Since its founding in 1995, the fast company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) has tried to serve as a beacon of honesty, a virtual lighthouse — showing the way to truth and keeping consultants off the shoals of myth and away from the rocks of error. With such an illuminating mission, imagine the CDU's amazement to discover that consultants had lit upon the lighthouse as a metaphor for their own management theories.
In fact, consultants insist on treating a well-known lighthouse parable as an actual event. For example, in 1998, Michael Sitrick, founder of Sitrick and Co., a public-relations firm headquartered in Los Angeles, began his book, Spin, with this version of the lighthouse story:
Back in the autumn of 1995, radar operators aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier steaming off the coast of Newfoundland signaled the bridge that their ship seemed to be getting dangerously close to an approaching Canadian vessel. The captain promptly got on the radio, and the following exchange ensued.
U.S. Captain: Please divert your course five degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
Canadian Radio Operator: Recommend you divert your course fifteen degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
U.S. Captain: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.
Canadian Radio Operator: No. I say again, you divert your course!
U.S. Captain: This is the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea. We are a large warship of the U.S. Navy. Divert your course now!!!
Canadian Radio Operator: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
But Sitrick's lighthouse "citing" isn't even the earliest or the most famous account. In his 1989 best-seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, consultant Stephen Covey deployed his own version of the lighthouse story — which, by the way, instantly sent up distress signals to the CDU: If Covey wrote about the lighthouse episode in 1989, how could it have happened, as Sitrick claimed, in the autumn of 1995? Even more remarkable: Could this lighthouse escapade have happened not once, but twice? For that matter, did it happen at all?
To find out, the CDU launched its fact-finding mission with a search for the Coral Sea, the aircraft carrier that was supposed to have challenged the lighthouse. To find it, the CDU docked in Washington dc, at the Naval Historical Center, where John Reilly Jr. has headed the ship's-history branch since 1984. "The Coral Sea was commissioned in 1947," Reilly says. "But it was decommissioned in 1990 and sold for scrap in 1993." That would have made it hard for its captain to have had any kind of radio conversation in 1995, much less to engage in repartee with a lighthouse keeper.
So much for the aircraft-carrier side of the story. What about the lighthouse side? The CDU set sail for San Francisco, home port of Wayne Wheeler, founder and head keeper of the 11,000-member U.S. Lighthouse Society. Wheeler, formerly an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard for 12 years, opened the San Francisco branch of the Vessel Traffic Service in 1972 and founded the U.S. Lighthouse Society in 1984. Wheeler chuckled to hear that the lighthouse story is now making the rounds among consultants. "It's just a joke somebody made up," Wheeler says. "I heard it for the first time at least 10 or 12 years ago. And I've probably heard it hundreds of times since."
From the point of view of a lighthouse keeper, says Wheeler, the story is really quite dim. "First, a lighthouse doesn't look anything like a ship," he says. "Unless the weather's really foggy — and most versions of the story don't mention fog — you can see a lighthouse from far away as a fixed white light that flashes at a set number of seconds. On the other hand, ships are usually moving and have smaller, colored lights at the fore and aft. There's absolutely no way to mistake one for the other. "
Finally, the CDU took the lighthouse story to an actual lighthouse keeper: British Columbia — based light keeper Jim Abram. Abram has operated three light stations off of the coast of British Columbia since 1978. As president of the bc Lightkeeper's Union, he led a 14-year fight against destaffing and automating Canadian lighthouses on both coasts — a fight that he won in March 1998. During his long lighthouse-keeping career, Abram has rescued 30 mariners in distress and towed more than 115 foundering boats to safety. He has also taken hundreds of radio calls from seagoing vessels. How does the story square with his many years of light-keeping experience? In his career, has any vessel ever mistaken his lighthouse for a ship? Not once, Abram assures the CDU. "I've been lighthouse keeping for 21 years," says Abram, "and no one's ever thought that I was in anything but a lighthouse."
And what would a seasoned keeper like Abram do if a ship ever requested him to change course to avoid a collision? "First, I'd have to ask if the person was kidding!" laughs Abram. Which is what you should do the next time consultants try to brighten their sales pitch with the lighthouse story: Tell 'em to douse the glim!
A version of this article appeared in the September 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.