True Leaders Are Motivated By Purpose, Not Selfishness

I love maritime history. I love how ships and the sea so heavily influenced the world around us. And they still do.

Maritime nonfiction satisfies my craving for a time when men were really men -- not softies like most men today, with their smartphones, tablet computers, paper cuts, cushy chairs, cubicles, facial lotions and pedicures.

My latest haunting read was “Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,” by Joan Druett. It’s a gripping story, and it underscores important lessons in leadership for today as well.

Two Shipwrecks, One Good Outcome and One Horrific

It’s the true story of Captain Thomas Musgrave and his crew of four, who shipwrecked their schooner Grafton in 1864 on subantarctic Auckland Island, 285 miles south of New Zealand. They should’ve died from harsh conditions or gone mad (or both), but Captain Musgrave’s democratic leadership, moral compass and incredible resourcefulness kept the group going for nearly two years.

With lost hope and little chance of being rescued, they transformed the Grafton’s skiff into a small seaworthy sailboat, and Musgrave and two crew members risked their lives sailing through treacherous storms to reach the southern tip of New Zealand. After recovering, Musgrave faced death again to embark on a rescue mission back to Auckland Island, where he successfully picked up the two remaining crew members.

At the same time the survivors of the Grafton tackled Auckland Island, the sailing ship Invercauld wrecked during a storm only a few miles up the coast. There were nineteen castaways, mostly doomed under the pathetic leadership of Captain George Dalgarno. Motivated by social prestige and selfishness, Dalgarno’s leadership failings resulted in rampant starvation, frostbite and cannibalism -- leaving only three survivors. Dalgarno was one of the lucky ones, thanks to a socially inferior carpenter’s skills and resourcefulness.

Motivations For Power Determine Leadership

Both stories are incredible survival tales and tragedies on their own -- with the former having a happier ending. But it’s the juxtaposition of the two crews’ fates --  at the same time, on the same island -- that is particularly significant. The success of Musgrave and the failure of Dalgarno underscores why it’s so important for leaders to embrace moral responsibility, endurance, compassion and the mutual respect of colleagues.

Fast-forwarding to our comfortable 21st century Western society, I can think of many cases where people in positions of power in politics and business have ascended with motivations similar to Dalgarno’s: social prestige and selfishness. Sure, many can rise to power. But it often takes dire situations to truly test one’s leadership ability.

That’s why when you’re voting for leaders, appointing leaders, or joining leaders as part of some organization or movement, it’s critical to scrutinize them based on their ability to rise to the occasion when things go abysmal.

What truly are your leaders’ motivations? Selfishness or purpose?


I doubt the crews of the Grafton and Invercauld asked themselves that question when signing on to their routine commercial voyages, even though it would eventually mean the difference between life and death.

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6 comments about "True Leaders Are Motivated By Purpose, Not Selfishness".
  1. Chase Norlin from AlphaBird , October 23, 2012 at 12:16 p.m.
    Well said Max, it's Service2Others where true power is derived from, not Service2Self.
  2. Rick Monihan from None , October 23, 2012 at 12:16 p.m.
    Shackleton and the Endurance. That story is the greatest story of leadership in harsh conditions ever. A sense of purpose guided Shackleton. Even during his drive to get people to join, he was an advocate of the adventure, not the pay or the personal glory. When glory was not forthcoming, he created it not via self-serving behavior (which some men were engaging), but by creating an environment which was clearly geared toward survival and escape.
  3. Kieran Dunn from Resolution Media , October 23, 2012 at 12:38 p.m.
    Great article on leadership!
  4. Matt Straz from Namely , October 23, 2012 at 1:01 p.m.
    Love this column, Max. Great job. Also a big fan of the book Unbroken.
  5. Bob Sacco from Travel Ad Network/Travora Media , October 23, 2012 at 1:39 p.m.
    Great topic Max. As a Co-Founder of a successfully boot-strapped VC funded startup and can assure you the question of motivation arises quickly and often. True leaders eventually replace themselves and hand over a healthy company to the reins of trusted colleagues.
  6. Ngoc T from Iowa , November 8, 2012 at 9:53 a.m.
    Thanks again, Max!