Business Management read our book and wrote: “Stephen Crane’s circa-1900 short story The Open Boat offers a narrative about the importance of caring leadership.” We published selected parts of Crane’s short story in our Chapter Two (attached below) about the need for more emotional intelligence in 21st-century leadership:
The Captain, Cook, Correspondent and … the Oiler
When I read the short story “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century tale stood out because it offered a sharp narrative about the importance of caring leadership.
The ship’s captain leads his crew after a terrible fall—the sinking of his steamer ship—to the safety of land after spending several days and nights struggling to survive in the frigid January water off the Florida coast.
The captain is injured. He can’t row, but he remains alert and patient, despite the dangerous waves pouring into the small lifeboat. As the crew endures nature’s violent winds and high waves, along with circling sharks and the fatigue of continuous rowing to shore, the captain always speaks in a low voice.
He offers directions with phrases such as “Keep ‘er a little more south, Billie,” or “Take her easy now, boys…. Don’t spend yourselves. If we have to run a surf, you’ll need all your strength, because we’ll sure have to swim for it. Take your time.”
The captain offers lookout-post ideas such as attempting to sail by using his overcoat at the end of an oar, which gives the rowers much needed rest. Crane describes what the captain creates through nurturing leadership as being “the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said it that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him.”
After days of dealing with the messy environment of a life-threatening sea (a picture that would look beautiful from land but would be an ugly image if you were sitting inside a tiny boat fighting not to drown), the men realize they need one another to survive the indifference of nature, which doesn’t care whether they survive or die.
Despite the stressful setting, the men don’t get angry or yell at one another. One night as a cold wave rushes across the bow, the captain says serenely, “Bail her, Cook.”
“All right, Captain,” says the cheerful cook.
The story reveals how caring leadership always has been available. Read literature or history or any religious tome, and you’ll spot it. The problem today is that we’ve belittled humane leadership, jamming it into the box of stereotypes by labeling it as childlike or naive. But it’s much harder to stay calm and nurturing during tragedies and falls when people need to come together to survive, and Crane’s conclusion offers more.
Out of the crew’s four men, the oiler is the most muscular, the healthiest, and the most energetic. So when the captain attempts a run to land through powerful shoreline waves, the oiler leaps off the boat just as it is being swamped, electing to swim away from the boat, alone, confident in his strength to beat nature, while the cook, correspondent, and captain stay near one another, communicating as they wrestle with the strong surf and life-threatening currents.
The injured captain uses one hand to cling to the back of the boat and continues to guide the crew to shore. When he spots the cook struggling, even though the cook has a life-ring around his core, the captain calls to him, “Turn over on your back, Cook! Turn over on your back and use the oar!”
The cook soon paddles and moves “ahead as if he were a canoe.”
Meanwhile, the correspondent is stuck in a rip current but can hear the captain calling for him to “Come to the boat!” which is parallel to the shore. As the correspondent responds and swims to the captain, “a large wave caught him and flung him with ease and supreme speed completely over the boat and far beyond it… [arriving] in water that reached only his waist.”
The captain’s subtle leadership from the moment of the ship’s sinking to arriving on land is never veneer. He is alert, looking out for the crew even when injured and psychologically dealing with a major fall in his profession (the rare shipwreck).
One of the story’s timeless themes centers around how humans think they can control nature or life’s successes or failures, but usually they can’t. Think about experiencing that sudden hurricane, earthquake, tornado, or blizzard. The best way to survive any of life’s complexities is to understand that people working together is much more powerful than people working alone, the way humans always have dealt with nature’s indifference regarding whether we live or die.
The cook, correspondent, and captain survive the arduous journey through the winter sea even though they’re the physically weakest members of the crew, while the oiler—the strongest—swims off alone and drowns.