Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


The above title is somewhat confusing.  It is the title of the movie that came out in 2003; however, the movie and the book by Patrick O’Brian are significantly different because they have taken two of O’Brian’s books and forged them together into one movie.  However, the thrust of both the movie and the books are the same as they are about the leadership qualities of Jack Aubrey, a brilliant and fearless captain in the English Navy.  The title gives you two clues: Master and Commander---that is what this book is about.  And, the far side of the world means that they will sail around Cape Horn and out into the Pacific.


The book is filled with such rich and full details it is hard to believe it was not written centuries earlier---the author’s research is prodigious---so much so that many a reader would need help translating the ancient and nautical language into modern terms.  The characters even speak as once they spoke.  Let me give you but one taste of this: “Watch, now.  He makes it fast to the cable---he reeves the jeer-fall through it---the jeer-fall is brought to its capstan, with the standing part belayed to the bitts.  So you get a direct runner-purchase instead of a dead nip, do you understand?” (p. 237).  In the book we have two women on board that don’t make it into the movie script and in the book the ship’s doctor is a spy for the English when not doctoring.  The seaman that is considered a jinx in the book is also an adulterer and most likely is the one who gave the woman a lethal abortion and who is then killed by the husband who then after killing the abortionist “jonah” hangs himself.  As you can see, the book and the movie vary in a number of respects.


But the value of the book is not in its exquisite detail but in the realization that leadership has not really changed over time.  We also see that drugs and alcohol were used then, as they still are today, to help people deal with pain and hardship and still get the job done. 


It is also interesting to note how humans are so adaptive---the life of a seaman in those days was so dangerous, painful, and harsh it is hard for us to appreciate the challenges they faced.  Today most of us in industrialized nations live wondrously easy lives in comparison and yet often lament about relatively trivial hardships.


In another very important scene in the book that doesn’t get into the movie, the ship’s doctor falls overboard and Jack without hesitation dives in to save him and both are lost at sea but saved by a Polynesian craft manned by women.  They are eventually rescued.  Later the doctor falls and injures his head---in the movie he is shot by one of the ship’s own men by accident.  In the book, instead of finding the American ship that they are seeking out and doing battle with it, they find it wrecked on a reef with the surviving crew marooned.  Jack goes ashore to meet with the surviving crew of the American ship.  A storm comes up and Jack’s ship is forced to leave the area and then a battle ensues between the Americans and the English on shore.


But before any of the above takes place, we begin learning about leadership from Chapter One when Jack reluctantly and fearfully reports to Sir Francis, the Commander-in-Chief.  “Sir Francis had an alarming reputation, not only as a rigid disciplinarian and a right Tartar, but also as one who would break an erring subordinate without compunction.  It was also known that Sir Francis longed for victory even more than most commanders-in-chief: for evident, positive victory that would please public opinion and even more the present ministry, the effective source of honours” (p. 15).  Thus the author points to an excellent example of incompetent egotistical leadership.


Jack commands in a very different manner with a focus on leadership through example.  He is someone the seamen look up to, an outstanding role model, so that he rarely has to rely upon corporal punishment.  On board his ship “punishment was extremely rare and where discipline did not have to be imposed since it came naturally” because the men desired to do well to please a captain they admired and trusted (p. 21).


Jack felt that “mutiny was always the fault of the captain or the officers” and that the ship must needs be run even handedly and consistently and one needed to avoid “alternate slackness and tyranny” (pp. 83-84).  Jack would “do a great deal for a happy ship, but not for a moment would he put up with deliberate indiscipline” (p. 124).


One of the reasons that Jack was a great leader is because he had been the victim of unreasonable leadership (p. 149).  Some people experience bad leadership and emulate it in response; while others, like Jack, do just the opposite.  Since bad leadership is so common, how did Jack learn to be a great leader?  How does anyone?  The answer is both simple and complex.  Great leadership requires the Rogerian response of unconditional positive regard for those under your command, of empathy, and of genuineness---all of which is part of the Golden Rule.  If you simply do unto others as you would have them do unto you, you have mastered the art of leadership.


When the ship is endangered when it becomes stuck on a sandbar, Jack doesn’t just give orders, he gets involved in the hard manual labor just as he would get involved in the fighting should the time for it come and he doesn’t lose patience but is willing to work long and hard to accomplish his goals (pp. 188-189).


But perhaps one of the most telling features of great leadership can be found in how a person relates to life in general.  “Jack Aubrey thoroughly enjoyed life, he was of a cheerful sanguine disposition…he generally woke up feeling pleased and filled with a lively expectation of enjoying the day” (p. 195).  If you are going to be a competent anything---person, husband, parent, therapist, leader---you must first work hard at making sure that you are enjoying life!