Monday, August 18, 2014

Valiant voyage

Ernest Shackleton

Last night my husband and I watched two of three parts of a series called Chasing Shackleton. It is a report on the re-creation of Ernest Shackleton's journey with five others in a small boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island and the traverse of the interior of South Georgia. [If you are unfamiliar with the story, there is a good summary here.] It was inevitable that I record and watch the series. As a child I had an interest in Antarctic exploration and read accounts of many expeditions, including Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.* The book struck a chord with me. For a couple of years, when a small piece of swampy land near our house froze over I made my brother play 'Shackleton's Valiant Voyage' almost every day. I was Shackleton, of course, and he was at times Frank Worsley and at others Dr. Macklin. I don't remember exactly what we did on the ice but it must have been important. It is one of the only childhood games I remember.

In the introductory minutes of the documentary the leader of the expedition stated that he wanted to undertake the journey to learn more about how Shackleton accomplished the amazing physical and social feat of bringing all his men to safety in the face of unbelievable hardship. How did he organize and execute their activities and what was unique about him as a leader? That question piqued my interest and is why I sat through the inevitable scenes of big seas, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements and drama about navigation and position. 

I am disappointed that the documentary, at least so far, has not provided even a hint of an answer to the question. It has instead revealed Tim Jarvis, the modern leader, as peevish and somewhat selfish. In reading reviews of the show it seems that he found himself at odds with the production company and their values. But I don't think a leader of Shackleton's mettle would have reacted in the same way Jarvis did. It all resulted in a dissonance which made it uncomfortable for me to watch the screen.

The literature of polar exploration is, almost by definition, a clinic on successful and failed leadership. The physical stress and the fact of the unknown created demands on the expedition principals and their crews that would reveal all of their strengths and weaknesses. I have learned that in the last few years Shackleton's accomplishments have been used by many business writers and teachers as a model to be examined and adopted (see here and here and here). My favourite description of his qualities as a leader was written by Sebastian Coulthard who was the engineer on the modern expedition we watched last night. His words resonate with me. I see my own style reflected in all of them.

I wonder about the relationship between my childhood fascination with Shackleton and with polar exploration generally (Scott's failures also interested me) and my current approach to working with groups. Why were those stories more compelling to me than the books my peers were reading? Was I drawn to read them because my young brain was looking for a way to organize the world and found what it needed in Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and even Robert Scott? Or did I see myself in those books? Was I already organizing my thoughts in ways similar to those described in Coulthard's piece and therefore found the books soothing in their familiarity? That's a lot of questions. I have no answers.

* Research shows me that the cover art I remember is of Endurance: Shackleton's incredible Voyage but my recollection of the title is Valiant Voyage. Lansing did write an abridged book with that title but the covers don't look like the book we owned.

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