On the setting of standards

One of my Dad’s jobs when he was a Divisional Inspector with the RNLI was, as the name may suggest, to inspect the readiness of the crews, the boats and various other aspects of stations’ operational activities. And with this, as with every other aspect of his life, his standards were high.

This might sound like a good thing. But as a kid who just wanted to get through his homework as quickly as possible so that he could go out walking with the dog or sailing with friends, I sometimes wished that I’d be allowed to do the bare minimum and be done with it. But that wasn’t how my Dad was made.

“Do it properly or don’t do it at all,” he’d say. Or bellow, depending on the gravity of the matter at hand. I can still hear his deep voice enunciating these words as I write them. And don’t mistake the ‘or’ in this phrase as a suggestion that an element of choice was involved. My periodic retort of “OK, then – I won’t do it at all” did not receive a positive response.

High standards, for my Dad, were everything. And given that him doing his job well could mean the difference between a life being saved and a person slipping silently beneath the waves, I guess I can see where he was coming from. Though it could on occasion make life rather, er, ‘interesting’ for everyone around him.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post the story of the reflective tape, which may give you some insight into the lengths to which Dad would go. So imagine, if you will, the days of rigorous testing, checking and double-checking that went on whenever a new lifeboat arrived at one of his stations. By the time he pronounced it fit for service, the entire crew would invariably be on the verge of nervous breakdown. But you could be sure that both they and the boat were 100% ready to go.

Dad told me once that, during his time in the merchant navy, he’d spend quiet hours on the night watch running through ‘what if’ scenarios in his head and thinking through how he would respond. What if one of the engines broke down? What if the cargo shifted? What if the radio picked up a mayday call?

So it came as no surprise when one of his colleagues recounted to me the time that my Dad got to wondering, while out on a night exercise on an all-weather lifeboat, how long it would take the crew to notice that someone had fallen overboard and what they would do about it. So he hopped over the side into the dark water below.*

On another occasion, an inshore lifeboat crew was due to appear on a TV quiz show called ‘Busman’s Holiday’, in which each team was made up of people from a particular profession. One of the rounds of the quiz consisted of a series of questions on the team’s ‘job’ – in this case, of course, being an inshore lifeboat crew member – and my Dad was asked by the producers to set the questions.

My sisters and I urged him to set some really easy questions, to help ensure that ‘his’ team won a holiday to some exotic destination. Oh, no. My Dad got out his Atlantic 21 operations handbook and started to dig out, quite frankly, the most obscure of facts. His argument was that the crew should know this stuff.

But who would even know if he set some questions that sounded technical but were actually really easy for a lifeboat crew member, we persisted. “I’d know,” he replied. “So would every other lifeboat crew member around the country. And so would anyone else who knew the slightest thing about seamanship.” I don’t recall whether or not the RNLI team won, but if they did then they certainly deserved their holiday.

And he applied the same rigour at home. I must have spent hours of my life, if not days, practising tying knots. While other kids my age were slumped out in front of the TV, I was working my way through bowlines, sheepshanks and figures of eight until my Dad was happy that I could do them quickly, in the dark or while dangling upside down. (OK, I made that last bit up.)

To be honest, it’s taken me until my late thirties to really appreciate the logic of my Dad’s demand for doing things well or not at all. He set high standards and expected them of both himself and others. He knew this. His crews knew this. Hell, even I knew this, and I have the attention span of a mosquito.

Nowadays, he’d probably be revered as a management guru. But back then he was just a bloke trying to make sure that things got done right. And now, much to my surprise, I find myself applying the very same standards to pretty much everything that I do. Do it properly, I find myself muttering, or don’t do it at all.

I had a boss once who told me that it’s not always necessary to do things well. Sometimes it’s sufficient, he said, just to get them done to a standard where nobody complains. But he was wrong. And my Dad, infuriatingly, and as usual, was right.

* I suspect that health and safety rules would no longer allow this particular course of action. In fact, they probably didn’t allow it then. Oh, and apparently he was in the water for some time, even though rumour has it that the crew noticed his absence almost immediately...

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