What Obama can learn from polar seals

Sheldon Bart Author, Race to the Top of the World
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When I brought a team of scientists to an Antarctic island a couple of years ago, my emergency gear included a can of bear spray. Of course, I knew there aren’t any polar bears in the south polar regions; but there are leopard seals, and they’ve been known to attack humans both in and out of the water. Consequently, I had a can of high-powered pepper spray in my pocket when my scientists prospected for soil samples along the shore.

By taking such precautions, I was following an admonition of pioneer aviator and polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957). “It’s always the things that are not supposed to happen,” he said, “that wind up causing you the most trouble.”

Byrd was a Navy officer, but his expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s were privately organized. They were all-American outings featuring a ragtag assortment of volunteers from every strata of society: millionaires and roustabouts, songwriters, and PhD’s. Byrd conceived the projects, recruited the personnel, raised the money and exercised command. He made several historic flights over oceans, poles and glacial landscapes, conducted the first modern aerial mapping surveys of the polar regions, brought back vast databases compiled by the scientists who accompanied him and captured the imagination of millions of American men, women and children. He was the Babe Ruth, the Beatles of exploration. No one before him operated on the scale he did. No one accomplished as much.

Most significantly, he never lost a man on the ice. He succeeded because he developed a model of effective leadership when lives are at stake. Here’s the model in brief: He continually anticipated problems, devised back-up plans, that is to say, incorporated back-up plans in his project design, and established and enforced safety protocols. He did not wait for a crisis to begin crisis management. He anticipated the failure of the best-laid plans and prepared fail-safe systems before the crisis developed.

It astonishes me that contemporary decision-makers, including those at the highest level, by and large lack the humility Byrd displayed toward the unknown and the objectivity with which he scrutinized and evaluated his own plans. This is partially due to the electorate’s unfortunate tendency to elevate people for superficialities like their affability, rhetorical flash, and telegenic charm. People who reach the Oval Office today bring with them experience in legislative relations, public administration, business or law. Once in office, they find themselves confronted with deadly crises. They apply to these situations the leadership model of a legislator, governor, business executive (or community organizer). They have people skills, fundraising expertise, speaking ability and name recognition, but no experience to fall back on commensurate with the decisions they are now required to make.

Byrd would never have contemplated military action in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria without a back-up plan to deal with worst-case scenarios. If informed that the levees of New Orleans were expected to withstand an oncoming hurricane, he would have immediately appointed a task force to draft a plan of action in case they collapsed. Given the current wave of turbulence in the Middle East, he would have had the Joint Chiefs prepare for rescue missions before the first jihadist weapon was aimed at an American diplomat.

The next President of the United States doesn’t need to be a military man or an explorer, and foreign policy-making is not quite equivalent to the tasks confronting an expedition leader, and events aboard can be anticipated a little better than wildlife encounters. Yet as accelerating crises threaten to overwhelm us, this effective, tested approach to making decisions when lives are stake, worked out a lifetime ago, under extreme conditions, ought to have become part of our common knowledge and collective heritage.

Sheldon Bart is president and founder of Wilderness Research Foundation and a member of the Board of Governors of the American Polar Society. His most recent book, Race to the Top of the World: Richard Byrd and the First Flight to the North Pole, is due this fall from Regnery History.