Commanding 65 men on the Terra Nova expedition, Captain Scott had to run a tight ship, but he wasn’t an aloof leader – he had a strong camaraderie with his team. This isn’t to say that there was endless mirth and bonhomie. The enforced jollity of office away-days is a modern invention. But what comes across in his Journals is that each man was free to be themselves, warts and all. Integrity definitely contributes to good teamwork.
I’m only too well aware of what a difference it makes to have the support of a team, after an experience I had four years ago. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and straight out of tailoring college, I turned up for my first full-time paid job, on Jermyn Street.
I’d woken up early with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, got to work an hour early and circled the block a few times; eyes glued to my watch. First impressions, right? I was set straightforward tasks, and about half an hour into them, I felt a slight twinge in my left leg. Over the day, it steadily worsened, until I was feeling my pulse throbbing in my hip socket. My job was to cut bespoke tailoring patterns, so it’s the kind of thing that keeps you on your feet all day. By lunch-time, I’d commandeered a step-ladder to sit on, which gave rise to unorthodox fabric cutting technique, to say the least. I was starting to feel like a case-history-in-the-making for bizarre psychosomatic stress, which just wasn’t adding up because I was enjoying the task, searing leg pain notwithstanding.
Finally, I made my apologies and left work early. I stumbled up out of the basement cutting room, on to Piccadilly and waved down a black cab. “To A&E.” I was living in East London at the time, so I headed for the Royal London. I was racked by now and could barely make it to the hospital entrance, but the nurse on her cigarette break helpfully explained that her work insurance wouldn’t cover her assisting me outside the building, so I pressed on.
It turned out that I’d contracted an unusual infection, which was killing my leg muscle (plausible theory: caught when I lived on the equator, and simmering away). The necrotic tissue was cut out and I was discharged two weeks later. What I’m getting at in a roundabout way is that learning to walk again, first with a stick, and then without, was an effortful, drawn-out thing, but I learnt how much wind it put in my sails to have a team of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances to support and encourage me. I dread to think how much longer my recovery time would’ve been without support. While I was shuffling along with my exercises, I took heart from the herculean efforts of Scott and his men. I reflected that if they could trudge through the pain barrier in Antarctic conditions, I could do the same in comparatively balmy London, with my creature comforts and home-cooked food.
Members of Scott's team (Picture taken by Herbert Ponting; Getty Images Gallery)
So what contributed to the smooth teamwork of Captain Scott and his crew? I mentioned integrity earlier, but other factors fed into it. One was Captain Scott’s humility. He was happy to appoint people to his team with greater experience than him. He wasn’t cowed by the scientists’ superior education, but engaged with their work thirstily. He engaged Cecil Meares to handle the sledge ponies and dogs, without being intimidated by his excellent reputation in that field. I think when a leader doesn’t stand on ceremony, it helps a team to relax in each other’s company.
Also, from all the accounts I’ve read, I’m struck by the warmth, friendship and mutual respect that characterised the Terra Nova mission. Disagreements were aired, rather than suppressed, and resolved with an even hand. Britain a century ago was hidebound by the class system, and this persisted through the expedition (there were separate dining tables at the winter camp for officers and scientists, for example), but gradually, far from home, constraints were loosened and there was free mixing amongst all members of the crew. For the time, this was progressive and a mark of how well the team gelled.