Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Motivational speech versus reality - the tale of the ship and the lighthouse

 Motivational speakers seem to live in a different world than the rest of us. They tell us Great Stories containing Underlying Truths and Universal Principles. We should be able to get the world by the tail, wrap it around, pull it down, and put it in our pocket. But, we’re more likely just to live in a van down by the river.   

On October 31st Rich Hopkins blogged about Another Visit to Speak & Deliver’s Story Graveyard. In that post he listed several motivational stories that should never be used again and buried. One was The Ship and the Lighthouse. It was popularized by Stephen R. Covey in his 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Supposedly it came from an article written by Frank Koch that was published in Proceedings, the magazine of the Naval Institute. The version on  page 33 of the 2004 edition of Covey's book goes like this: 

“Two battleships assigned to the training squadron had been at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. I was serving on the lead battleship and was on watch on the bridge as night fell. The visibility was poor with patchy fog, so the captain remained on the bridge keeping an eye on all activities.

Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported,
‘Light, bearing on the starboard bow.’
    ‘Is it steady or moving astern?’ the captain called out.
Lookout replied, ‘Steady, captain,’ which meant we were on a dangerous collision course with that ship.
    The captain then called to the signalman, ‘Signal that ship: We are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees.’
Back came a signal, ‘Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees.’
    The captain said, ‘Send, I’m a captain, change course 20 degrees,’
‘I’m a seaman second class,’ came the reply. ‘You had better change course 20 degrees.’
    By that time the captain was furious. He spat out, ‘Send, I’m a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.’
Back came the flashing light, ‘I’m a lighthouse.’
    We changed course.”

His takeaway was that:

“Principles are like lighthouses. They are natural laws that cannot be broken.”

The story is considered to be an urban legend that is discussed both on Snopes and Wikipedia. There are more recent versions, including an April 8, 2008 speech published in the September 2011 issue of Morning in America where the opening line now was that classic literary cliche that:

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

Also, the battleship went from generic to the mighty U.S.S. Missouri (BB-63), as shown above. There also is a YouTube video. Rich Hopkins lamented that:

“True or not, I've heard this so many times I'm now rooting for the ship to plow right into the lighthouse.”

Well, it already has. On December 23, 2000 the motor vessel Janra, a 100 m long, 3,999 ton container ship with an 18 m beam was bound from Rauma, Finland to Bremerhaven, Germany. It collided with and completely destroyed the 20 m (66 ft. high) unmanned Troeskeln Vaestra lighthouse. The Janra began to list, and two hours later it turned upside-down. The crew all got out safely. It was towed to a safe anchorage, some containers were removed, and after two salvage attempts it was righted and towed to the Finnish port of Turku (near Rauma). It was renamed the Atlantic Comet.

The BBC story about this accident was titled Lighthouse Lost in Boat Drama, and the CNN story was titled Stranded Cargo Ship Towed to Safety. It wasn’t the first time that lighthouse had been hit. You can download and read the detailed 81-page marine investigation report. Unfortunately there was not enough light for solar panels to recharge batteries, so the lighthouse was dark when it was hit. Damages were at least 12,750,000 Euros. The moral just was to watch where the heck your ship is going.    

 An image of the U.S.S. Missouri came from Wikimedia Commons.

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