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Letters to a Young Manager

The Steamers of Lake Geneva, #321
LTYM > Leadership and Values

Dear Adam,
Each summer, five steam boats come out of dry dock to serve the natives and tourists who wish to cross Lake Geneva and visit France, Lausanne or the "Swiss Riviera" in Montreux.  These are grand boats, with a keen sense of history.  It is a sight to see, with the casing of iron and brass, pistons and arms, that turn the giant paddle wheels. The iron frame is stamped with the date and place of the casting, as early as 1904.[1]  

There are engineers of different types, one mans the oil cans, ensuring that the moving pieces are each covered with the machine oil that keeps them moving smoothly.  Another monitors the steam pressure and fuel levels. These are the workers "in the trenches"  below the main deck of customers, ticket-takers, restaurant, and the wheel house of the captain and his officers above.  Yet all are required to make this enterprise go and reach its destination.  And it has successfully run for over 100 years.

Such a steamboat is a microcosm of the modern organization.  There are a variety of functions and each specializes based on need and skill.  Putting aside for a minute the paying passengers, one could imagine that the fuel is the revenue that makes the business engine go, and that those monitoring and refilling the fuel tanks are like a sales department.  If the steamboat runs out of fuel, the engines stop and the boat does not reach its destination.

Now imagine if the fuel engineers said that their job was not to refill the fuel tanks, rather that they would liaise with the engineers, and perhaps conduct tours of the engine room. If the boat ran out of fuel, it would not be their problem.  Perhaps further they may argue that the fuel was everyone's responsibility and the entire enterprise would be accountable.  

This state of affairs would be seen by most boat owners as a dysfunctional ship, not likely run by professional mariners.  And yet we see this in many organizations in the public sector, the passing "up the chain" the accountability and ownership, with the commensurate slowing down of ships, often to a standstill.  Imagine if we ran that way?  What would our funders say?

The real work of accountability is to pass the responsibility down the chain to the people who are specialized in the function. In that sense, even those on the front lines of an organization are the "owners." Smart organizations recognized that a 100 years ago.

[1] A list of the fleet of Lake Geneva boats is here: and brief history, here:


The real work of accountability is to empower the front lines as owners

Discussion Questions:

1) Are there clear owners of functions in your organizations? Whose responsibility is it to "get the check?"

For Further Reading:

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