A Shipwreck Study

“The man who has experienced shipwreck shudders even at a calm sea”

“Below the 40th parallel south there is no law; below the 50th there is no God.”

— Ovid

Auckland Island is a godforsaken place in the middle of the southern ocean, 285 miles south of New Zealand, with year-round freezing rain and howling winds, it is one of the most forbidding places in the world. To be shipwrecked there means almost certain death. The island was once home to an extraordinary coincidence that allows us today to make valuable observations about leadership. In 1864 two ships were wrecked there at about the same time, at opposite ends of the same island. Each crew was unaware of the other’s existence. One of the crews nearly all but perished, the other survived. What can account for this remarkeable difference of fortune? The true story of human nature at its best and worst, serves as the ground of what can be described as one of the most extraordinary natural social ‘experiments’

Elliot Jaques and more recently, Justin Menkes both claim that leadership effectiveness is explained mainly in terms of intellectual or cognitive capacity. A leader, they argue, needs to think critically and judge maturely, grasping the subtle interplays between people, operations and overarching strategy. Both Jaques and Menkes are dismissive of personality and style and claim that intellect and ability to handle complexity are far more important to overall effectiveness and that the impact attributed to individual differences in personality or style is negligible in comparison.

In contrast Walter Michel, claims that it is fruitless to study individual differences when trying to explain leadership effectiveness, as situational differences account for most variance in leadership effectiveness. That is, different leaders in the same situation are likely to display far more similarity in their behaviour, than the same leader in a variety of different situations.

A third school of thinkers emphsise the crucial role played by  personality and style. This school is associated with scholars such as Bob Hogan, who regards personality as the key factor in explaining variance in leadership effectiveness.

With these competing theories in mind it is instructive to consider the story told by Joan Druett (2007), whose facinating  book ‘Island of the Lost – Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World’, recounts the shocking tale of two parties who were shipwrecked together 150 years ago at opposite ends of the same Island.

150 years ago, being stranded on the Auckland Islands equated with almost certain death. The howling sub-antarctic winds drove ships onto the shallow reefs, and most sailors quickly drowned. Those who made it to shore soon died of exposure and starvation. Those few who survived did so in dreadful conditions. Using the survivors’ diaries and journals and supported by historical records, Joan Druett describes the circumstances encountered by the two parties, who were both shipwrecked at the same island, at the same time, without being aware of each other. She explores the unique and different set of personality characteristics and leadership behaviours displayed by the two Captains and uses these to draw a fine line between order and chaos, life and death.

Auckland Islands

In 3rd May 1864, the 888-ton Invercauld, had left Melbourne for South America with a crew of twenty-five, on the second leg of her maiden voyage. Most of the crew came from Aberdeen. The crew was led by Captain George Dalgarno, first Mate Andrew Smith and the recently promoted second mate, the American James Mahoney. On May 10, the ship was running southeast before the northeast gale in horendous weather conditions. Dalgarno was barking orders to bring the ship about on the starboard tack, assuming that the sighting of land just reported was the southwestern end of Adams Island. Disastrously however, he was twenty miles out of his estimate and without realising it, he had navigated the ship onto one of the most dangerous subantartic’s coasts. With a series of dull crashes the mighty Invercauld struck, broke up fast.

The ship went aground, nineteen men made it safely to shore on the Northern part of Auckland Island. Almost immediately the ships captain began to show a failure of  leadership. Faced with the awful reality of their situation, the diaries of one of the mariners records that;-

“Instead of demonstrating leadership, Captain Dalgarno seemed too paralysed to order a search for shelter and food. Instead the party stayed on the beach a total of five days and nights, of which the nights were perhaps the worst. The lean-to, which was built from the wreckage, measured only five by eight feet and so nineteen men had to pack themselves on top of each other for them all to fit in, which led to fights and agonising cramp” (Druett, p. 111)

Dalgarno failed to cope with the dismal circumstances. Instead of rallying his men he is recorded as depressed and apathetic. As a result  his men gradually disintegrated into despair and anarchy. There were hardly any team-oriented coordinated efforts with the records showing that they “all lied down dying slowly”

The only ray of hope was a 23-year old seaman, Robert Holding. He went on several expeditions, all by himself, seeking food, help, and better shelter. He tried to encourage the others to act together to build shelter and find food, but as a young ordinary seaman he had no credibility. Even though he managed to provide food, identify shelter and even lead the survivers to a deserted camp where they had some shelter, Captain Dalgarno refused to support him. Instead Dalgrano saw the young seaman as a threat and preferred to pull rank on him. To assert his rank both he and his First mate threatened the young Holding with a knife for defying their authority and forced him to fetch roots for them whilst they kept their own counsel in an “officers area”.

George Dalgarno was a poor leader who stood by helplessly as the survivors wandered aimlessly for weeks without any thought through survival plan. The captain is often at the receiving end of sentences such as this: “That Captain Dalgarno, who should have exhibited the leadership expected of a man of his rank, was so extremely apathetic boded badly for them all.” Lack of leadership resulted in the men fighting amongst themselves and spliting up. One by one, they died from exposure or starvation – but not before some of them turned to cannibalism. After three months, only three remained alive. On May 22 ,1865, a passing ship rescued the inept Dalgarno, first mate Andrew Smith and seaman Robert Holding.

