Conversations in Management: Captain Sigsbee

Judgment should be suspended until investigation has been made.

Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee

USS-MaineThe ship’s bugler played taps at 9:00 PM and as the last notes drifted across Havana’s harbor, a deep calm settled over the ship. The crew turned in, the night watch was posted and a few officers lingered in the smoking room. In his cabin on the USS Maine, Captain Sigsbee quietly wrote a letter to the rhythm of the gently rocking ship. He finished the letter at 9:40 and as he slipped it into its envelope the first of two massive explosions wracked the ship. As the Maine listed sharply the Captain knew, “The situation could not be mistaken; the Maine was blown up and sinking.”

The USS Maine was the pride of the American Fleet. It had been commissioned little more than three years earlier and reflected an entirely new design for the fledgling American Navy. She was as long as a football field, 57 feet wide and bristled with both 6 and 10 inch guns, four torpedo tubes and multiple cannons. She was one of the most lethal weapon systems on earth. And she was beautiful, too. Moored in Havana harbor, the sleek warship sported a peacetime white hull, soft electric lighting and twin cream-colored funnels. Now, in the darkness of February 15, 1898, she was in ruins and sinking fast. Two hundred and sixty sailors perished in the initial explosion. They were joined by another six before the final death toll was reached—266 out a ship’s compliment of 328. When he finally abandoned ship, Captain Sigsbee had only to step from the Maine’s aft into the rescue launch that had pulled alongside. He immediately telegraphed news of the sinking to Washington and in the message urged a suspension of judgment.

The catastrophe experienced by Captain Sigsbee differs only in scale from the kind of situation that leaders face every day. Presented with a data set—often compelling or dramatic—they are asked to arrive at a conclusion. That conclusion often has significant consequences for how a job gets done or how folks are treated. Today, with a largely self-imposed sense of urgency, leaders are pressed to make quick decisions on even mundane issues. That can cause problems.

Sigsbee recognized that point all too well. He knew that the Maine might just as easily blown up from an external detonation such as a mine or from the spontaneous combustion of her volatile coal supply. War hung in the balance and he realized that activists would see in the facts what they wanted to see rather than what was there. (Indulgent parents have the same problem with errant children!) Leaders trying to make objective decisions face a similar difficulty—they often see what they expect to see. Based on their training and experience, they quickly pull together the details and come up with the solution they expect to get—even when there is disconfirming evidence. It’s a strong impulse and hard to resist or even notice—particularly when pressed for a quick answer.

Over the last 100 years, four inquiries have been conducted into the sinking of the Maine—three by the Navy and one by the National Geographic Society. The jury is still out on the cause of the explosion. We don’t have the luxury of a hundred years and the resources of the Navy and National Geographic to make our decisions. The best we can do is slow down, stay suspicious of easy answers and look for discordant data. And, it will help to, “Remember the Maine!      —Ebert 

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