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Who’s on your team? More than you thought.

September 27, 2017

Who’s on your team? The question springs from a generality, an easily understood concept that in corporations, as in any organization made up of leaders and followers, the combined strength of the team in its members and its output is fundamental to the success of the project.

But in the specifics, we must all ask of ourselves, who IS on your team?

The team can be a military platoon, a corporate project endeavor, a legislative committee. . . . think of professional or collegiate sports, a condominium or a nonprofit board of directors, of academic research. . . . a family, a marriage. . . .

One way or another, like it or not, we are each of us members of a team. Most likely, a lot of teams. And the success of what we engage in together is inevitably bound up in how strong our commitment is to the project that we have—as a team—undertaken.

There are many examples in the annals of Antarctic exploration the reveal the strength of teamwork, where truly grand aspirations were adopted by the men in the field parties—often working under extreme privation and duress—were rewarded, in the end, by success.

That would be one of the reasons they call the years 1901-1916 the “heroic era” of Antarctic exploration.


Who’s in Charge? The Fundamentals of Leadership

September 12, 2017

The concept of “leadership” has a lot of currency these days, addressed in academic disciplines and institutes, and in countless corporate trainings and seminars. Regardless of the enterprise, there has to be some place in any management hierarchy that is indisputably the pinnacle, occupied by a person who is unquestionably recognized “the Boss.”

But that role is not necessarily one that any person can be molded to fill. Yes, there are techniques and characteristics that can be identified and reinforced, but there has to be something more, something that is inherent in a person, rather than a position.

In the canon of Antarctic exploration, there are those who envisioned, created, and completed the vast enterprises of these expeditions—Scott, Shackleton, Mawson, Amundsen, and others less well-known—who are taken for their leaders. Their names have achieved a justly warranted fame that outshines that of many of their subordinates, whose own signal accomplishments go mostly unheralded.

Who led the smaller, isolated field parties adrift in the vast Antarctic snowfields, many hundreds of miles from the relative security of the base huts? Lt. Michael Barne was (like almost everyone else in Discovery’s 1901-1904 complement) a total novice at exploring, but he led his handful of men out into the Barrier hinterlands twice, and brought them safely home with new discoveries. When Scott’s northern party were left to their own devices over the austral winter of 1912, it was Victor Campbell who provided a strong center around which his small field party coalesced and survived. It was Frank Wild who kept the marooned survivors of Endurance’s shipwreck alive in 1916 with a glimmer of hope that Shackleton would return to save them. On the other side of the continent, Ernest Joyce stepped into a role beyond his training when Aeneas Mackintosh was no longer strong enough to lead.

The exploration of Antarctica during the Heroic Era, and in every era afterwards, provides many more examples of those whose leadership was more a result of who they were, than of what they had learned.

Free Shakespeare in the Park: Hamlet’s Unmistakable Passion

September 12, 2017

San Francisco Free Shakespeare in the Park. You can’t go wrong with it. Every season a fresh production to make you glad you live in this generous city with a deep focus on the arts.

This year: Hamlet. A play I’d been familiar with (who isn’t?—it’s full of familiar quotes) since reading it first in college, but until last Sunday never seen. The words ring that much more clearly coming from the mouths of so many fine actors, Stephen Muterspaugh’s well-conceived production.

A true tragedy—one borne of the treacherous act of one man (Claudius, played by Jesse Caldwell) whose plot to slay his brother the king and marry his wife (Queen Gertrude, by Mary Ann Rodgers) has far-reaching, unanticipated consequences. The most brutal of these falls on Gertrude’s son, Hamlet (played with unmistakable passion by Nathaniel Andalis) whose descent–sometimes feigned, sometimes not–in to madness we share from the opening scenes.

Many of the scenes are truly moving. The play and the production revolve around the admirably configured Hamlet, the tormented, unable to consummate his revenge on his uncle, conflicted about how his own treacherous mother, wrapped in shrouds of indecision. No one is to be trusted, only the gallant Horatio. All others are fodder for plots arising from the secret corners of the many players’ minds.

