Tag Archives: “La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid”

On Decision Making, with the Assistance of “Captain Jack”, HMS Surprise

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by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note: I first became aware of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship, HMS Surprise, while I was undertaking some research on the music of the Spanish Court of the Bourbons. I was surprised, indeed delighted, to discover that Captain Jack was an aficionado of this sophisticated dance music, the best example being Luigi Boccherini and his celebrated suite “La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid” (1780), and so I became an aficionado too.

This was only the beginning of things I learned from Captain Jack, rightly called Lucky, and his cosmopolitan circle of friends, who seemingly existed in every port on all the Seven Seas. Jack was a sophisticated being… he always knew what to do, and when to do it. Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!

Still, his precise deliberation and inability to procrastinate were a terrible price to pay – for some.

And at no time was it easy, even when he made it look easy, as he so often did. The decision might come down to “yes or no”, but arriving at that point could be catastrophic. That is why I am writing this article today. We live in a time when people, even our designated leaders, make a positive science of eschewing responsibility. They are in for the photo-op, not for the hard business of actually making decisions. You might call our age the Age of Avoidance, since our entire structure is based on the shifting sands of irresponsibility and postponement.

The gravest decisions in the shortest times

And here we need to put Captain Jack under the microscope, for he was a decision machine, as were all captains in His Majesty’s Service. They had to make decisions, often the most serious of decisions, after quickly sizing up the situation. They didn’t have days, or weeks, or months to decide… they did not have the luxury of saying “I’ll decide tomorrow”. They had decisions to make, sized up their options, and made their choices.

Let us be clear, their decisions were not based on popularity, nor on the basis of how easy these decisions could be made. They had a decision to make… they made it… they lived it… and their sleep was not disturbed because of it.

Tortured by indecision

Now I wish to introduce you to a youngish man of my acquaintance, by which I mean he is still on the sunny side of 40. Like Captain Jack, he was a Navy man, only this time, United States Navy. Captain Jack would have started at the lowest step on the ladder for officers, midshipman, aged about 13. From here, there was no way but up. Of all the things he learned at his induction into the Navy, there was one that trumped all: it was the ability to decide to make a timely decision, and to make it without regret or second guessing.

Leaders make mistakes

Those mistakes were not so clear at the time they were made as when discussed by our “20/20 crew” afterwards. Never wrong, never doubting, always certain.

My young friend was not trained as an officer, and was not given the inestimable education in making decisions which could later prove to be mistakes. Leaders make choices, leaders make mistakes. They need to discover in their conscience if things could have been done in a better way. They are always keenly aware that those “better decisions” were not always available when their decisions had to be made.

In other words, they were willing to admit they were imperfect, that their decisions could have been better, but only in retrospect. My poor friend has not yet come to the understanding of this point. His advance to junior leadership has been painfully slow… he misses job after job because he balks when decisions must be made. He can be asked question after question, but the answers befuddle him. His employers want decisiveness, but they get instead his inability to say or to decide between A or B, or even C.

Thus, instead of leadership qualities, he projects uncertainty and indecisiveness. Thus, he projects a fear that he will do the wrong thing, and so, regrettably… he does. For such a man, upward mobility must be a long, painful, and frustrating journey. That is why when you see him, he seems to tremble. He knows, for he fears, he will be asked the question that has no answer. And of course, he will be… leaders always are.

Instead of facing decisions with bold audacity, he makes decisions that he hopes will please the people. That is the worst policy of all. People may seem to want to be catered to, but what they really want and know they need is severe integrity, knowing the truth, propounding the truth, evoking the truth, and facing every advance upon the truth. Which brings me to the most important story about Captain Jack and the HMS Surprise.

The Straits of Magellan where irrevocable decisions must be made

There is a place on the Earth where water seems to boil and hiss; where mayhem is the order of the day, every day. It is called the Straits of Magellan after the famous Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521). There, the winds are so powerful and contrary, a ship can be trapped within the constant movement of wind and water. You must go when you can, as fast as you can, or you will stay trapped, until the inhospitable elements are hospitable to you for just a moment.

