“The captain must go down with the ship” is a phrase associated with the captain of a sinking ship. In this sense, the captain has an obligation (commitment) to stay on board the ship until the last passenger is rescued. If passengers cannot be rescued, the captain goes down with the ship. Today, this idiom often crosses over to organizational culture, requiring the “captain” of the organization (usually the CEO) or senior leader of the department (VP, Director, etc.) to accept responsibility for their respective organizations decisions. This may result in an abrupt resignation or termination – sometimes with a nice golden parachute.
While it is logically sound that the senior leader, whether it be the ship captain or company CEO, does their best to faithfully serve their organization (or passengers), is it right to make them go down with the ship or lose their position in the organization… for a mistake? What if they had no idea there was an issue until it was beyond their control? What if they truly are just the scapegoat?
In the case of the Volkswagen emission scandal that erupted in September of 2015, then CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned and the suspension of 3 brand and research head developers followed. It was found that the automaker developed special programming that intentionally mislead emissions tests in many of their turbo diesel vehicles. Find out more here.
The sinking ship concept places the CEO as “the fall guy” showing how the organization “took action” to rectify the issue by terminating the CEO or an abrupt resignation by the CEO. If the CEO had no knowledge of the issue, should he resign or be terminated? An argument for this would be the CEO should have known, and if she did not, the CEO should be terminated for their inability to lead the organization. This may or may not be the issue.
The one thing that bothers me, is our (cultures) need to place blame. Why should the CEO resign if the issue was 2 or 3 levels beneath them? Wouldn’t correcting the root cause or terminating the scandalous individual be enough? For some reason, it appears that our society has the need to blame someone or we feel an injustice has occurred. Now, I am not saying that termination is an inappropriate action. Intentional and willful negligence and deceit requires a heavier punishment than say, an honest mistake. Pointing the finger makes us feel better. Instead, I propose we correct the issue, care for people, and make amends for our mistakes – intentional or not.
What happens next? Can the organization or individual recover from their mistake? Check out our next article discussing personal and organizational image – recovering from a mistake.
Jared W. Snow