The stage is of Elsinore’s castle, but one trick of SF Shakes’s outdoor productions is a long proscenium extending well out, to bring the actors right out into the audience.

Machinations and betrayals abound, culminating as in the best of the Bard’s tragedies, in a final scene the stage is littered with corpses. Only the king’s and queen’s truly deserving of this bitter end; the others, as always, accidents and mistakes. The fight scenes and the swordplay between Hamlet and Laertes (Sydney Schwindt) that brings them all down are extremely well choreographed, to the point that it certainly looked as though some real damage was done to the actors, until there remains only Horatio (Marissa Wanlass), tragically bereft of all that had been dear to her.

Free access, yes, and gratefully accepted. But productions this polished and mobile have a cost, so be prepared to bring some cash to fill the hats passed at the end of the show. As we are reminded, think of the cost of a movie, and think again to the cost of some other theatre you may have attended—say Hamilton—and bring what you can to keep these free productions coming, up and down the peninsula.

There are those who would withhold their accolades because a performance does not measure up to a preconceived and personal standard. This reviewer comes in fresh, sees what he sees, and comments thereon. And what I witnessed in the Presidio on September 10 truly merits your attention, as it does my enthusiastic commendation.

Through October 1, at the Presidio and then at McLaren Park

Love’s Labour’s not Lost: Shimmering Wordplay at Marin Shakes’ Forest Meadows

September 7, 2017

We are told by Robert Currier, before the opening curtain, that “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is one of Shakespeare’s less frequently produced plays, given that it is one of the Bard’s earliest, and thus presumably one of his least well-accomplished.

This production gives the lie to that conceit. As much as anything, in this production, the play’s the thing. Shakespeare’s unending torrent of drollery, or misapplied latinisms and tumbling malaprops, his convoluted chains of logic and word upon word of wordplay, demand as much of the actors as the gestures and blocking, and even more of the audience to catch hold of and follow the verbal action. Think of the rapier-like back-and-forth of a ‘30s Cary Grant romance, with the witticisms spread around throughout the cast.

Each of the characters brings in a unique barbequing of the language, all done up with heroic glee and impeccable timing, thanks to the sure hand of director Rob Clare. This would be a place for hamming in the extreme, were it not for the extreme concentration to keep it all flowing. Imagine a train heavily freighted, with one car in the middle suddenly missing, and the two ends thus hopelessly adrift from each other.

As this is an ensemble comedy, to call attention to any one of the suite of talented actors is to do a disservice to all the others. Even so, one can hardly overlook Braedyn Youngberg’s over-the-top glitz as Don Armando, the subtle shrewdness of Amy Lizardo’s Costard, or the wholly underplayed bits by constable Dull (Daniel Rubio). Or Patrick Russel’s Biron, or Steve Price’s Holofernes, or. . . .but I digress.

The plot, as in many of the Bard’s comedies, makes so little rational sense that any attempt at explaining it is doomed to failure. Suffice to say that it involves four young university men who have sworn off the company of ladies for the span of four years, only to find their oaths challenged to the breaking point by four lovely damsels blessed with a biting wit.

And, there is music. It’s withheld until the very end, after a tragic moment draws the hilarity to a muted end, when the loveliest of three-part harmonies takes breathtaking flight. Other songs follow, and of course the four young couples plan to make their lives together—after the holding pattern of a full year’s abstinence.

The curtain falls on this light note; what happens next must be told in another play. You might have to wait a while for a chance to see this one done again, and even if you do you’ll be missing this hilariously entertaining production.

Through September 24, 2017
At Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, San Rafael CA
Marin Shakespeare: Box Office

“Spectacular achievements come from unspectacular preparation.”

September 2, 2017

“Spectacular achievements come from unspectacular preparation.”* The leaders of the most successful Antarctic expeditions knew this well. So do the most successful of entrepreneurs in any field.

The most compelling parts of any expedition story always seem to begin when the unpredictable forces of nature seem ready to overwhelm, or when the glimmering hope of a new and unseen horizon beckons. But the real story has begun long before, in the careful study of the edges of the unknown, in the painstaking mathematics, the detailed lists of what will be needed and when and for how long in those dangerous places. In the interviews and the hiring and firing of potential staff, in the expensive purchases and courting of well-heeled financiers.