Captain Jack was one of the many whose ship was immobilized, waiting for a moment only an expert mariner could discern, the moment the winds began to change. To take advantage of the slight wind and always turbulent seas, he lowered his small boats to begin the exhausting duty of pulling the HSM Surprise into the wind, called kedging or warping.

 During day and night, his men manned the oars, waiting, hoping, for the tiniest gust of wind that would commence their liberation from their relentless oars. And of course, it came, leaving the men to scramble as best they could back to the HMS Surprise so they could begin their epic escape.

Sadly, two men were left in the small boats trying to hack the rope that bound them to the Surprise, ropes which held them enthralled. Unless these ropes were cut from the Surprise, the weight of the dinghies would capsize her. One of these scrambled to safety. The other, axe in hand, worked to separate his small boat from the majestic warship. Thus, he was never entirely focused on his proper job, because that job had changed with the wind.

 Moments ago, he was separating boat from ship. Now, he was fighting for his life. He needed to get back to his ship, and immediately so. However, here, fate intervened, and everyone realized Captain Jack needed to make a decision, of life and death.

His first option was to slow the Surprise, and extricate the man overboard at the worst possible time: when he was fighting to capture the wind. He needed to focus on that wind, which benefitted all, and not merely the one man overboard. Captain Jack had an instant to decide which of these two immediate options he must choose from. And then, he ordered full speed ahead, man overboard, to die overboard.

Now if you’d like to see a picture that evokes the great seas, their interminable size, and the very definition of hell, call up the scene from the film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, released in 2003, starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack. The scene of that sailor bobbing up and down in the inexorable waves is haunting. The image will stay with you forever, as it has stayed with me.

So, Captain Jack made a decision, the decision, and a popular man was lost to the disgust of the entire crew, except for the Captain. The man who was thus lost at sea was friendly with the Captain; none knew him better. Yet despite their friendship, he didn’t pause. The decision rose up in his mind and heart, without challenge or second guessing. This is what leaders do. Leaders do not opt for the easy way. There was nothing more horrifying to Captain Jack than watching his friend pushed to a watery grave in the prime of his life.

What would you have done? Yes, what would you have done? Leaders must operate in the role of uncertainties, but they cannot let these uncertainties dictate policy. They must use what they know, even if to use it is horrifying, as it was horrifying in this instance, man being crushed by nature because the Captain, his friend, chose not to stop and imperil his mission.

Musical note

This scene is horrifying enough without the haunting music, “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”, composed in 1910 by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). With these notes, he transforms a tragedy into an unspeakable reality, all done by his friends, who loved him so, but let him die, all in the name of duty, and because a leader must lead, come what may.

A personal note. Dear friend, I have never told you all I am telling you in this article, and you will perhaps be unhappy with some of my opinions and observations. But if you wish to lead, as you have told me on frequent occasions you do, then do so.

Towards that end, I ask you one simple profound question: would you have used Captain Jack’s first option, cutting the ropes that bound the dinghy and the man-of-war, thereby ensuring the life of the man no longer overboard? Or would you have done what he did, to his own unspeakable horror, lowering neither boat nor more men, but keeping strictly on his mission, thereby rendering death inevitable?

 Now listen to the music, and remember, you have no more than two minutes to make the decision. You must make the decision wisely and well. You must make the decision forever. You must make the decision and never pine upon the answer you gave, for whatever the decision, you are the Captain, and your decisions are as resounding as God’s own.


 N.B. Teachers: use this article to teach leadership and decision making. Everyone of your students needs this information. You have my permission to use it.

 About the author:

Harvard educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is one of the most well-known authors in the world. He writes with a scalpel, on many different subjects, all pertaining to the betterment of Earth, and what you can do to work to improve matters too. Right now, over 100,000 people follow Dr. Lant, and you should too, because his flow of useful information to you is never-ending and enriching. His Twitter handle is @jeffreylant. Follow him now. You will be glad you did.

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