Incredibly, on the same day the Invercauld wrecked, on the opposite end of the island – only twenty miles away, the five castawys of a different shipwrecked were sat around a roaring fire in the shelter they built in the four months since their schooner, the Grafton, had wrecked, enjoying a well roasted seal they caught earlier that day. But before delving into the fortune of the Grafton castaways, it is worthwhile exploring the background that led them to that shelter. The Grafton’s Captain, Thomas Musgrave, was a different character to Dalgarno. Although a master mariner with the reputation of a steady captain and a gifted navigator, he was an adventurer and a risk taker, an adaptable improviser. In 1863, when his luck had run out, along with his job, he put his savings (with some financial backing of two investors) towards pursuing a wild venture in making a fortune proposed by two men he knew well. He was led to believe that there was a rich mine of argentiferous tin on the remote Campbell Island, which had not been located yet, but was there for the findings. Seduced by the magic term argentiferous (which means “silver bearing”), he bought a schooner and together with his French business Partner – an engineer named Raynal – he recruited three additional seamen, and set off on a dangerous and risky voyage to discover his fortunes in Campbell Island.

When arriving at their destination they went searching for the tin mine, but had not found a single trace of the precious metal. As their worst expectations were realised, all they had in mind was to find some way to retrieve the expedition. Killing seals for their pelts and oil was the best alternative, but as there was no sign of fur seals, Captain Musgrave made up his mind to return to Sydney. Fatefully, Musgrave had decided to call at Auckland Islands to assess the seal population there.

On January 3, 1864, the crew of five men, that was led by Captain Thomas Musgrave, sought shelter from hurricane-force winds in a natural harbour nested inside deserted Auckland Island. However, as the schooner Grafton lost its anchors, it wrecked on the southern end of the Island. From that moment, the story makes clear the critical importance of Musgrave’s leadership style. Wrecked somewhat far from the shore, one of the seamen managed to combat the extremely harsh rocky sea conditions, to create a line between the schooner and the shore. Seaman Raynal who was extremely ill, and too weak to hold on the line in order to drag himself to shore, was at risk of not surviving the wreck. Captain Musgrave tied him onto his back, and, seizing the pulley, he jumped. The double weight dragged the rope down so that Musgrave was forced to plow his way through the top of a surf, while Raynal desperately clung to him. This personal bravery and decisiveness brought Raynal to safety and inspired his men.

The conditions the castaways endured were relentlessly cold, wet and windy, with extremely low winter temperatures and snow or sleet much more common than sunshine. Utterly alone in the dense coastal forest, plagued by relentless rain and stinging blowflies, Captain Musgrave, rather than succumb to this dismal fate, inspired his crew to take action. Encouraged by their Captain, the men banded together in a common quest for survival. With nothing more than their bare hands, they salvaged material from the wrecked Grafton, built a cabin and a forge where they manufactured tools; they hunted for food, made shoes from sea lions’ skin, rotated cooking duties and nursed one another. Under Musgrave’s leadership for over twenty months, they banded together and remained civilized through the most terrifying and dark days. In the end they planned and executed an astonshing escape by building their own boat that they used to sail to safety.

Both of these leaders were on the same Island, at the same time and faced the same challenge. One of these leaders failed his men and fell apart, the other inspired his team, weathered remarkably harsh conditions and brought them all home safely… is there anything we can learn from this in the context of the schools of leadership we mentioned earlier?

Firstly I think we can conclude that it is not the situation that makes the leader, but rather the opposite. On Auckland Island in 1864 it was most definitely the case that it was the difference in leaders that made the situation. In Musgraves crew resources were shared (even the private tobacco of Captain Musgrave). There was no case of pulling rank. In contrast Dalgrano and his first mate forced the junior deck boys to fetch them food and water and were more content to drink water from the boys boots, than to move themselves to go and get it themselves. Similarly, when the resourceful and ingenious Robert Holding had came up with a new way of catching fish and was able to seize a big catch, his request from the first mate to help him carry it to camp to share with others was refused. He was even threaten at a knife point by Andrew Smith, the first mate, when refusing to go outside and fetch him some roots to eat. The situation faced by the two crew, although not pefectly identical, was as similar as one could imagine. Thus, differences in their fates need to be expalined in another way.

Secondly we can conjecture, probably convincingly, that the situation on Auckland Island did not require any advanced cognitive abilities. It is likely that all that was required to survive on Auckland was to solve three simple problems: morale, shelter and food. ‘Executive Intelligence’ cannot account for these differences? Captain Dalgarno was capable seaman, otherwise, he would have not been put in charge of the mighty Invercauld. Survival on Auckland Island did not require complex decision making. It required effective coordination and motivation of a team so that the team output is greater than the sum of the individual inputs – simple and basic leadership skills. Druett’s account of events makes it clear that what the test of leadership in the sub-antartic came down to was not intellect but character.

The conclusion that we are drawn to is that since all other things are equal that the personal style of the two leaders was the deciding factor that made all the difference. Dalgrano stuck rigidly to his idea of rank and remoteness and failed to rally his men. Musgrave, on the other hand, shared his own tobacco, showed personal bravery and made a direct impact on morale. Dalgrano on the other hand preferred his private despair.

Dalgrano also failed to move swiftly, leaving his men at the mercy of the winds for five days with no plan and precious little shelter. Musgrave, in complete contrast, secured shelter and food and warmth and clearly had a determined goal to survive from the very outset.

Classical experimental theory suggets that if two groups are exposed to the same conditions, then differences in groups’ outcomes can be attributed to differences between the groups – i.e., the group make-up. In experimental terms, this meant controlling for situational differences. Thus, if the situational explanation is valid, we can expect similar outcomes or fate for these two stranded parties. As their fortunes were very different, we can only conclude that individual differences – i.e., personality and leadership style – are the key explanation to their differing fates.

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 organisations 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 cannabalism.

Other Posts

  • MBA – Tongji University – Shanghai – The class of 2019

    MBA – Tongji University – Shanghai – The class of 2019

    16th June 2020
    Read More
  • Uncommon Sense

    Uncommon Sense

    11th May 2019
    Read More
  • Leadership @ the Edge of the World

    Leadership @ the Edge of the World

    11th May 2019
    Read More