No one person is skilled in all these areas, but the best of leaders and organizers must come close. Self-educated in matters as diverse as diet and motive power, clothing and navigation, machinery and computation, ignition and meteorology, the leaders must not only excel, but bear on their shoulders the entire weight of the enterprise.

To the extent that such preparations are shared with us, we can only marvel at the dedication required, often for years, and often with only the hope of success. And in the event of little success, such dedication goes unrewarded by adequate compensation or public acclaim.

Thus it is that the survival of all those explorers in the frozen wastes of Antarctica came to depend on those who did the planning and preparation, to ensure that there were matches enough to keep their pipes and primuses lit, and see them home.
* Attributed to Roger Staubach and Robert Schuller

”Luck” and Discovery

August 19, 2017

Like it or not, “luck” can have a lot to do with the outcomes of our efforts. Apparently random sequences of events beyond our control can determine the success of our endeavors, for good or ill.

The most carefully planned and industriously executed plans can come to naught, or worse, in the sudden confluence of unforeseen changes to the immediate environment, be it the business world or the Antarctic weather.

Scott’s expeditions were meticulously planned and well-funded, their members some of the most experienced in the field, but in their great reaches they were caught from time to time in circumstances beyond anticipation or control. Add to this mix the fact that by its very nature exploration means going where no man has gone before to test out the routes and try out the equipment.

When in 1903 Robert F. Scott, William Lashly, and Edgar Evans had extended their track to the very limit of human endurance on the high altitude of the polar plateau, they were already quite accustomed to the sudden drop through a thin ice-bridge into the depths of a crevasse. They took such falls as a matter of course, trusting to their harness as their safety line, and their own strength to climb back out.

But when, on this journey, two of the three dropped together, leaving only William Lashly on top to pull them out. Had he been in a slightly different position, Lashly would not have been able to stop the careening sledge from following them down into the bottomless depths. He managed to hang onto the sledge with one hand, jamming a ski stick into the snow at the very lip of the crevasse to keep his tenuous hold.

This is where luck comes into play. Had those few seconds played out differently, the entire party would have been doomed in that moment—two down the crevasse, and one looking down after them, hundreds of miles from home with nothing to sustain him from the cold.

The rest of their remarkable recovery from this near-disaster is a tale of human spirit and endurance, but the fact of it depends on circumstances outside human control. Similar tales are woven through the fabric of Antarctic exploration, object lessons for all of us in our modern lives.

“Luck” is nothing to depend on—ask any gambler. But its influence on our affairs—the random convergence of uncontrollable events on even the best laid of our plans—is hard to deny.

Inspiration, Will, and Forethought

July 30, 2017

It’s never too late to have another try.

Life, business, and polar discovery can all be described as an ongoing chain of decisions, each devolving from the results of those that have gone before.

Sometimes an unanticipated upset overtakes and dooms even the best-laid of plans. But as some of the explorers’ life stories can prove, even complete disaster may not mean the end. The very best example of this can be found in Douglas Mawson’s escape from the very jaws of death. Weakened by starvation and accidental poisoning, alone since the deaths of his two companions many miles from their base, dangling by his knotted harness between the icy blue walls of a crevasse on a vast and empty snowfield—if anyone had a right to surrender to the elements, to give it all up as a lost cause, he did.

And yet, he did not. Inspired by the words of a suddenly remembered poem, he fought back. He summoned the last of his dwindling strength to give it one more try, and managed to climb to the surface. And from that small success in the face of doom, he made his way back to base camp, and eventually to recovery and a remarkable career in polar discovery.

The lesson here is: Even the worst of disasters that can befall an enterprise or a life can be met with courage and determination.

But there is another: Sometimes the simplest of forethought preparation can be the key to survival. Mawson’s drive to live would have come to naught, had he not also, beforehand, prepared for such an eventuality. He had earlier taken the trouble to place knots spaced along his harness, to provide handholds. To make it possible to climb his way out of a crevasse.

Inspiration, will, and forethought—any success depends on all three working together.