To say that I’m a bit obsessed with the Aubrey/Maturin series would be an understatement. Since I’ve started them, I haven’t read another thing. And I’m on book 14 (out of 20). And you should be reading them. For a million reasons. They take place in an awesome period of history (the Napoleonic Wars), mostly on old wooden sailing ships (Ron Swanson Approved), they’re mostly based on real naval actions, and the characters in the books are incredibly human and interesting. But for this post I want to focus on one aspect of them, or more specifically, one character.
Jack Aubrey is one of the two main characters of the series, which opens with him getting has first command in the Royal Navy. By the time of book 14 he has a loyal following of sailors for a few reasons, but mainly, because he’s a fighting captain. When he boards enemy ships, he’s the first one over the side, with his heavy cavalry sabre in one hand and a brace of pistols strapped across his chest. And his men are right behind him.
But this idea of a fighting captain pertains to more than just raw courage. He’s also been ‘put before the mast’ as they say. When he was a youngster (a cadet, really), he was kicked out and forced to become a common seaman (for bringing his paramour onto the ship without the Captain’s knowledge). Humiliating as it was, it turned into an opportunity to learn about sailing from the keel up, not just ordering other hands to raise anchors and make sail, but actually doing it himself. And twenty years later, commanding two hundred men, he’s all the better for it. He understands ships and sailing than most men of his age and rank and his men know it.
He fights well, with raw ferocity when it’s called for and quick-thinking but intelligent strategy whenever possible. He also stays on deck through the most severe weather- hurricanes and typhons and sailing in the high southern latitudes westward around Cape Horn, and the men trust his judgement on all nautical matters.
And yes, he’s fictional. But much of his character is taken by author Patrick O’Brien, from real men who would have been his contemporaries. You may (or may not) recognize this flag, and the saying inscribed on it:
It’s Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry‘s battle flag from the war of 1812, and the saying is part of American Navy Lore. It is part of the last words of Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake which fought the HMS Shannon in a single ship action on the first of June, 1813. The battle came about when the Shannon, blockading Boston harbor (where the Chesapeake lay), low on supplies and water, issued a challenge from Philip Broke, her captain. It reads thusly:
“As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags. The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat-gun; 18 pounders upon her main deck, and 32-pounder carronades upon her quarter-deck and forecastle; and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys, beside thirty seamen, boys, and passengers, who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately. I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation. We have both noble motives. You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by repeated triumphs in even combats that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect. Favour me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here.”
Captain Broke basically said that he was looking for a fight and the only honourable thing would be for the Chesapeake to come meet him before it was too late… and Lawrence obliged him. And later, mortally wounded on the quarterdeck, Lawrence commanded his officers, ‘Don’t give up the ship! Fight her ’til she sinks!’ These are the type men Jack Aubrey is based upon.
As usual, now on to my main point. When you find yourself in a position of management, in a position of leadership, in a position where you are asking or telling others to do jobs that no one wants or that people think they are above, you should probably have done it. You should know every job- know where everything is and how it works and where to find what- because you’ve done it all before.
At my first bar job, the second night I worked, barbacking, the owner came in from work in his suit, and some drunk asshole had taken a dump in the bathroom, everywhere but the toilet. And my boss got in there in his suit and a pair of gloves and cleaned the whole thing up while I stood there holding the back. 15 minutes into my second day on the job and I knew that this was the kind of guy I wanted to work for, and the kind of boss I wanted to be. The job was maybe below him, but he knew I didn’t want that job, and he knew how to get it done so he did it. And that meant the next time, I had no excuse. In the 13th book of the Aubrey/Maturin series, when the First Lieutenant of the ship is explaining that the men will have to row since it’s a dead calm to a passenger, he says, ‘There is an old saying in the service, when very hard work is to be done, “the gentleman hale and draw with the mariners.” Presently you will see the Captain and the Doctor take their spell.’
Your team is counting on you to protect them in the same way you are counting on them to deliver. So you back them ferociously to outsiders and reprimand them privately. On the great TV show The West Wing, Toby Ziegler says: ‘We’re a group. We’re a team. From the President and Leo on through, we’re a team. We win together, we lose together. We celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories sweeter because we did them together… You’re my guys and I’m yours… and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.’ But it isn’t just enough to say it. You have to live it. You pick your team, you work together, you grow together, and then you back them to the hilt.
I work in a restaurant. One thing I always notice when I go out is how the staff deals with fuck-ups. A missed food order, a late food order, a bad temperature, extra cheese instead of no cheese, whatever the case may be. There are generally two types of wait staff- ‘Sorry guys, the kitchen is x (where is x=behind, slow, messing up, etc…), and I’m sorry guys, I’ll fix it.’ I make a point when I drop off food on re-fires or talk to tables to smooth things over to say that it’s my fault, that I’m sorry, that I will fix it- because the kitchen, they’re my guys, and we succeed and we fail together. No passing the buck no matter who’s fault it was.
So be a fighting captain. Know your job and the jobs of the people that work for you. Respect that they work for you and they will work hard if you treat them with respect. Steer with clear vision and don’t be afraid to take advice from those around you with specified expertise, but you gather all the pieces and make the final call. And then, when you have to, be the first one over the side.