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Sunday, February 19, 2017

The disastrous consequences of poor leadership

Island of the Lost is the story of two near-simultaneous shipwrecks on sub-Antarctic Auckland Island in 1865, and the differing fates of the two sets of castaways.

Each was utterly unaware of the existence of the other group, and so they were left entirely to their own devices, completely dependent on the leadership skills of their captains.

One was an abject failure.  Though a competent and well-respected shipmaster, he did not have the flexibility to turn his men into a cohesive group, working together for their joint survival.  Over the next 19 months they all died, save three.  Some turned to cannibalism.  There was one resourceful seaman, Robert Holding -- but he was "just" a seaman, and so the captain disdained to accept his sensible ideas.  Instead, when Holding built a boat, the "elite" castaways took it over -- and then one of the officers lost it.  Robert Holding, the common seaman, was not worth talking to -- except when he managed to kill a seal, and had steaks broiling over a fire.  Those steaks, naturally, were appropriated.  And, because he wasn't considered worth listening to, the group fell apart, fought among themselves, starved, and died.  Only Holding and the captain and an officer survived -- Holding because of his versatility and resourcefulness, the "elite" because they had preyed on him, though without recognizing his skills.

The other group succeeded brilliantly.   The captain was a true leader.  Democratic to the core, he co-opted all the castaways into a brotherhood, where they all worked for the common good. They built a cabin, foraged for food, had a duty roster, built a forge, made their own tools, and constructed a getaway boat from the timbers of the wreck.  Because of the captain's fine leadership, they all survived.

The book, with its demonstration of the crucial difference that leadership makes, is used in courses in American schools and universities, and in Australia and the UK, too.  As the writer of a British paper
points out, "the unique and different set of personality characteristics and leadership behaviors displayed by the two captains" draws "a fine line between order and chaos, life and death."

As the study concludes, "[i]t is not the situation that makes the leader but rather the opposite. On the Auckland Islands in 1864 it was most definitely the case that it was the difference in leaders that determined the outcome ... The conclusion that we are drawn to – since all other factors are equal – is that the personal style of the two leaders was the deciding factor that made all the difference...

"As the fate of these shipwrecked mariners shows, much of the success and failure that we endure together hangs on the character of our leaders. When the winds around our organizations blow cold and harsh and our ship goes aground, it is that character that may make the difference between building a new boat to sail to success or consuming ourselves in cannibalism."

The inescapable conclusion is that the doomed set of castaways would have had a better chance of survival if their captain had gone down with the wreck.

It is a lesson that still applies today. Countries with mad, bad, incompetent leaders collapse in dissension, death and chaos, just like the unlucky castaway party, while those with democratic, unifying leadership will survive intact.

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