Updated: Feb 3
On the anniversary of his death in February, 1779 we consider the events that led up to Captain James Cook’s demise and question whether a greater understanding of how to manage stress and the importance of leadership wellbeing could have prevented it.
In his early career Cook was a visionary and engaging leader
Late 18th century explorer Captain James Cook was a skilled navigator and chart-maker and was responsible for leading three major expeditions, which added a third to the map of the known world. Cook’s visionary leadership style at the beginning of his career falls in sharp contrast to what many consider to be an unethical leadership approach as his career progressed. So, what happened?
The success of his initial expedition can be attributed to a strong vision, Cook’s sound knowledge of navigation and chart-making and excellent preparation but perhaps more importantly it was his ability to engage with others, build relationships and lead by example that set him apart from others in his field.
Early in his career Cook undertook a very peaceful approach to exploration, trying to establish friends and trade with people. He was very willing to learn from the locals and befriended and recruited local experts.
Captain Cook was awarded for his pioneering approach to the health and wellbeing of his crew
Upon completing his first expedition Cook was acclaimed as a great leader and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society who awarded him their gold medal for his pioneering approach to the health and wellbeing of his crew and his paper ‘The Preservation of the Health of the Crews of Ships on Long Voyages’. Cook’s paper (1776) outlines a regime on board which is focused on nutrition, cleanliness of crew and ship, availability of dry clothes and warmth and crew rotation to minimise over-exposure to the elements. He prided himself on his record of not losing any of his 100 crewmen to scurvy during his first two-year voyage which was the biggest killer in the British Navy at that time.
In order to maintain high levels of wellbeing amongst his crew Captain Cook led by example. He recognised that sauerkraut formed an essential part of his men’s diets in the fight to prevent scurvy. This food was, however, deeply unpopular. Cook’s approach to persuading his men to eat sauerkraut was simply to introduce it to the top table. Seeing their superiors eat the unpopular source of nutrition not only served to reinforce the initiative, it actually had the effect of making it even more desirable.
On his third and final voyage Cook’s leadership style became much more directive
Considering Cook’s leadership style on his third and final voyage however, we can see that his approach became much more directive. He turned away from coaching and supporting to telling, with no room for manoeuvre. This led to a decline in respect towards him. Captain Cook’s actions during his third voyage crossed the territory into unethical leadership, with some crew reports suggesting he even resorted to torture by cutting off the ears of those who disagreed with him;
“Captain Cook punished in a manner rather unbecoming of a European by cutting off their ears, firing at them with small shot, as they were swimming or paddling to shore, beating them with the oars and sticking the boat up into them”. (George Gilbert, Midshipman, HMS Resolution cited in Hough, 1994)
Did the trauma and tragedy experienced in Cook’s personal and professional life negatively impact his leadership?
What had happened in the intervening years that may have contributed to such a significant shift in behaviour?
After successfully completing his second major expedition, Cook suffered two significant traumatic and tragic events on both a professional and personal level. During the return journey, his boat took on water which was infected culminating in the death of a third of his crew. On a personal level upon reaching home he discovered that, during his absence, two of his four children had died.
As loss of crew members and child mortality were commonplace, and as depression was not part of the vernacular of leaders at this time, then it is reasonable to presume Cook’s third voyage would have been commissioned without taking into account leadership wellbeing or acknowledging that any major or visible crisis had taken place.
Prof Robert Clancy however, suggests depression as a root cause for Cook’s radically changed behaviour and points out that
“Depression wasn’t a condition that one admitted or diagnosed back in the 1700s”. (Fimeri, 2009)
Did lack of preparation time contribute to heightened levels of stress and anxiety on Cook’s fated voyage?
To compound the stress that his personal and professional tragedies may have triggered, Cook, for his third expedition was given less time to prepare than for previous trips. The maps that already existed were poor quality and he didn’t personally check the ship and its equipment; something that had ensured the success of his previous expeditions.
Cook’s third and final voyage was doomed from the outset, the lack of adequate preparation meant that the charts they had were unreliable, supplies were stretched and the ship was in bad shape. Cook’s behaviour became more erratic and less composed and often vengeful and relationships with his crew and natives were poor. (Fimeri, 2009)
Cook’s new found issues with poor digestion could be indicative of stress or depression
Recent studies demonstrate a link between stress and poor digestion (Swart et al, 2015), and Cook’s transformation from a man with an ‘iron constitution’ (O’Sullivan, 2008) to someone who suffered greatly with digestive problems could also be evidence that he was experiencing high levels of stress in his last voyage.
Cook was eventually killed by natives in Hawaii in 1779, after an initially warm welcome and a successful three-week visit. The ship had left but had to make an unscheduled return for further supplies when it ran into trouble with its mast. Relationships at this point completely broke down. The locals felt they’d overstayed their welcome and had already given them everything. They were not happy to see them return (Hough, 1994).
One common theme unites the theories surrounding Cook’s death – the breakdown of relations with all around him
There are various theories surrounding the manner of Cook’s death. What is common to all of them is the breakdown of relations between the crew of the Resolution and the local people. Cook failed to maintain his own composure and to control the actions of the ship’s crew. Had Captain Cook managed to maintain the resilience and emotionally intelligent leadership qualities demonstrated in his earlier voyages, one could argue that the outcome of this fateful voyage might have been very different.
Minerva Engagement specialises in organisational change and leadership development. A key area for us being the impact of stress and how to improve resilience and leadership wellbeing. Within this context, it is interesting to revisit the story of Captain Cook and his leadership through a modern-day lens.
In particular, to examine the reasons behind Cook’s dramatic change, taking into consideration some basic neuroscience principles that inform modern day understanding and impact on leadership wellbeing.
Closer examination of Cook’s personal and professional life shows us that Cook suffered significant trauma, which may have affected his ability to function as a leader. Thankfully we’re seeing increasing emphasis being placed on leadership wellbeing and a keener understanding of the impact of stress on our ability to perform. Had Cook’s seniors been in possession of the knowledge we have now in relation to stress and depression, then support could have been provided and steps taken to have safeguarded against his arguably preventable death.
Jennie Flower, Business Performance Specialist, Minerva Engagement
We support leadership wellbeing through managing stress, regulating emotion and shifting mindset to enhance individual, team and organisational performance. For more information on what we do click here.
Cook, J. C. (1776). The Method Taken for Preserving the Health of the Crew of His Majesty’s Ship the Resolution during her Late Voyage Around the World. Philosophical Transactions, 66, 402-406.
Hough, R. (1994). Captain James Cook. London: Hodder & Stoughton
Fimeri, W. T. (Director). (2009). Timewatch: Captain Cook, The Man Behind the Legend [Motion Picture].
Swart, T. C. (2015). Neuroscience for leadership; Harnessing the brain gain advantage. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
O’Sullivan, D. (2008). In Search of Captain Cook: Exploring the man through his own words. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.