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Mea Culpa


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.” [insert long reflective pause] Shop supervisor? That was the guy I had been blaming for years. From my position of absolutely no responsibility outside my own world, I had usually fended off accountability for my mistakes, and often towards him. But when I said, “Done.” I knew that everyone would be blaming me for everything from now on. [another pause]…Crap.  As with those boat captains, I could find very little exception to the idea that any mistake or oversight could (and should) be traced back to a bad decision made by me.

While being a helicopter rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard is quite possibly the coolest thing a person can do for a living, there is a price (O.K., so not a heavy one) in that the people around us sometimes believe that we are less than serious about real work.  We smile a little too much and just seem to be having a better time than everyone else (we are), but we are definitely a very serious bunch.  We all know, deep within our requisite shell of arrogance, that we maintain survival gear and life saving equipment.   We know that the work we do, if neglected, might kill one of the members of our team. Each of us, though we joke to the contrary, feel an esoteric responsibility to get everyone out of the helicopter and keep them alive should we ditch. We know that one day, a boater in trouble might die if we get sent out the the door and mess up. Our mistakes change fate; our bad decisions can kill.  So we do not take our responsibilities lightly and are, at our heart, a serious group.  So, when I said, “Done.” what I meant was, “It’s all my fault.” From now own, the onus would be on me. Again, ….”Crap.” My lectures on “fault” had come back to haunt me and so when things did go wrong, I tried my hardest not to point outside the boat.

Fast forward to last week and then try to imagine my complete disbelief in one Michael Rod Blagojevich; and I’m not talking about the “alleged” misconduct.  While ridiculous that he thought he wouldn’t eventually be harshly questioned, let alone indicted, I am beside myself with awe at his ability to go on camera and say, “I have done nothing wrong.” I had to hit rewind on my DVR three times before It sank in.   I would have understood, “no comment” or even complete silence; but a full-throated denial of any and all culpability was – to me – the capstone on a an embarrassingly high wall of  “guiltlessness” built by a long line of (mostly) men who just cant say “mea culpa.”  Is the whole idea of culpability gone?  Do we really have to go to sea to find someone who feels responsible for anything anymore?  Does it really take the removal of all other persons (or the removal from all other persons) to create an environment where someone can say, “It’s my fault.”   I hope not.  But it appears to be epidemic.  Do a Google news search on the words “denies any wrongdoing” and you’ll get about 200 instances of the phrase.  Try that same experiment with the phrase “accepts blame” and try not to despair.  After you notice that most of the 16 or so  “accepts blame” stories are about sports losses, try not to weep.

The good news is that in our own lives, the question of accountability is – well, simple if not easy.   You can, of course, hold yourself accountable for whatever you like.  Accountability (prior to conviction or termination…or divorce I suppose) is a personal choice.  But for some men – just as with greatness – culpability is thrust upon them (Get ready, Governor B, here it comes).  But what can we do to not get fooled again.  For those we chose to follow in life and in business, for those we decide to vote for, for those we chose to elect; what is the litmus test for accountability?  I know that in my life I intend to use the same test I use for sea captains.  Ask any boat skipper to describe a bad decision in their past that was completely their fault and you’ll get an answer.  You might get ten.  If you don’t, you stay off their boat: they are lying to you.  It turns out that time at sea is not much different than time anywhere else for us humans;  it is full of mistakes and regrets.  So the same idea will work for any other leader you intend to follow.  The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, and again you aren’t looking for perfection – you’re looking for boat skipper’s sense of accountability.  You’re looking for a person who’s internal locus of control makes them feel responsible for things gone wrong.  My favorite thing to say to the person across the table at a job interview when they get to the, “Do you have any questions for me?” part is, “Why yes:  can you tell me the about the last time you made a bad leadership decision that had a negative effect on the team?”  If they don’t have an answer, I stay off their boat too.

disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

About the author

Mario Vittone Mario Vittone has eighteen years of combined military service in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. His writing has appeared in Yachting Magazine, SaltWater Sportsman, Lifelines, and Reader's Digest. He has lectured extensively to business leaders, educators, and the military on team motivation, performance, mission focus, and generational diversity.

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