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When should you confront your boss?

By Antoine Bebe

Captain Brett E. Crozier of the American USS Theodore Roosevelt nuclear aircraft carrier was “relieved of duty” after he had sent a letter to his hierarchy asking for help and requesting to disembark a significant number of the 4.800 crew members, as more than 100 of them had contracted coronavirus. The letter was leaked to the media. Secretary of US Navy Thomas Modly took the decision of dismissing Cpt. Crozier. When the captain left the ship, crewmembers acclaimed him. In a speech, Modly stated that the captain "allowed the complexity of the challenge of the COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally." After a major controversy in the media and in the U.S. Congress, Mr. Modly had to resign.

Letting politics and media aside, this story raises the question of decision-making when interests or values are conflicting and this could be food for thought for managers. Let’s explore the dimensions at stake in the situation.

1. From a strategic defense point of view, taking the decision to shut off a major asset for the country’s defense and deterrence is definitely not an easy choice to make. Besides, sharing internal problems with a wide audience could jeopardize national security.

2. From a human point of view, it is obviously wrong to endanger the lives of many soldiers when no immediate military threat is occurring. Cpt. Crozier made this point in his letter. At the same time, some enemies could use the crisis situation to take bold actions. Putting deterrence on hold could lead to higher potential casualties.

Sailors’ safety and country’s safety are conflicting values here. But other factors are involved.

3. Trust in hierarchy, which contributes to team spirit, is also very important. As a manager you want your team to trust that you will do your best to protect them, especially if you ask for extra commitment when needed. In the case of the Navy, this means putting their lives at risk in case of an open conflict. This has proven to be a lever in the controversy as the sailors saw a hero in Cpt. Crozier.

4. The image of the Navy was also at stake. In the business world, we would talk of corporate image. Mr. Modly blamed Cpt. Crozier for having sent a letter to many people in an unclassified manner, and in doing so, for taking the risk of a leak, and of giving the Navy a bad image.

5. Lastly, Captain Brett didn’t respect the process that requested to bring this matter only to his direct hierarchy in a confidential manner.

To sum it up, we have here 5 major dimensions that are active and conflicting in the situation, and this creates a crisis scenario:

  • Operations (strategic defense)

  • People (safety of team members)

  • Team engagement and motivation

  • Public image of the organization

  • Respect for hierarchy and internal processes

Two correlated criteria were also at play:

  • The first one is exemplarity. What would be the expected behavior for a role-model leader in the situation? How will their decision impact the leadership model within the organization? This relates to the engagement and motivation factors of crewmembers.

  • The other is transparency. Considered by some as vulnerability, it is connected to both the image of the organization and to the process. It raises the question of whether expressing vulnerability endangers the organization, especially in a hostile environment.

What is striking in the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier case is that Captain Brett E. Crozier and NS Thomas Modly each embodied a different cluster of conflicting values and criteria. For Cpt. Crozier, the high priority criteria in the decision process were people, team engagement and motivation, transparency, and acceptance of showing vulnerability, associated with an evaluation of military/geopolitical risks at a low level. Mr. Modly put forward operations, public image of the organization and respect for hierarchy and internal processes, associated with an evaluation of military/geopolitical risk at a high level. Please note that probably each of them was fully aware of the other criteria, but did not rank them as a priority in this specific context.

Let’s now make some suggestions, aimed at facilitating your decision-making during times of crisis and preventing a leadership crisis to come on top of it:

  1. Clarify your personal values and your organization’s values prior to any crisis. Imagine scenarios where these values could conflict and anticipate how you would arbitrate.

  2. Communicate these values to your team. Walk your talk, lead by example, and explain your challenging decisions by referring to these values.

  3. Include in your complex decision process the extraordinary situations in which team members or hierarchy could infringe on the regular process. To this aim, you need to be at ease with a bit of paradox.

  4. Always check the impact of your decision on yourself, your team, your stakeholders, your department, your organization and the wider system it is part of (such as local, national or global economy, society and culture…)

  5. Be aware of and exercise your freedom to obey or disobey. Be aware that obeying just as disobeying are choices, and that they bear consequences.

  6. Consider that under some circumstances, vulnerability, if accepted and communicated with full awareness, might show a leader’s true strength.

  7. Be aware that your behaviors and decisions as a leader play a significant role in reinforcing or shifting your company’s culture, as your leadership and the way you embody it will make you a role-model for others.


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