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Of Nimrods, geese & leadership
Note: The following is another in a series of columns on subjects of a philosophical or ethical nature by a Schuyler County resident who prefers to go by the nom de plume of A. Moralis -- a reference to what the writer sees as the lack of a moral compass in this country during this rapidly changing Age of the Internet.
By A. Moralis
It's an unfortunate fact of human nature that leadership is often of a failing variety.
Not always; no. There are those among us who by dint of honor or charisma or knowledge or fairness or an understanding of fellow humans are able to balance -- negate, even -- a too-human tendency to let ambition or ego run a little wild while in the captain's chair. But it's those last two characteristics -- ambition and ego -- that often trump the others, if the others are even present.
We could examine the failings of, say, auto executives and other administrators of various stripes who took huge bonuses while overseeing what was the business equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic (but with extra lifeboats wired to the businesses to prevent them from going under). At least the Titanic captain had the good taste to go down with his ship.
Or we could examine local leaders, but that is always dicey -- applying local names in critiques -- for one of the oft-noticed tendencies of failed leadership is the presence of notoriously thin skin and, on occasion, a disturbing inclination toward getting even. (We really, in this country, could use more calm, reflective leaders – men and women whose attitudes and actions are both a balm and an inspiration.)
Suffice it to say that while we do have some outstanding leaders around here, there have been a few across time who ... well, let's just say that what they've done hasn't always translated into successful, or even thoughtful, regimes. In my years I have seen failures of leadership in the public sector, in the private sector, on the playing fields and on committees. I have seen a micromanaging leader with a predisposition to rules squeeze the spirit out of the workforce, and watch those workers head for the door. I have seen a bully mentality permeate the administrative ranks of a publicly funded institution, leaving the workers with haunted looks. As have many of you, I have experienced the good and the bad sides of office leadership ... of office politics that either sing with inspiration or choke on negativity.
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes tragedy to effect change. (One example that comes to mind is a story passed along by a friend about a worker in a far-flung New York community who was so overstressed by an unkind boss that he fell over dead one day of a heart attack. The boss changed soon thereafter, kindness supplanting his pit bull tendencies.)
Tragedy is often a great catalyst of change -- change that is always too late, for sure, but at least preventive of recurring incidents. This is true so often in various aspects of life -- in the timeliness with which our laws are written, in the danger level of working conditions (such as in mines), in personal relationships, and in the general workplace, be it a business, school or government office.
In any such case, there is a remedy -- the show-the-offender-the-door mode of governing by those who oversee the operations. Bosses almost invariably have bosses (which, on occasion, are you and me, the electorate). Unfortunately, the bosses' bosses rarely exercise that remedy, for reasons ranging from intimidation to nepotism to self-interest to disinterest (often the case with the electorate). They fail, in short, to exhibit the nerve, the honor or the responsibility required in their positions to serve the greater good, and to bring order to chaos.
And that brings us to Sir Ernest Shackleton, an Antarctic hero of a century ago whose leadership skills resonate today. There is no suitable replacement for good leadership, no matter the century in which it occurs. And Shackleton, despite sustaining a good deal of second-guessing in his day, is seen as just such a leader.
Shackleton – an Irish explorer – led the 1907 Nimrod expedition to Antarctica that took him and his team closer to the South Pole than anyone had ever gone. And for that he was knighted by King Edward VII. But the real test of his will came on a 1914-17 expedition on which his ship Endurance got trapped in the ice and ultimately was crushed. When the pending fate of the vessel became clear, Shackleton ordered it abandoned and had his team set up camps on an ice floe, where they stayed for months, at one point transferring to a second ice floe – the hope being that the floe would drift toward an island 250 miles away that had supplies.
Eventually the ice floe broke in two, and Shackleton had his men get in three lifeboats they had taken from the Endurance, and he led them on a high-risk, five-day excursion that landed them at Elephant Island – their first visit to solid land in almost 500 days.
