming car simply because the human has commanded it. And a dog-in-training who cannot understand that distinction will not be allowed to become a guide dog. There it was: the perfect example.

In his book, “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong,” Chaleff provides an insightful analysis of today’s workplace environment and how workers and managers are sometimes faced with orders that will create dangers to individuals or to a company itself.

Hazards and threats in our lives and especially in our work go well beyond dodging oncoming traffic, of course. They are more likely to present legal, moral, ethical and safety issues. Our relationships with authority are complex, yet most of us are trained from childhood to obey rules and orders. Result: conflict.

It can get pretty complicated, but the book also includes a chapter containing the crucial lessons from guide-dog training. There is wisdom in those lessons, for as he says, “The simplest answer for a person receiving a questionable order is this: if obeying will cause avoidable harm it is wrong to obey.”

Today’s workplace is a navigation hazard in its own right and sometimes we are faced with decisions that seem so complicated that we don’t know what to do. In his book, and in his guide dog principle, Chaleff provides a useful chart and a compass so that we don’t end up hurting ourselves and others.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a column for the monthly Herald Business Journal.

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