What Could Sink Us?


” . . . [Hornbower] began to feel that life in the Navy, although it seemed to move from one crisis to another, was really one continuous crisis, that even while dealing with one emergency it was necessary to be making plans to deal with the next.”¹

The series of books by C.S. Forester follows the Royal Navy career of one young man — Horatio Hornblower — from midshipman to admiral during the Napoleonic Wars. Largely through mistakes and mishaps, Hornblower learns strategic planning, risk management, and leadership skills. Early in the first book, a captain gives the young midshipman the task of taking a captive French merchant ship and its cargo back to England. Knowing that the ship may have sustained damage in the battle, Hornblower sounded the hull well to check for water leakage. It was bone dry. Even so, the ship continued to slow in its progress. It became sluggish and unresponsive. By the time the new officer realized what was happening, it was too late to save the ship. A cannon ball had broken the hull during battle. Water had been leaking into the hold. Soaking up the water as it came, the cargo of rice continued to expand silently until it destroyed the ship from within. There was nothing left to do but abandon the prize and await rescue.

Two Failures

Young Hornblower did everything right — given what he knew. But at two points, he failed to get the key piece of data that might have saved his ship: it carried a cargo of dry, absorbent rice.

First, the captain didn’t inform him. Hornblower was well-trained, smart, and resourceful. If the captain that delegated the ship’s command to him had mentioned the rice, then Hornblower may have realized that the usual ways of testing the hull for leaks would prove useless.

Second, he didn’t find out for himself. In the rush of taking his first command, Hornblower failed to take stock of the hold’s contents. Securing prisoners, making topside repairs, and plotting a course were crucial tasks, but not the only ones.

Delegate Well, Take Command with Initiative

As the board, you may undermine the new executive director by not disclosing details about your organization that might hamper her success. Don’t assume that she’ll see the same things you do. As part of the succession planning process, do a thorough assessment of what’s happening inside the organization. Share your findings — the good and the bad — with the new CEO at the outset of your work together.

As a new CEO,  it’s up to you to look for hidden dangers that could stop your progress. Perhaps the board doesn’t know about a problem. Maybe they know a situation exists, but don’t recognize the danger it poses. You have command — it’s up to you to figure out what is really going on.

10-Minute Board Discussion

What could sink us?  How would we know if it’s happening?


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto user nopow.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

¹Forester, C. S. (2011-05-02). Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (Hornblower Saga) (p. 52). eNet Press Inc. Kindle Edition.

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