I am sure I am not the only one who has been thinking about leadership over the last few days. Leadership, as we all know, is not tested when seas are calm and skies are blue. Leadership is tested in a time of crisis. It is in times of crisis that leadership matters most.
These thoughts were in the forefront of my mind as I was reading Peter Moore’s excellent book, “Endeavour: The Ship That Changed the World,” which tells the story of the ship best known as the vessel on which Captain James Cook and his crew sailed their voyage of exploration and discovery between 1768 and 1771.
On August 15, 1770, the ship and its crew faced a terrible crisis. The ship was limping badly after a series of make-shift repairs, and on a perilous course off the coast of Australia, as Cook sought to sail northward and then, he hoped, around the Great Barrier Reef. The moment of crisis came when the winds died. The ship was becalmed. Without wind, a sailing ship has no means to alter its direction. Every man on ship understood the situation. Without wind, the easterly current would shove the ship straight onto the reef, which would mean almost certain death.
All eyes turned to the bridge, where Cook stood, studying the waters.
By this point in their journey, the men knew Cook well. They had already sailed with him on the Endeavour for more than two years. They had been through crises together before. They had even encountered the Great Barrier Reef before.
Two months previously, on the evening of June 10, a crewman was working a sounding lead. Within the space of five minutes, the depth went from a measurement of twenty fathoms, to eight fathoms, and then before the crewman could throw out the lead line again, and before Cook even had the chance to give the order to strike the ship’s sails, the ship was impaled on a coral outcropping, an enormous hole drilled into the ship’s outer hull. At first, the ship seemed stuck on the reef, unable to move free. Cook ordered the crew to throw everything overboard as he attempted to lighten the ship, in the hopes that the ship might drift off the coral. Over the side went the ship’s cannons. The ship’s ballast went overboard as well. Over the course of the next twenty four hours, with the rising and lowering of tides and crew members trying to use the ship’s anchors to pull the ship off of the coral, the ship broke free.
It quickly became apparent how severe the damage was. Water was filling the ship’s hold. Cook set the men to work on the pumps. At that moment, Jonathan Monkhouse, a young midshipman, stepped forward and suggested that the crew attempt to “fother” the leak. He said he has seen this done on a voyage across the Atlantic. The process involves wrapping a sail around the bottom so that the water pressure seals the hole. Cook approved Monkhouse’s plan. A sail was prepared and then threaded under the ship’s hull. The maneuver proved so successful that the leak was almost completely stopped.
After the ship had stopped taking on water, the crew was able to guide it toward the coast. The crew sailed the ship into the mouth of a river (later to be known as the Endeavour River), where they careened the ship. Over the course of several weeks, the crew repaired the ship the best they could with the materials available. Once that process was completed, Cook and the officers agreed to try to sail the ship northward to Batavia, in the Dutch East Indies, where they hoped to be able to make more durable repairs.
The ship had only been back at sea for a matter of days when they found themselves becalmed and facing another encounter with the reef.
As the current carried the ship toward the reef, Cook waited and studied the situation. No one said anything. They knew that if any of them had any ideas, they could step forward, as Monkhouse had during the prior crisis. No one stepped forward. Instead, they waited.
As the ship continued to drift on the current, Cook ordered the men into the boats to try to pull the ship against the current. They pulled for what seemed like hours, and the ship’s drift toward the reef slowed. But the current was stronger. As Joseph Banks, one of the ship’s naturalists, later wrote in his journal, “the fear of death stared us in the face.”
Then, Banks wrote, “at this critical juncture when all of our efforts seemed too little, a faint breeze sprung up.” The breeze was “so small that at any time other we should not have observed it.” But the faint breeze was enough. The breeze lasted only ten minutes but it was just enough to “move off from the Reef in a slanting direction.” Another breeze, lasting about as long, “visited us again.” Within minutes, Cook had sighted an opening in the reef, through which the ship was able to safely pass.
The crew’s efforts had bought the ship just enough time to take advantage of the breeze – and to escape disaster.
Later, in his journal, Banks, reflecting on the ship’s encounters with the reef, wrote that “I believe every man exerted his utmost for the preservation of the ship. This was no doubt owing entirely to the cool and steady conduct of the officers, who during the whole time never gave an order which did not show them to be perfectly composed and unmoved by the circumstances howsoever dreadful they might appear.”
While Banks credited the officers for the ship’s deliverance, Cook credited the crew. He separately wrote in his own journal, “In justice to the ship’s company, I must say that no men ever behaved better than they have done on this occasion; animated by the behavior of every gentlemen on board, every man exercised himself to the utmost.”
There is in this sequence an entire curriculum on the meaning of leadership. A leader is calm and steady; a leader is patient; a leader listens to those around him or her; a leader respects those whom he or she leads. A leader brings out the best of those whom he or she leads. And as Banks’s observations about the incident reflect, a leader has the trust of those whom he or she leads.
As Cook stood on the bridge while the becalmed ship drifted toward the reef, the men waited. They stayed calm. They knew all too well that they could die. But they also knew that if there was a way out of the situation, Cook would help them find it. They trusted Cook. No one panicked. Everyone pulled together. And working together, giving their utmost, the crew saved the ship.
The crew saved the ship.
These are the things I have been thinking about as I reflect on the meaning of leadership.