What happens when the leader abandons the people he’s supposed to be leading?
With The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk, I thought I was just reading another tale of epic survival in the arctic. But as this true account developed, it was soon clear that the underlying story line was about failed leadership, selfishness, and distrust, which made it infinitely more interesting, and instructive.
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Well-researched, and based on the personal diaries of the survivors, author Jennifer Niven writes a captivating account of the ill-fated 1913 expedition to discover a hidden continent near the north pole.
If you’ve read the story of Earnest Shackleton and the trials of the Endurance, it’s easy to see the similarities. The Karluk heads out into the Polar Regions on a voyage of discovery; the leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, is a celebrated veteran of arctic exploration; and like the Endurance, the Karluk soon becomes stuck in the ice.
What is different with the Karluk is what happens next: Stefansson abandons the expedition and leaves it to its fate.
In an act of subterfuge, he takes 12 of the best sled dogs, valuable resources, and a few key people, and leaves everyone behind. Soon, the shifting ice crushes the boat and the leaderless expedition is forced out onto the ice in the dark of winter hundreds of miles from the nearest land.
Out on the ice pack in howling frozen winds, groups form. Instead of working together, they argue and act selfishly. Resources are wasted, time is lost, foolish decisions are made. Dissension and distrust prevents team work.
Eventually, some formal and informal leaders emerge. Some are selfish and focus only on helping a few friends. Others step forward to perform solitary acts of heroism without the benefit of team support. And some work tirelessly to keep the group together and establish a sense order. Each has a different fate.
To survive their ordeal, they have to find land before the ice breaks up, find food before their supplies run out, and find a way to be found and rescued. With the drift of the polar ice, even if anyone was looking for them, it would be in the wrong place.
Because she relies heavily on the journals of the survivors, Niven’s account of what happens is personal, real, and detailed, which makes it a very good read. But I’ll admit that as they trekked day after day across the frozen wasteland searching for land and battling the elements, it was wearing me out.
I might have skimmed forward a few times. But if it was numbing to read about the grueling details of their ordeal, imagine what it must have been like to experience it. Or try to lead people through it.
Ice Master: The Takeaway
I guess I like reading these sorts of books because under conditions of hardship, the thin veneer of pretense is stripped away, and true leadership emerges. And the true leaders are not who you might imagine them to be.
They are the ones who earn the trust and respect of others; the ones who place the interests of the group before self; the ones with the discipline to set a clear path and stick to it day after day – those are the leaders that succeed.
In telling the tale of The Ice Master, Niven paints a clear picture first of what a good leader is not, and then, gradually, what a good leader is. If your focus is right, it could be you.
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