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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Captain's Fireplace

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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“Captain Newton wants to speak to you,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

“The captain?” I thought to myself. I’d only been out of training for a couple of months and already I’d done something wrong! Why else would the boss of the entire base be calling me, a lowly ensign?

I was soon to find out.

“This is Captain Newton speaking. You know that large dumpster that sits in front of the supply building?”

Oh no. Nothing good could come from a dumpster. It stinks. It blocks his view. He hates it.

“Yes sir,” I responded. “I think it’s a Dempsey version, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Well,” the captain continued, “I’ve noticed the past few days that it’s been filled with scrap wood. If nobody else wants it, I was wondering if it would be okay if I fished out a few pieces for my home fireplace—on my way home. That is, if nobody else wants it.”

“I’ll check with supply ASAP and see how to make it happen,” I eagerly responded, taking pride in the fact that I had employed the military expressions “ASAP” and “make it happen” in the same breath. Next, I dialed the chief warrant officer in charge of supply and explained to him the captain’s request for the scrap wood—taking care to include the captain’s proviso, “if nobody else wants it.” The supply officer said he’d take care of it and get back to me.

Two hours later, when my phone finally rang it wasn’t the supply officer getting back to me. Instead, it was the captain’s wife. She thanked me profusely for the lovely wood for her fireplace. I graciously accepted her words of appreciation and then headed out to learn why the captain’s wife was so excited about a few pieces of scrap wood.

Before I could track down the supply officer, I overheard the following conversation at the water cooler.

“You can’t believe the old man. He calls us and demands that we cut up beautiful new boards so he can burn them in his fireplace. We go out to his home, measure the fireplace, cut expensive oak to fit it, band the wood, and deliver it so he can burn it! We’re reusing our typewriter ribbons in order to save money, and he’s burning oak.”

Soon the entire base was abuzz over “The Captain’s Fireplace.”

To find out how the original request had become so twisted, I talked to each of the people between me and the seaman apprentice who actually delivered the newly cut wood. It turns out that each person in the chain of command had faithfully passed on the request to the person below him, while making slight changes in the wording. This was much like the “telephone” game we played as kids where you whisper something in someone’s ear, that person whispers the same to the next in line (distorting it ever so slightly), and so on until the original expression, “Mrs. Whipple has a pimple,” comes out the other end as, “Whip the purple carburetor.”

In this version of the “telephone” game, the chief warrant officer explained that he had called the chief petty officer and passed on that the “old man” wanted the wood in the dumpster. Note the term had switched from “captain” to “old man,” and from what I thought was a tentative request (“If nobody else wants it”), to a mandate. The next person explained that he had told his direct report that the old man wanted new wood for his fireplace. He figured they’d better not use scraps filled with nails and jagged edges and run afoul of the captain. The next fellow thought to avoid getting in trouble they ought to measure the fireplace so it would fit. It wasn’t long until it was new oak that was being measured, cut, banded, and delivered to the captain’s home.

Unlike the “telephone” game where the original expression follows a random path, the captain’s request followed a predictable one. The original request was altered to fit the story people were carrying in their heads about the captain—and all other senior leaders who ever abused their authority.

Rumors always follow this route. In order for tales to be shared, first they must be plausible. If you suggest that a person everyone respects did something ghastly, typically the first person hearing the rumor stops it, checks the facts, and otherwise refuses to besmirch the good name of someone they like. The rumor never gets off the ground. In the case of The Captain’s Fireplace, if one person had thought, “The captain wouldn’t want us to cut up expensive lumber. Let me go check . . .” the problem would have been averted.

For an unflattering story to be told, and then retold and twisted into something as bad as the wanton abuse of government property, the listener must have it in his or her head that the bizarre actions contained in the story are just the kind of thing the person in question would do. And the next person has to believe the same.

It gets worse. In this instance, the story that was passed down the chain of command was not about this particular captain, but about everyone’s notion of a typical captain, and as such was infused with the characteristics of every abusive leader who came before him. Captain Newton suffered from a prejudice just as pernicious as if it had been based on his race or creed. He was “one of them” (a senior leader) and we all know how they behave. They abuse their authority, jerk people around, and get what they want. Tainted by this mental set, Captain Newton’s innocent request was eventually twisted into a ridiculous demand for personal gain.

Given this proclivity to please the boss, coupled with the willingness to think the worst of others, leaders need to take care to ensure that their rough ideas or mere suggestions aren’t reframed by overzealous subordinates into rigid and foolish orders. Leaders must track their ideas as they flow through the organization. When a pile of scrap wood turns into a bundle of banded oak, take heed. This is not a feel-good story. This is a bad sign.

