I have pondered for the last several days the brouhaha that has developed over the actions and response to those actions relating to the former captain of an American aircraft carrier who released an insecure message about the health concerns he had about his carrier group and where they would be docking that ended up making it into a media report that was then published and commented around the world. Rather predictably, the Navy disciplined him, as it should have, and rather predictably, others sought to praise him for his concern for the well-being of his crew. In communication, as in everything else that human beings are involved in, problems of constrained optimization are nothing new. The officer in charge of a carrier group has a lot of concerns that have to be simultaneously addressed, of which the well-being of the crew is certainly an extremely high concern but not the only one. Leaders in general have to think of several things at once that are not always easy to address, and the well-being of the institution as a whole often has to be balanced against the well-being of one’s own particular people for whom one is responsible. In such situations trade-offs and procedures designed to protect everyone’s interests and well-being become important.
What balancing should the commander of the aircraft carrier group done that was not done? He clearly sought to maximize the well-being of his crew in such a fashion that did not serve other interests for which he was rightly taken to task for by his superiors. There are ways of communicating such concerns he had through the chain of command so as to avoid creating the sort of media circus that ended up happening. It is extremely unlikely to the point of being ridiculous that the chain of command above him would have been unresponsive to his concerns about the health of his crew and their need for a safe harbor. Yet this fact did not need to be communicated openly to the whole world. There were, in fact, two enemies of the United States that most certainly did not need to know what was going on. The first was the media, which has demonstrated itself to be highly adversarial to the well-being of the United States as a whole to an increasing degree. If the disgraced officer or someone who received his message thought that having leverage on the naval hierarchy by leaking the story to the press was a good idea, they were deeply mistaken. The second enemy, of course, is the source of the Coronavirus, namely China, who would be very intrigued and pleased to know that an entire carrier group in the Pacific zone was out of action because of a disease that they released into the world and then tried to cover up through their soft control of various local, national, and international institutions.
It seems baffling that the officer could have been so naive or foolish, or even treasonous, not to understand that this is a problem. But if we only think of one factor in a given situation as being important we can regularly create a lot of problems for ourselves and others because we do not take other concerns into consideration as well. One of the foremost problems of design is not losing sight of the trade-offs and multiple factors that have to be optimized simultaneously for the well-being of people and institutions. It is facile to point out that something could work better for a particular function that we may want to maximize if something was changed, but doing so only makes the whole system more vulnerable to threats that are often not taken into consideration when we only look at a single factor among many that apply. The quest for unrestrained one-factor maximizing is an immensely selfish one, that well suits our self-absorbed age, but it serves the interests of humanity as a whole very poorly. By only looking at how things relate to ourselves or our corner of the world or the particular location or group of people that we have to deal with, we may be led to do things and say things that reflect negatively on the institution and people whom we serve but whose interests we may not always have in mind. A leader has to keep these larger factors in mind, because a failure to do so will lead to negative consequences that will harm that leader and the people and institutions that leader serves, as happened to the carrier commander who found himself entirely properly reassigned because he let a lot of people who did not need to know know about something very important and also very private. Doing the right thing, like protecting one’s sailors, the wrong way is still the wrong thing. Let us hope that this is a lesson learned for everyone involved so that it is a mistake that is not repeated in the future.