The Lesson of Discernment

The following excerpt was taking from Chris Brady‘s popular book, Leadership Lessons from the Age of Fighting Sail.

Leaders must cultivate the ability to make good decisions. This requires the ability to discern between multiple options that may all appear to have near-equal merit. It will also occasionally require going against accepted procedures or violating orders. Rules are a double-edged sword; great leaders understand both edges and make their decisions accordingly. Discernment comes with experience and a clear understanding of principles and objectives. Leaders who comprehend the bigger picture and their role in it develop the ability to discern between the challenging choices with which they are confronted.

Illustration: The Failure to Conquer Sailors’ Worst Enemy

To sailors in the age of fighting sail, there was an enemy to be feared more than rival combatants, cannon fire, musket balls, grapeshot, and cutlasses combined. Between 1500 and 1800, this enemy is estimated to have killed at least two million sailors. During the eighteenth century, this enemy killed more British sailors than enemy action. In George Anson’s voyage of 1740–1742, this enemy killed more than two-thirds of his crew (1,300 out of 2,000) within the first ten months of the voyage. During the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763), the Royal Navy enlisted 184,999 sailors, of which 133,708 were killed by this enemy.

If you were responsible for the lives of sailors during this time, you would think that conquering this enemy would be your number-one priority. But strangely, naval leaders put far more focus on tactics and strategies for capturing enemy ships and sailors than on this killer.

The enemy I’m referring to is scurvy. A disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C, which causes malaise, lethargy, skin spots, spongy gums and loss of teeth, bleeding from the mucous membranes, neuropathy, and, most important, death, scurvy has a fascinating history. Over the centuries, cures for scurvy have been repeatedly discovered and then forgotten.

The disease was first documented by Hippocrates as early as the fifth century BC. Crusaders in the thirteenth century suffered frequently from scurvy. In Vasco da Gama’s 1497 expedition, sailors understood that citrus fruit had a curative effect on the disease. In 1536, while exploring the St. Lawrence River in Canada, the French explorer Jacques Cartier and his men were saved from the disease by local natives, who taught them to make a tea from the needles of White Cedar trees, which are high in vitamin C. In 1593, Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins taught his men to drink orange and lemon juice to prevent scurvy.

Without being able to isolate vitamin C, doctors and scientists did not understand why these acidic substances cured scurvy but only that they were effective. In 1614, John Woodall, Surgeon General of the East India Company, published a handbook for apprentice surgeons aboard company ships in which he recommended fresh food when available and when not, oranges, lemons, limes, and tamarinds—and, as a last resort, sulfuric acid. (The belief was that the acid, not vitamin C, had the curative effect, and therefore any acid would do.) Physician Johann Bachstrom published a book on scurvy in 1734, stating that “scurvy is solely owing to a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens, which is alone the primary cause of the disease”3 and urging the use of fresh fruits and vegetables as a cure.

In the 1740s, James Lind began clinical trials—the first controlled experiments in the history of medicine—to discover the cause and a cure for the disease. By 1747, he had proven that scurvy could be treated and prevented with citrus fruit. He officially published his findings in 1753 and then attempted to sell lime juice as a medicine. But because the vitamin C in his juice became oxidized, it had no effect in treating scurvy, and therefore the Royal Navy did not adopt the solution until the 1790s. The belief that any acid would have a curative effect on scurvy persisted in Britain into the late nineteenth century.

The first major long-distance voyage without a fatal outbreak of scurvy was made by Spanish naval officer Alessandro Malaspina, whose medical officer, Pedro González, was convinced that fresh oranges and lemons prevented the disease. It wasn’t until the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) that scurvy was finally eradicated from the Royal Navy, due to the efforts of Gilbert Blane, the chairman of the Royal Navy’s Sick and Hurt Board, who implemented the use of fresh lemons. Interestingly, the remarkable health improvement that ensued among sailors played a critical role in subsequent naval battles, notably the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1867, the British passed the Merchant Shipping Act, which required all ships of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy to provide a daily lime ration to sailors to prevent scurvy. The term “limey,” referring to British sailors, derives from this practice.

But even after the 1867 act, British sailors continued to suffer from scurvy well into the twentieth century. The reasons were because the belief still prevailed that the acid did the trick, and much of the lime juice used aboard ships was exposed to light and air, thus oxidizing and reducing the vitamin C content. In fact, in 1918, an experiment was performed using samples of the Navy and Merchant Marine’s lime juice and showed that it had virtually no antiscorbutic power. It wasn’t until the belief that scurvy was a nutritional deficiency, best treated by eating fresh food, particularly fresh citrus or fresh meat, became universal in the early twentieth century that scurvy began disappearing for good. The reason why was not discovered until ascorbic acid (vitamin C) was isolated in 1932 by Hungarian biochemist Szent-Györgyi and found to be the antiscorbutic agent (rather than mere acid).

CB 3

Understanding and Application

This may seem like somewhat of an odd example to use for the principle of discernment. But when you think about it, it’s actually quite a profound and useful example. When more sailors are dying from scurvy than combat, wouldn’t you think that you should pour resources into finding a cure for the disease?

One primary job of a leader is to discern where resources are needed the most to have the greatest impact on the objectives. This example is akin to a software company today pouring all its resources into creating superior technology when its people are leaving in droves because of a diseased culture. In this case, superior technology depends on a superior team; until the leader cures the culture, the technology cannot be created.

Perhaps one reason why Britain’s Royal Navy, or any singular country, for that matter, did not allocate resources toward finding a cure for scurvy is that the navies of all nations suffered from the same disease. In other words, if a problem is the same for you and all your competitors—if none of your competitors have an advantage when it comes to this problem—why seek a solution?

But this is where the discernment of a leader is critical. The fact that British sailors were  healthier and suffered less from scurvy than their combatants played a critical role in the Battle of Trafalgar. When leaders can find areas for improvement that their competitors ignore, superiority can be achieved. Sometimes, the place to focus is not where leaders traditionally focus (e.g. superior technology, greater capital, improved production processes, etc.) but rather on overlooked areas that can have a dramatic impact on productivity and results. This requires discernment on the part of the leader to analyze his or her organization and determine critical areas that must be addressed.


One of the most critical skills leaders must develop is the ability to make the right decisions—especially under fire. They must learn to see not just two or a handful of options but a multiplicity of them. They must be able to weigh the merits of each. Then, they must know which option to choose.

In many cases, this may require going against protocol, breaking rules, violating orders. Hence, a leader must also be aware of the consequences of his decisions and actions. It is precisely this awareness that allows a leader to break rules when a situation demands it; a good leader would rather face criticism from superiors than lose people and battles because he failed to make the right decision in the heat of battle.

Leaders are not rigid dogmatists but rather flexible pragmatists. They hold their integrity, principles, values, and ideals inviolate. But when it comes to strategies, tactics, and procedures, they do what it takes to achieve the objectives—even if it means breaking the rules. They do this because they understand the why behind rules. They see the big picture. They don’t necessarily flaunt rules, but neither do they worship them.

Great leaders make decisions that, in the moment, appear to others to be foolhardy and reckless. But when the smoke clears, their decisions are actually realized to be less a product of courage than a product of wisdom and discernment.

(Posted by Kristen Seidl, on behalf of Chris Brady)

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