thesis on leadership theory entitled “Mastering Leadership Reflexes: A Case Study of Captain Aubrey”. Of course, all it takes is the last two words of that title to get any O’Brian fan going. Needless to say I read the whole thing. Twice.
The paper is fascinating as a stand-alone evaluation of Russell West’s 2004 piece “A Reflex Model of Leadership Development” published in the Journal of Religious Leadership. It layers the groundwork of West’s theory with the command skills of the fictional character John Aubrey, RN as portrayed, not in O’Brian’s fiction, but in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Before I go any further, I feel compelled to point out that the co-authors of the thesis are all members of evangelical Christian churches. Though it is not my habit to discuss my personal feelings on religion here at Triple P, I must say first and foremost that this was a stumbling block for me in evaluating the material. I could not, in all fairness, get past the thought that the examples and information put forth would be used to manipulate people into a devotion to a business model that wears the vestments of spirituality. This is purely an honest, upfront admission on my part so that anyone reading my analysis will know that I come to the material with a bias.
Well, more than one bias if I’m honest. The authors rely entirely on Jack Aubrey the character as portrayed in the Peter Weir film. There is no reference to O’Brian and certainly no reference to the historical accuracy which was so important to that author. I won’t go through the piece line-by-line as that would be a crazy insult to the Brethren, but allow me to point out a few issues which jumped out at me.
A specific juxtaposition is made by the authors under the heading of “The Ethical Consideration Reflex.” Here they point to Aubrey’s ability to “… make right choices in ethically muddled situations…” One is the scene where in able seaman Worley is lost over the side of Surprise during a storm. Part of a mast is torn away and it begins to drag the ship down, as the line in the movie says, “like a sea anchor.” Aubrey makes the decision to cut the mast’s rigging, freeing the ship but dooming Worley to death by drowning. The second is Aubrey’s decision to suspend the pursuit of Acheron in favor of making landfall so that his friend, Stephen Maturin, can be saved vis-à-vis removal of a bullet from his abdomen.
These “right choices” are perhaps not so black and white outside of the context of the movie – particularly in the second case. While saving the many over the one is an almost textbook military leadership choice, saving the personal friend over duty, ship and crew is quite another thing. This is not, one must be thankful to say, a choice that Aubrey was required to make in O’Brian’s series but it is a choice faced by military leaders throughout history. Would John Aubrey, however fictional he may be, have made the choice of friend over duty? We probably would like to think that the answer would be yes but, based on the historical record, it is more likely “maybe.”
Another glaring issue for me was the authors argument under “Collaborative Reflex”, wherein they assert that Aubrey “develops camaraderie with his executive team…” and “… creates an environment in which [the crew] work together using their individual strengths and abilities to accomplish a common goal.”
Indeed, and again on the face of it, Aubrey is a cheerful “friendly” leader, willing to allow men to do what they are best at without hovering while showing compassion in times of injury, illness or death. Unfortunately this is not as uncommon, historically speaking, as the authors might like to imagine.
Aside from the likes of captains such as Bligh and Pigot, who created hells afloat, most naval leaders were and are aware of the confinement of their situation. There truly is nowhere to go in the middle of the ocean and it is not only the leaders but the men who must trust in and encourage one another in order to ensure that everyone not only gets home safe, but successful as well. Making repairs at sea, changing approach rather than sticking to “orders”, promoting or disciplining individuals as necessary and so much more would have not only been required but expected.
The idea of camaraderie was a feature of Jack’s personality as penned by O’Brian. He was very much a captain who needed a particular friend like Stephen Maturin. In stark contrast, and to stay within the realm of fiction, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower is very much “the man alone.” He may consult and dine with his lieutenants, but in the final analysis he will decide the fate of his ship and her souls. I wonder what the authors of this piece might make of Hornblower as his leadership style in the BBC dramatizations of Forester’s works relates to West’s theory.
Of course there is so much more to consider but I may already have worn out my welcome. Click over and read the piece yourself. If you’re so inclined, let me know what you think. I’d particularly like to hear from you O’Brian scholars; you know who you are.
Header: Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander