Shipwrecks & Leadership

Posted by jlubans on August 17, 2010

August 20 update: Joan Druett pointed me to a review of her book that also emphasizes the leadership differences between the two shipwrecked crews. Her next nonfiction book is Tupaia, due out at the end of November. Tupaia, Ms. Druett told me, "... is (about) another failure of leadership, this time focused on flexibility and ethnocentric arrogance -- on the part of no less than Captain James Cook!"

Joan Druett’s Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 2007) spins a great adventure story and along the way offers up several insights into leadership and how, when democratized, an essential-to-survival camaraderie can develop. In a disaster like a shipwreck, the all-for-one and one-for-all model greatly improves the odds for a group’s survival. When leadership is absent or uncertain a group can begin to deteriorate, to fly apart and self-destruct.

Druett’s story of two shipwrecks (the Grafton and the Invercauld) on Auckland Island, some 300 miles south of New Zealand, lays out what happened to those who survived the wreck and then endured months of cold, rain, storms and starvation, disease and hopelessness in an unknown, uninhabited and inhospitable land. The two ships’ crews never met, being at least 20 miles separated by a mountain range and dense forests, one in the south the other in the north.
The story reconstructs what happened and how one crew survived while most of the other perished.

Ms. Druett’s is an adventure story, not an how-to-lead textbook – I doubt it was featured in the Harvard Business Review of important new reads in 2007 for aspiring leaders - but her insights, her observations about the crews’ struggle to stay alive, apply to a workshop’s floor, a factory’s assembly line and bureaucratic offices.

One chapter, Democracy, follows the Grafton’s crew after its Jan 3,1864 wreck. While now tossed up on the shore, they were still arranged like on shipboard - sailors and officers separate. A mood of democracy was developing among the men, with rank becoming less important. Captain Musgrave saw that his orders, while obeyed, were done so with less than a happy spirit. Musgrave was puzzled, “…I share everything that has been saved from the wreck in common with them, and I have worked as hard as any of them in trying to make them comfortable, and I think gratitude ought to prompt them to still continue willing and obedient.”
The ship’s mate, Francois Raynal, a veritable Robinson Crusoe in his resourcefulness, observed and understood that “if habits of bitterness and animosity were once established amongst us, the consequences could not but be most disastrous: we stood so much in need of one another.
Realizing just how interdependent they now were, Raynal thought of a way to intervene before hard feelings become fast anchored: elect a leader.
After agreeing on a job description, the men heartily chose Captain Musgrave! He was to be not a master or a superior but a “head” or “chief of the family.” He “would maintain discipline, adjudicate quarrels, and give out daily tasks.” So, ship’s Captain Musgrave continued in a newly nuanced leader’s role with a group of empowered followers.

Contributing to a sustaining empowerment was the suggestion to set up a school to pass the long dreary winter evenings. Each was to instruct the other in their specialties. This included teaching two of the men to read. Raynal wrote in his diary: “From that evening we were alternately the master and the pupil of each other. These new relations still further united us; by alternately raising and lowering us one above the other, they really kept us on a level, and created a perfect equality among us.”

The Invercauld wrecked on May 10, 1864 with four of the 25 man crew dying in the storm. Robert Holding, a low rank sailor, yet highly inventive and resolute, quickly found himself up against a dysfunctional and unrelenting hierarchy. The ship’s Captain Dalgarno either was incapacitated by fear or unable to provide proactive leadership. The captain, for whatever reason, could not or would not issue orders or relinquish his traditional leadership. Subsequently, many of the crew – often splintered apart - died from exposure, starvation and accidents, including a strong suspicion of cannibalism. Only the intrepid Robert Holding, the captain and his mate survived, being rescued by a whaler that happened to pass by the island.
Druett attributes the survival of the two officers to a superior diet prior to sailing, unlike most of the sailors who were not well nourished ahead of the departure. For several months, the captain and mate lived 65 yards separated from Holding, only coming closer to partake in food Holding had hunted down.
After rescue, Captain Dalgarno would write his shipwreck memoirs never crediting Robert Holding for his survival. Holding did write his own memoirs many years later, having enjoyed a successful life, long outliving the Captain, who was never to see another command. Druett suggests that if Holding had been allowed to be more of a leader many of the men would have survived. Musgrave had similar, private thoughts after reading Dalgarno’s contemporaneous account of the shipwreck. The Invercauld’s “organization” and culture would not adapt, even when confronted with life or death decisions.

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