A nice leadership touch followed: Shackleton gave his mittens to his photographer, Frank Hurley, who had lost his on the lifeboat journey. Shackleton subsequently sustained frostbitten fingers.
After then came more adventure. Elephant Island was inhospitable, when what was needed was a little assistance – available at the South Georgia whaling stations weeks away by lifeboat. Picking a crew of five, Shackleton made the journey in a single craft, surviving a hurricane along the way, and landed on the unoccupied southern shore of South Georgia. He then attempted an overland journey with two of his companions, seeking aid – which he found at a whaling station 36 hiking hours later. He sent help for the three men on the southern shore and eventually -- with the aid of the Chilean government, which provided a ship – he picked up, safely, all 22 men left back on Elephant Island.
Wrote Margaret Morrell and Stephanie Capparell in 2001's Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer: “Shackleton resonates with executives in today's business world. His people-centered approach to leadership can be a guide to anyone in a position of authority.”
There are other notable examples of leadership – perhaps starting with geese and their "V" formation.
The popular concept is that when the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the formation and another goose moves up to fly point. And geese supposedly employ a concept in flight called synergy -- a sort of airborne version of the draft used by race-car drivers who reduce their cars' energy consumption by falling in behind competitors' cars. By flying like that, the theory goes, the geese can go farther on a gallon of ... well, whatever their fuel might be.
Maybe they do use synergy; maybe they don't. Maybe the lead is exchanged, and maybe it isn't. There are conflicting theories. No matter. If just one goose leads, or two, then that's still a pretty amazing feat, keeping all those other guys in line without threatening or otherwise coercing them. And if there is a regular handoff of the lead position, then it bespeaks the benefits of flexibility in leadership.
I also like the various accounts that claim, true or not, that geese exhibit devotional teamwork in the event that one of them is injured or ill. If such a goose falls out of formation, the story goes, then two fellow geese fall out with it and accompany it to landfall. They stay with the afflicted bird until recovery or death occurs.
Translation of that last: Teamwork pays off in varied, thoughtful ways.
And unspoken, but rather obvious, is the fact that teamwork always, always starts with leadership.
Finally, I feel compelled to add the example of Jeff Fisher, longtime and highly successful coach of the Tennessee Titans NFL football team, which at this writing is struggling at 0-6. Fisher incurred the wrath of fans by exhibiting a bit of humor at a charity fund-raiser at which he was introducing Tony Dungy, former coach of the Indianapolis Colts. On the Colts (which at the time were 6-0) is a remarkable quarterback named Peyton Manning. During the introduction, Fisher removed an outer shirt to reveal a Colts jersey underneath, with Manning's name prominent on the back.
"I just wanted to feel like a winner," Fisher told the charity-event crowd, to great laughter. Alas, it didn't sit well with Tennessee fans who are brooding over that 0-6 start.
Most sports talk shows sided with Fisher, as do I. He was showing a little flexibility -- not despondency, not retribution. He was keeping things in perspective. He was helping raise funds for a charity, and introducing one of the most beloved figures in sports ... and smiling despite the gloom at work.
Fisher is a smart guy -- resilient in the past, and probably resilient still. Granted, in this intensely scrutinized Age of the Internet, he might get the sack. But I think -- from personal observation as filtered through the media -- that he'll land on his feet because he possesses those traits we mentioned at the start of this essay: honor, charisma, knowledge, fairness and an understanding of fellow humans. I'm betting he -- like Sir Ernest Shackleton -- would gladly give up his mittens.
Which leaves one question for you other leaders out there:
Would you give up your mittens?
About the title: Nimrod in modern English is defined as a silly person. But in 1907 it was the name of the ship used by Ernest Shackleton on one of his brave Antarctica expeditions; and in the Old Testament it referred to a mighty hunter. The word runs a gamut -- can praise, symbolize the positive, or be derogatory. It was even the name of a comic book character who served as lord of the Earth's vampires. How does all this relate to leadership? Take your pick. One of those meanings will likely apply to any leader.
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