Trustees! Beware hiring a Queeg

Dec 5, 2023
Kiefer Sutherland as Captain Philip Francis Queeg in Showtime’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (YouTube)

Trustees need to keep in mind that long success at following orders does not always equate to success at giving them.

Queeg here refers to the fictional captain of the USS Caine, a minesweeper. The story of his relief from duty by his executive officer (XO) has been related as a book, a 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart, a Broadway play, and a 2023 Showtime moviestarring Kiefer Sutherland.

Regardless of the iteration, Captain Philip Francis Queeg represents an archetypical leader that organizations of all stripes, especially nonprofits, must avoid placing atop their leadership structures, lest they founder when trouble brews, as it always eventually does.

The story’s military setting obscures its general applicability to management somewhat by forcing the discussion of Queeg’s leadership qualifications into a mental-health context. If Queeg were insane, the XO’s actions were a justified and even heroic completion of his duty; if not, they constituted mutiny and necessitated his court martial and imprisonment.

During the XO’s court-martial trial, it becomes clear that Queeg was an ineffective leader most of the time and dangerously incompetent during crises—when, of course, effective leadership is most urgently required. Had the small ship not changed course under the XO’s command, it well may have become the subject of a Gordon Lightfoot song like The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, though no one could say for sure whether the XO’s actions saved the ship and crew from destruction.

The fundamental problem was that the Navy promoted officers based on seniority rather than a frank assessment of their leadership skills. Queeg became captain because he was compliant, someone who over the decades of his career proved adept at following orders, not creatively initiating them. 

Queeg could follow commands, but couldn’t make them, not in ways commanding respect anyway. In fact, the same personality traits and skills that made him a competent subordinate rendered him an ineffective commander. Commands from above sublimated character flaws that his elevation to the top officer on his ship unleashed. Insufficiently checked by superiors who could not minutely monitor his actions and who assumed that he was a competent officer because he was captain, Queeg could tyrannize his men with impunity over relatively trivial matters—like broken coffee machines, missing strawberries, and excessive water usage—while also demonstrating poor decision-making skills in stressful situations, even when detonating mines, his ship’s literal mission. On at least one occasion, Queeg ordered his men to mark a mine for another ship to destroy while he piloted the Caine to safety.

Nonprofits’ storms

In pursuit of their respective missions, nonprofits also often find themselves buffeted by dangerous storms, typically of an economic, financial, or political nature. If they are to survive such existential threats, it is essential that they not have a Queeg at the helm and that they have in place monitoring and reporting systems sufficient to detect Queeg-like behaviors in case one is inadvertently hired.

American nonprofits have a long history of rooting out Queegs. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly pointed to the ubiquity of voluntary associations by the 1830s. A recent study shows that more than 15,000 of them received special acts of incorporation before the U.S. Civil War broke out. Uncounted thousands more formed under general incorporation laws or trusteeships.

Some of those nonprofits, which included a wide range of voluntary associations—from abolition societies to fraternal organizations to lyceums and museums to musical groups to private militia companies to temperance juggernauts—failed. Others, though, fulfilled their missions sufficiently well to remain active for years, decades, and in some instances centuries. The foremost factor in success was always the quality of their leadership, which largely turned on the quality of their governance structure.

Typically, a failing leader who was not a Queeg would resign and assume personal responsibility for the institution’s troubles, sacrificing his or her (and many early American nonprofits were indeed led by women) honor and reputation in the hopes of restoring that of the institution that they had inadequately served. But when a Queeg was in charge, s/he would blame others for the institution’s difficulties, thus endangering its reputation and hence its ability to fundraise its way out of the crisis.

Queegs place their own interests above those of others because they remain as deeply insecure as teenagers at their first dance. They know deep down that they are unqualified for the position entrusted to them, but accept it anyway for the money or prestige it brings. They fear that any perceived shortcoming or criticism will expose their inadequacies, so they work assiduously to block or distort information flows and will even blackmail or co-opt subordinates to keep their secrets safe.

Responding to Queegs-in-command

The proper response to discovering a Queeg-in-command, of course, depends on the context. Consider the example of a private militia company formed in Hudson, N.Y., in 1803. Members drew up articles of association, as any self-respecting American then knew how to do, and elected officers. When Charles Holt tried to co-opt the company by inducing the New York state legislature to appoint him captain of the association because he had more military experience than the officers that the rank-and-file had elected, everyone simply quit, tore up the articles of association, and started anew, leaving Holt “at liberty to manage his own affairs in his own way, without the incumbrance of soldiers.”

Such a drastic move worked because the organization was new and had no financial or physical assets of its own. More entrenched organizations often found it necessary to splinter when disputes arose. That left a rump organization and one or more spinoffs that often took key donors or even assets with them as they struck off in their own direction. Abolition, temperance, and women’s-rights societies were particularly likely to splinter when members differed over everyday tactics, long-term strategies, or the relative merits of following charismatic leaders like William Lloyd Garrison or Amelia Bloomer.

The worst crises occurred when trustees paid insufficient attention to clues that leadership was lacking. People were as “busy” then as now, they were just busy with different things, like killing their own dinner instead of ordering it on an app and dumping chamber pots instead of standing up after using a self-flushing toilet. So sometimes fewer donations, higher worker/volunteer turnover, increased complaints from mendicants, or a lower quantity or quality of outputs, like students, did not register until a crisis loomed. And recall that Queegs will try to prevent the dissemination of information that will expose or discredit them.

The third sector remains too vast for anyone to suggest detailed, uniform solutions to the threat posed by Queegs. To be forewarned, though, is to be forearmed. Trustees need to keep in mind that long success at following orders does not always equate to success at giving them. They should also create governance checks against executive misuse of power and find independent ways of monitoring management, because Queegs will always claim to be doing great, even as their ships sink.

Robert E. Wright is a senior faculty fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and author of Liberty Lost: The Rise and Demise of Voluntary Association America Since Its Founding (2023).