As crazy requests come our way, we all have a responsibility to get to the root of the matter rather than simply pass on the ludicrous demand with a disgusted eye roll. For example, while I was meeting with a grad student a few years back, he took a call from his boss. The student was on educational leave from a company in The Netherlands, taking a masters course 5,000 miles away from his family, and working nearly every waking hour to finish his degree a full semester early. On top of all this, his boss back at headquarters was now asking him to take on a new task that would consume all of his time for the next month. This, of course, would flunk him out of school and cause him, his family, and the organization innumerable problems. The student explained the situation to his boss who responded, “A VP made the request. Do you understand? A VP wants you to do it and he wants you to do it within the next thirty days!” That was it.

“Watch this,” the student said. He then picked up the phone, called the VP, politely described his predicament, and ended by explaining that he would do whatever was best. The VP immediately backed off the request and explained that perhaps the young man could take up the task after he returned from his educational leave. They’d talk later.

“I knew the VP wouldn’t want to cause me such grief,” the student explained. So, he stopped, assumed the best of the person in authority, went back to the source, gathered the facts, shared his view, and together they made the right decision. Rather than piling one more story onto the stack of tales about selfish and thoughtless bosses, he now tells the tale of the thoughtful VP who cared about his family enough to put off a job until it better fit the young man’s circumstances.

Granted, people do crazy things, make insane demands, and appear to be operating with less than a full deck far more often than we’d like to admit. And, like it or not, leaders aren’t exempt. Nevertheless, there’s no need to make matters worse by twisting ideas to fit our own worst image of others. Instead, we need to confront senseless ideas and absurd requests as they come our way. Start with your s
trongest tool. Assume others are rational—most people are most of the time. Search for the facts. Refuse to implement misguided ideas or commands until you’ve tracked down the original request and informed people about the potential consequences.

In short, eliminate creating your own version of The Captain’s Fireplace. There are far better ways to warm your toes.

11 thoughts on “Kerrying On: The Captain's Fireplace”

  1. Sidney DeGarmo

    Great story, I liked it a lot. One thing is missing – what did the Captain do after finding out what transpired between his original request to the final outcome?

    1. Kerry

      He never said a word. I thought I’d hear from him, but nothing came from it.

  2. Antonio Trentini

    Great story! Thank you Professor Patterson!

  3. Bernie Landis

    In some cases, going back to the source can be seem as a form of insubordination or lack of trust. How do you get around this when a request comes from someone like the customer or a higher up? How do you make it clear to the person that you got the request from that you were just confirming the request and not trying to go around this person?

    1. Kerry

      I’d start with the idea that I’m calling to make sure I understand the request. I certainly want to do what’s best, and that means I need to clarify some of the details. Then, as the other person hears what has be handed to me–if it has been distorted–he or she will let me know.

  4. Sharon Silva

    This story really resonates. As a follow-up, please address what steps leaders should take to prevent this kind of a culture especially in the face of the “fun” aspect for those who are very happy to think the worst of leaders while they willfully refuse to consider the various pressures and forces leaders are subjected to. Taking potshots with others, like gossip,
    builds solidarity and is just too much fun. How might bystanders who find “cheap shots” distasteful and inappropriate respond without coming across as self-righteous?

    1. Kerry

      When someone shares a rather ugly story with me–one that feels like gossip and has probably been distorted–I try to pleasantly respond: “Really? That doesn’t sound like so-and-so to me. Then I switch to a different topic. I don’t build on the idea. I don’t preach.

      Of course, I’m human and don’t alway succeed.

  5. Steve Corwin

    Awesome story! You have a wealth of experience Kerry, and a grounding in the right well-spring. Thank you for sharing this. I want to be like the grad student more than I have been. Deing direct, accepting responsibility, seeing the “possibility” that others mean well, but may be poorly-informed, all these make for a better reaction to unexpected requests. Thank you for providing the inspiration. I am going to share this link with mt fellow participants in a leadership program I am attending.

    1. Steve Corwin

      Oops, I misspelled Being and my in my post. If your moderator can correct those before adding my comment to the blog, I would be most appreciative. Thanks, Steve

  6. Advanced Reading Concepts

    Great story. Very thought provoking.

  7. When a "Casual Comment" is Anything But -

    […] an excellent cautionary tale he calls “the captain’s fireplace”.  You can read the original story for yourself, but here’s a quick summary…  The captain of a military base notices some scrap wood […]

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