The Essex Shipwreck: Leadership in the Middle of Nowhere
(6 pages of text)
Case (Pub Mat)
On August 12, 1819, a crew set sail for the Pacific Ocean on a three-year voyage on the Essex whaling ship. On November 20, 1820, a giant sperm whale emerged from the ocean and critically damaged the Essex’s starboard hull. The crew consisted of the captain, two officers, three boat steerers, and 13 sailors, most of whom lacked experience. While the captain and officers of the Essex huddled to plan their next move, the crew trusted the first officer to make the crucial decisions about using the ship’s three remaining whaleboats for the long voyage home. Surviving the wreckage would not be an easy task; therefore, making the right decisions would be essential for survival. As the ship continued to take in water, the captain and officers had to decide who should go in each whaleboat, what direction they should take, and what provisions they should carry.
This case can be used in undergraduate- and graduate-level courses or modules on leadership, organizational behaviour, and strategy. Given the wide range of the case, instructors from different fields might focus on one or two specific topics. For example, strategy instructors may want to focus on the theme of radical change, whereas leadership instructors may choose to emphasize the themes of leadership hubris and character. Leadership and organizational behaviour instructors may decide to focus on the case’s themes of team leadership and team dynamics (i.e., group processes and emerging states). The case provides a simplified account of real-life events based on the wreckage of the Essex whaling ship, which may have inspired parts of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick. It serves as a metaphor to explore effective (and ineffective) ways to lead an organization through a crisis-management scenario. The case presents two leaders with divergent perspectives on how to manage the crisis before them. After working through the case and assignment questions, students will be able to do the following:
- Define four types of radical change in organizations.
- Assess the notion of leadership hubris and its negative impact on a leader’s decision-making process, as well as the protective role that strength of character plays in resisting leadership hubris.
- Identify the challenges that radical change creates when resources ae relocated.
Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting
Chile; United States, Small, 1820
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