Tuesday, 24 February 2015

you can sail the seven seas....

I got into work on Monday to find one of those weekly newsletters from a company that at some point gave you some training.  I unsubscribe from most of these at the first opportunity as I have a very low patience threshold for that sort of nonsense.  I tolerate one or two, however, and it was in one of these that I found the following story:

Not long ago, there were two junior officers in the Dutch Navy who made a pact. They decided that when they were at the various navy social functions, they would go out of their way to tell people what a great guy the other guy was. They’d appear at cocktail parties or dances and say, “What an unbelievable person Charlie is. He’s the best man in the Navy.” Or, “Did you hear about the brilliant idea Dave had?”
They revealed this pact to the public the day they were both made admirals – the two youngest admirals ever appointed in the Dutch Navy.”

This is apparently called "The Dutch Admiral Principle" (it's a "Paradigm" if you're particularly pretentious) and was apparently first told in a book called "Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life" by Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy.  A quick google reveals that this is a thing.  People really like this and it's one of those stories that gets used as an example of the power of networking.  There's a closed group on LinkedIn and everything, which I can only assume must have members drawn only from the top drawer of the world's business elite, and doesn't just accept any old Herbert...

It's a nice neat little story, isn't it?

It's also obviously bullshit.  It's wonderfully non-specific, isn't it?  No dates, no names (I'm assuming that there haven't been all that many Dutch admirals called Dave and Charlie). How young were they when they were appointed?  Were they both exactly the same age? How much younger than the next youngest admiral were they? Is this something they keep records on in the Dutch navy?  Is promotion in the Dutch navy based mainly upon networking - at cocktail parties and dances, no less -  and someone talking you up rather than any kind of solid achievement?

It's a nonsense.  It's also exactly the kind of neat story that people who work in business and fancy themselves as quite the thing like to tell to each other as though there's some kind of deep and signifiant meaning to it.  At no point has anyone stopped to wonder if it's actually true or indeed holds any kind of wisdom at all.  If it's not true, then what's the value of it?  Why re-tell it?  Is it actually good advice and a way to move your career forwards, or has someone just made up a good story?  Do you read Tolkien for advice on the best way of destroying a magic ring of power? (well, probably not, because I'm not sure that Gandalf was all that great a programme manager, truth be told.  Way too hands on with little in the way of real delegation and a habit of reacting to events rather than demonstrating any real planning or risk management.  But I digress....)

There's another reason to dislike this story too: my wife and I made a very similar pact back when we first got together in 1999.  I can't help but read this story and wonder if she's been holding up her end of the bargain.....


  1. The "Dutch Admirals" story appeared in a textbook of mine in the 1970s, and was much better told than here. I'd love to find the original ... can you imagine "Dutch Admirals" named "Dave" and "Charlie" going to "cocktail parties?" Perhaps authors Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy found it in the same textbook when they were in college, or got it from some other earlier source ... and did a cheesy recollection of what they'd read. A great concept that everyone should practice (not just in business), not well told.

  2. Whether or not your wife may not be holding up her end of the bargain has nothing to do with the principle's merits (how ever poorly related). Just because people kill people doesn't mean the idea of not killing people has not merit, either.

  3. Jimmy, I'm not sure I follow you on the killing/not killing bit.

  4. Unknown - I like the idea of people talking each other up, but only if they're being truthful and not just making stuff up to get each other ahead. But I do agree that being nice about (and to) other people is a great idea and we should definitely all do more of it, even - perhaps especially - when there isn't an ulterior motive.