Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea describes the tragic final voyage of the Nantucket-based whaler Essex in 1820. The Essex was a floating factory, a comparatively small but sturdy vessel designed to travel great distances to find, kill, and process whales, thus yielding the extremely valuable whale oil and other products. In the Heart of the Sea also describes a series of errors, mishaps and miscalculations—often with fatal results—in the management, leadership and supervision of the enterprise.
These events, despite the distance in time, provide scenarios to compare and contrast present-day concepts of leadership and supervision. The story of the Essex illustrates numerous instances of (a) poor planning before and during the journey, (b) poor staffing decisions before and during the journey, (c) indecisive and/or poor leadership and (d) poor supervision which contributed to the difficult journey, the sinking of the Essex and the horrible aftermath. Typical of the practices of the era and locale, Essex was captained, but not owned and provisioned, by a sailor-officer who had risen through the ranks.
This would be the first command voyage of Captain George Pollard, Jr. By all accounts he had successfully risen to First Mate of the Essex on previous voyages and was given captaincy when the former captain was given a newer and larger vessel. Unfortunately he inherited a worn ship soon to be out of commission. Accordingly the owners spent as little as possible on repairs of the vessel and even less on provisions for the multi-year cruise. There is no indication Pollard had any input in either decision.
As this was his first command he was likely to remain in his employers’ good graces and refrain from insisting on better repairs and outfitting. To further compound these initial as well as future problems was the wage payment structure in which Pollard and the crew were essentially working on commission. Payment to officers and seamen alike would be a portion based on rank and seniority paid only if the valuable whale oil was safely in port. Other experienced captains had the ability and option to add to the original provisions.
Pollard either decided to set sail despite the meager provisions or was unable to supplement them by his own means. This system strongly contrasts to management practices of the day as well as contemporary practices. Owner-operated businesses were not at all uncommon in the era with a strong “hands-on” style of leadership. Most striking would be the owner-operated vessels with a captain well-versed on ship maintenance and outfitting. Obviously today anyone would be considered naive at best and insane at worst to take on such a logistical task of any sort without having been given decision-making authority.
Today even with companies having distant or publicly held ownership the leadership and decision-makers of the company are urged to “buy into” the company in the sense of making decisions and leading in a manner consistent with actual ownership. If Pollard can be excused to some extent for the poor decision-making at home port, the disastrous lack of planning during his maiden voyage is his burden alone. After almost loosing his ship virtually at the onset of the voyage he is either unable or incapable of tactical or strategic planning when the Essex is destroyed.
With a previously damaged vessel prudence would dictate some sort of “disaster plan” short of a belief that lightening will not strike the same place twice. While the Essex was sinking it was the foresight of others who managed to salvage essential items. Some decisions defied common sense. Instead of cooking and preparing a substantial amount of available turtle meat he simply placed two live turtles with each surviving whaleboat. Perhaps Pollard did not think the unthinkable could happen again. Such planning and preparedness is not something novel, for his era or ours.
It is simply the ability to survive the unexpected and the wisdom to learn from it. Contemporary leadership in management, government, and virtually any other field must be prepared for the unexpected. The unexpected and the disastrous will certainly occur, usually when least expected. It then also becomes a learning experience for leadership to plan and think for the “unplanned and unthinkable”. Consistent with the idea of poor or non-existent planning was the Nantucket concept of staffing vessels with the unskilled.
Pollard’s ship was manned by a significant number of “sailors” who had never lived in Nantucket nor experienced life on a whaler. Other “sailors” included inexperienced Nantucket youngsters anxious for their first cruise as well as officers sailing in newly-promoted ranks. It was expected of Pollard and his officers to essentially conduct on-the-job training for the unskilled staff. However, once again, if Pollard can be excused for having to deal with something out of his control, the staffing decisions made during the disaster were his alone.
Most glaring was the decision regarding the placement of the survivors in what would become their lifeboats. No consideration was given to skill, ability or health. Instead, it was a system based on whether a sailor was black or white, Nantucketer or not. Apprenticeships and on-the-job training are time-honored practices dating back centuries and still valid today. Both systems are based on both a lengthy or at least sufficient period of time and a non-critical or at least supervised situation. The apprentice or OJT worker will make mistakes and is given the opportunity to make them and learn from them in a controlled situation.
Once skilled, the staffing pattern must be developed to maintain whatever production or quality standard is to be met. In an emergency situation such decisions must be made by leadership without being distracted by pointless issues of race, class, or place of birth. Again, Pollard can be shielded to some extent by the customs and practices of his day. Contemporary leaders have no such excuse. Decision-making is often made in the lonely vacuum of sole command, something that Pollard, at times, was unable or willing to do. “Leadership by consensus” was not something he learned, but he did indeed practice.
