A captain has to be a captain.


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In this morning’s Wall Street Journal (January 20, 2011), Peggy Noonan writes a column filled with some essentials of leadership that are good to hear. Her theme, to me, is summed up in one of her brief sentences: “A captain has to be a captain.”

Read on:


The Captain and the King

Why Owen Honors had to go, and why a stammering monarch is a movie hero.


At a time of new beginnings in Washington, and as a new year starts, some thoughts on leadership that begin with two questions. First, why is it a good thing that the captain of the USS Enterprise was this week relieved of his duties? Second, why is the movie “The King’s Speech” so popular and admired? The questions are united by a theme. It is that no one knows how to act anymore, and people miss people who knew how to act.


Capt. Owen Honors, commanding officer of an aircraft carrier, was revealed to have made and shown to his crew videos that have been variously described in the press as “lewd,” “raunchy,” “profane” and “ribald.” They are. Adm. John Harvey, who Wednesday relieved Capt. Honors of his duties, said the captain’s action “calls into question his character and undermines his credibility.” Also true.


In a way it’s not shocking that Capt. Honors did what he did, because he came from a culture, our culture, in which, to be kind about it, anything goes. Mainstream movies, television, music—all is raunch. To say the obvious, John Paul Jones, Bull Halsey and Elmo Zumwalt likely wouldn’t have made those videos, if they could have. More to the point, some average, undistinguished naval captain in 1968 wouldn’t have made them either, because he would have had his mind and consciousness formed in the 1930s and ’40s, when our culture was more coherent and constructive. It can also be said that Capt. Honors’s videos were not extreme by the standards of our day. Even his bigotry seemed self-spoofing, as obviously nitwittish and vulgar as the character he was playing—himself—was nitwittish and vulgar.


But the videos were a shock in that this was a captain of the U.S. Navy, commanding a nuclear-powered ship, and acting in a way that was without dignity, stature or apartness. He was acting as if it was important to him to be seen as one of the guys, with regular standards, like everyone else.


But it’s a great mistake when you are in a leadership position to want to be like everyone else. Because that, actually, is not your job. Your job is to be better, and to set standards that those below you have to reach to meet. And you have to do this even when it’s hard, even when you know you yourself don’t quite meet the standards you represent.


A captain has to be a captain. He can’t make videos referencing masturbation and oral sex. He has to uphold values even though he finds them antique, he has to represent virtues he may not in fact possess, he has to be, in his person, someone sailors aspire to be.


A lot of our leaders—the only exceptions I can think of at the moment are nuns in orders that wear habits—have become confused about something, and it has to do with being an adult, with being truly mature and sober. When no one wants to be the stuffy old person, when no one wants to be “the establishment,” when no one accepts the role of authority figure, everything gets damaged, lowered. The young aren’t taught what they need to know. And they know they’re not being taught, and on some level they resent it.