Centre College Special CollectionsRecently, I reread Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and it got me thinking about management best practices. He recounts his experiences as a pilot’s apprentice, learning how to safely navigate the Mississippi River in a steamboat. He was Samuel Langhorne Clemens at the time, but picked up his pen name from the boatman’s term, ‘mark twain’, for sounding the water depth at two fathoms – the minimum safe depth for a steamboat. The only way to learn the intricacies of the great Mississippi was to team up with an experienced riverboat pilot who would mentor the apprentice, or cub pilot, on how to safely bring boat, crew, passengers, and cargo to their destination.

The Good Boss

Mark Twain’s mentor, Mr. Bixby, was a demanding taskmaster who would be satisfied with nothing short of mastering every detail along the entire length of the river. Yes, Bixby was a demanding taskmaster, but he was not the bad boss. His high standards and high expectations eventually impressed the young Mark Twain as being essential for competent performance as a riverboat pilot, and Twain’s admiration and appreciation of his mentor comes through very clearly.

The Bad Boss

It was a temporary assignment with another pilot, Mr. Brown, that gave Mr. Twain the experience of a bad boss. Allow him to do the introduction:

He was a middle-aged, long, slim, bony, smooth-shaven, horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault hunting, mote-magnifying tyrant.

What on earth, you may wonder, could earn a man such disapprobation? Basically it came down to this:

Brown was ALWAYS watching for a pretext to find fault; and if he could find no plausible pretext, he would invent one. He would scold you for shaving a shore, and for not shaving it; for hugging a bar, and for not hugging it; for ‘pulling down’ when not invited, and for not pulling down when not invited; for firing up without orders, and for waiting FOR orders.  In a word, it was his invariable rule to find fault with EVERYTHING you did; and another invariable rule of his was to throw all his remarks (to you) into the form of an insult.

It is heartbreaking to think that this may still sound all too familiar to some. Not the shaving a shore/hugging a bar part, but the finding fault with everything. For those who see some merit in a hypercritical approach to managing, let’s see what Mark Twain had to say about its effect on him:

No matter how good a time I might have been having with the off-watch below, and no matter how high my spirits might be when I started aloft, my soul became lead in my body the moment I approached the pilot-house.

In today’s world of business, we are seeing an abundance of evidence that employee engagement is a boon to business performance. It is easy to imagine that an employee whose soul becomes lead in his body on going to work would not be a boon to business performance.

What effect does your workplace climate have on the spirits of your employees?

Twain, M. (2000). Life on the Mississippi. N.p.: Dover Publications, Inc.

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