Additionally, indecision is in fact a decision, and one that eats time. After the initial near-fatal keeling of his ship Pollard commits both errors: he abdicates sole leadership, procrastinates, reverses himself, and by trying to lead by consensus ultimately leads his ship to disaster. Again, forces work against Pollard. To turn back with a damaged empty ship would result in no wages and possibly a loss of command. By deciding to continue the voyage with a damaged ship, lost provisions, and lost whaleboats Pollard was not talking a calculated risk, he was essentially dooming his ship and crew to disaster.
Modern management case studies abound with the disastrous stories of managers failing to decide and having that “activity” yield worse results than a bad decision. Most missions are time-critical and while many, if not most missions can have a built-in method of correcting erroneous decisions there is no method for reversing time lost in indecision. The texts are equally full of the horror stories of leaders who take the “ahead at all costs” attitude without a realistic appraisal of whether their “ship” can handle the journey.
This inevitably results in the learned experience that “profitability at all costs” is very unprofitable. After the sinking of the Essex a variety of decisions were made, some based on common sense, or lack of same, and others based on the nautical knowledge of the time. Perhaps the most glaring was the decision to allow the surviving whaleboats to operate in an individual fashion, without tying together during the night. While a questionable seafaring decision, it casts some light on broader contemporary issues.
During critical situations, whether a production run or a full-scale emergency it is common sense and a practical necessity to maintain communication and command. Failure to maintain either can jeopardize the personnel and the mission. In the Heart of the Sea is filled with numerous examples of poor supervision. From the very onset there is no indication Pollard really supervised the repair and provisioning of his vessel; it all likelihood he delegated a great deal of this responsibility to his First and Second Mate. There is no indication he did a thorough, hands-on investigation of his damaged vessel after the initial near-sinking.
Once whaling he was out in a whaleboat, as was the custom, instead of being in a position on deck to supervise all of the events that would unfold. There is no indication he personally undertook a surveillance of Henderson Island to determine if it could sustain the crew, or in the alternative, if it could better provision the survivors on their continued voyage. During many of the catastrophic events Pollard seemed overwhelmed and incapacitated by the situation. He was unable to command and supervise what can only be described as life-threatening or life-saving activity unfolding in front of him.
Once all was lost he decided to allow the boats to go their own way, and was unable to maintain the supervision of survivors when that was his most critical duty. Throughout the disastrous journey the questionable command of Pollard is and will be debated. What is certain is there was considerable doubt at the time that he exercised the decision-making responsibilities in a prudent manner. The captain of a ship and the leader of a corporation must be able to face a situation, whether mundane or critical, and make very quick and decisive actions.
First and foremost is the decision of whether to take a “hands on” approach or delegate responsibility. There is no easy or set answer, and either method can be disastrous, if a leader usurps a subordinate’s better command of a situation or if responsibility is delegated to someone incapable of handling the situation. However, the command of a ship is unique and very similar to many organizational situations in that the leader at the very top is expected to be well-versed and capable of every function in the entire organization.
If that is not the case, then the leader must have a clear understanding of his personal abilities and limitations as well as that of all of the subordinates in the chain of command. Throughout the narratives and accounts which the book is comprised of there is mention of, and no doubt that the captain knew his ship better than anyone. However, it became very obvious at the onset that his knowledge of his and his officers’ capabilities was suspect. At only one point was Pollard described as acting with the authority and decisiveness normally required of a ship’s captain.
He quickly and ferociously responded to an early “protest” by the crew relating to what they considered poor rations. His outburst and threatened action quelled the protest and certainly left the crew with no doubt of his intent. However, what is missing is the not-unusual comments and attitude from crewmen indicating complete respect of their captain and their willingness to follow his commands, regardless of outcome, because of their knowledge of him and his ability.
It is imperative upon leaders to not just know their workplace, but to know their staff. It is not enough to “go ballistic” once in a while to let the staff know what will happen if something is discovered amiss or in response to what behavior is not to be tolerated. Command through intimidation is foolhardy; what is necessary of leadership is to prove competency to staff and subordinates to the point where there is no doubt there is respect in the leader’s ability.
At that point leadership becomes “natural” if and when the staff and subordinates believe the leadership will in fact lead, but do so in a manner that takes into account the well-being, if not survival, of all. In modern society “survival” is often economic survival, and depending on the organization or industry economic survival must be paramount in management’s priorities. Pollard lost on both counts; the voyage was a complete economic disaster and resulted in the deaths of the majority of his crew. The journey was a voyage of poor planning, staffing, decision-making and supervision.
It is an epic of missed opportunities and unrealistic goals. It is a blueprint for any manager or leader in what not to do. Leadership cannot afford to be unprepared in any of the areas noted above. Each interact and influence the other, often in ways unanticipated and noted only too late. It is easy, but very necessary to look at situations with twenty-twenty hindsight if lessons are to be learned and errors prevented in the future. There is a host of what-if questions presented by In the Heart of the Sea which every leader should take to heart.