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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Island of the Lost -- a view from the top

Island of the Lost - A Fantastic Leadership Lesson

A marvelous book by Joan Druett offers a fantastic leadership lesson:

The book describes the true account of two ships wrecking on the opposite ends of a deserted island in the Southern Ocean in the late 1800s. Both crews have virtually zero supplies and face harsh conditions with freezing temperatures, rain and wind. One crew turns on each other and splits up. Some of the men die of starvation and others turn to cannibalism. The other crew endures for more than two years and manages to escape the island after meticulously planning and executing their getaway.

Given that both crews were facing the same outset how comes that one made it whilst the other hopelessly failed? I would argue their respective captains and their differing “management styles” played the most important role. The captain of the surviving crew, Capt. Musgrave, did foremost two things right:

First, he not only managed to inspire his team by pointing out the advantages of working together, but his course of action yielded noticeable results every single crew member benefitted from early on.

Secondly, he obtained the buy-in from his crew for his leadership position. Whilst he had previously been the captain of a ship and thus the team’s alleged natural leader, he nevertheless held a democratic vote on who should be “not a superior, but a head or chief”.

To my experience organizations in distress tend to do the opposite. Rather than inspiring their staff members and pointing out how a strategy would bring benefits to the entire organization, oftentimes regimes are installed that lopsidedly satisfy the needs of other stakeholders than the crew. By doing so, these organizations typically worsen the overall situation of the very workforce they so desperately depend on in order to overcome the adverse situation.

Moreover, organizations faced with hardship typically display an authoritarian top-down type of management style following the motto “I order, you execute – otherwise you will hang from the mast!”. If at all this management style fosters slavish obedience, instead of creating true buy-in.

Leaders who do not follow Capt. Musgrave’s role model cannot expect to have all hands (or brains!) on deck when needed. Far worse, however, these leaders run the risk of creating an atmosphere of distrust and even back-stabbing. Unfortunately the desertion that set in among the second crew and the cannibalism that followed suit are indicative of this very danger in the worst possible way.

Dr. Patrick Schüffel, A.Dip.C., M.I.B., Dipl.-Kfm.
Adjunct Professsor
Haute école de gestion Fribourg

With many thanks to Professor Patrick Schüffel, who very kindly gave permission to reproduce his post.

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