As Far As Possible: Leadership Lessons of Captain James Cook.
Published by the author.
James Cook was an exceptional mariner and leader of men—the epitome of the European Age of Enlightenment. He rose from obscurity to command ships, sailing first in the coal trade and then, after excelling as naval cartographer in eastern Canada, leading three 18th century Pacific expeditions with unparalleled results. Sometimes demonized for unleashing the colonial conquest and the exploitation that followed, his remarkable and relentless efforts nonetheless offer a matchless model cited frequently by authors even today.
Most of the information about the man is found in his own hand. His journals offer a timeless story, revealing both a personal state of wonderment and ambition, as well as a thoughtful report of Pacific ethnography and geography. By the Third Voyage his achievements were no doubt tempered by the strain of command, and perhaps because he recognized his efforts might lead to the imminent corruption and downfall of the people he encountered along the way.
Hundreds of biographies have attempted to catch a glimpse of the man from a host of perspectives. A noteworthy recent effort is this one from Mike Meed, a retired Marine officer and university scholar. Meed has assembled a catalog of episodes from the life of James Cook into 12 chapters and three appendices to reflect not simply on his record of accomplishment, but also how that record might be quantified as timeless principles of leadership, expedition management, and personal and professional inspiration for the modern age.
Meed follows Cook’s exploits in chronological order, focusing on important periods from his childhood, the early years in Whitby in the coal trade and his time as naval cartographer in Quebec and Newfoundland, as a foundation for his three astounding Pacific Voyages. In order to give emphasis to his conclusions, Meed highlights them in bold font. He also summarizes with key phrases, each of Cook’s accomplishments in his youth and maturation as lessons for study and growth: his curiosity and drive to achievement, his pursuit of excellence, the support and admiration of his peers, his quest for learning and expertise, and his resolve to overcome challenges he faced.
Cook’s time before entering the Pacific was effectively a proving ground, where his personal ambition and commitment to excellence enabled him to apply his intellect and curiosity to ever more complex and challenging circumstances. Meed’s take was that Cook convinced Wolfe almost single-handedly to go up the St Lawrence river and try a different approach when planning the capture of Quebec from the French in 1759. Soon thereafter, Cook was assigned to command in Newfoundland. While not a glamorous task, Meed sees the role as another important step in Cook’s maturation, mastering surveying, cartography and the leadership of his peers. All of them were noticed by the Admiralty in London, and resulted in Cook being chosen for the Pacific assignments.
Meed takes important events from each voyage to comment on life lessons (favorable or unfavorable) relating to the captain’s legacy. Meed chooses experiences in Cook’s early life to help explain the record in the distant Pacific. Although an unseasoned lieutenant at the beginning of the First Voyage, Meed feels Cook called upon his maturing leadership talents to take responsibility for every aspect of command, balancing the demands of precise astronomical observations of the transit of Venus with the expectations of the aristocratic Joseph Banks and his entourage in Tahiti, New Zealand and the east coast of Australia.
The author explains that, beginning with the coal trade in Whitby, Cook valued the opinion of his officers, and responded well to their recommendations during the voyages. Learning from the customs of naval tradition, he adopted a shipboard regime of cleanliness, hygiene, meticulous mapmaking and regular discipline that set the tone for expedition protocol. He followed with notable courtesy and respect for the people of Tahiti, mirrored by his later esteem for the indigenous Māori of New Zealand and Aborigines of Australia. Indeed, his limitless curiosity and ambition were essential to his success in interactions with Pacific people, which he regularly recounted in his journal.
Most importantly, says Meed, Cook always acted decisively in crisis, never yielding to despair, even after the near ruin of the ship on the Great Barrier Reef and, soon thereafter, when the expedition made its fateful encounter with disease-riddled Batavia on the return from Australia. He was the paradigm of integrity, resilience and leader of men.
The record of the Second Voyage to the South Pacific and Antarctic waters offered Meed further findings of Cook’s leadership skills. After only a brief respite back home in England, Cook had looked ahead to another voyage and challenge, setting newer, more difficult goals to find the imagined Southern Continent, and then taking responsibility for the necessary preparations to accomplish them. In completing his second circumnavigation, Cook was resolute in the completion of the mission, sailing in broad patterns from Antarctic ice to unknown island nations—all the while protecting his company’s safety and welfare, as well as maintaining harmonious relations with the people encountered along the way. Command of the difficult voyage required both flexibility and firmness. Meed follows a circuitous route to itemize the captain’s wide-ranging accomplishments.
Biographers of Captain Cook confront a mixed legacy from the Third Voyage, and Meed concurs. In this book he argues that the stress of leadership, and fears of voyage outcomes for the indigenous people encountered, doubtless played on Cook’s mind. This outcome began with the substandard preparations for the voyage in England, augmented by the expedition’s casual wanderings through the island Pacific, where Cook was often harsh and unforgiving toward both his company and the people ashore.
Meed unfortunately relies on the mainstream Cook historiography that minimizes the expedition’s accomplishments and interactions along the West Coast of America, particularly Alaska, and focuses instead on voyage events and outcomes in the South Pacific and Hawai`i. He bookends Cook’s two visits to Kealakekua Bay, the first triumphant, and the second melancholy. They are often repeated, and have been well documented here.
Meed tells a captivating story with an ironic twist—the captain’s chronicle of achievement turned to catastrophe in a single Hawaiian morning. He writes of the Third Voyage, “As the next two chapters were difficult to write, they will be painful to read.” Indeed, Meed goes on, Cook’s restless, hasty decision to undertake the Third Voyage probably shortened his life, but even in the most difficult circumstances, his talents offer important examples for those who follow. Despite the disaster at Kealakekua Bay, Meed presents a noteworthy report of Cook’s legacy—an extraordinary narrative for future generations.
James K. Barnett
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 67, volume 43, number 2 (2020).