Responsibility’s A Motherbitch

Today, I sat in a crowded hotel ballroom and ate a surprisingly tasty chicken and noodle lunch while listening to Scott Waddle talk about his career. Waddle was a genuinely nice guy and upbeat about his life, which is surprising, considering he was responsible for the deaths of nine people, including four kids.

Waddle had a good, but quiet, career until an afternoon nine years ago when he gave a command to perform an emergency surface maneuver. It was part of a routine cruise, albeit, one that was also running through its paces to impress VIPs onboard the submarine, USS Greeneville. Waddle ran the maneveur by the books, but mistakes were made, as we tend to do as humans. Subsequently, the Greeneville, under Waddle’s command, came to the surface at a very fast pace, and its propeller cut the bottom out of a Japanese boat on a training cruise. The Ehime Maru sank within five minutes of the collision and not everyone made it off the ship – nine died, including four high schoolers.

As Waddle tells his story it is obvious how deeply he hurts, how he will carry his guilt to his grave. He is harshly honest, speaking of his emotions in the days that followed the accident and how close he came to taking his own life. He doesn’t say it, he hints at the fact that the mistake of the Ehime Maru’s position before the Greenville surfaced was another sailor’s responsibility. But the sailor was under his command and Waddle took full responsibility for the disaster.

Although he has written about the tragedy and talks about it with some regularity, the weight of that afternoon has taken its toll. His guilt is nearly visible and – when his talk is finished – you want to put your arm around his shoulder and tell him everything will be alright. Of course, there’s part of you thinks that he’s getting what he deserves – that there are nine incomplete families out there because of him. But then you realize that this guy followed the rules, did what the playbook said and sometimes mistakes just happen (and sometimes those mistakes are just really, really bad).

But here’s a guy who took it all – the accusations, the name-calling and everything that went along with it. He took responsibility for all his men and fell on the sword. And in many ways, that’s pretty damn admirable. Especially when I get back to my computer and see Citibank officials pointing the finger at everyone else and all the daily CYA stories you read out of Washington and corporate America. The decisions that Citibank made has arguably destroyed many more lives than Scott Waddle did, but we don’t see 1/10th of the responsibility from their leaders.