What can an early Australian explorer teach us about leadership?

“Difficulties are just things to overcome.”

Ernest Shackleton – British Antarctic Explorer

McDouall Stuart in central Australia

As a primary school student, I was enthralled by the exploits of the early Australian colonial explorers from Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth who first crossed the Blue Mountains, to Oxley, Burke and Wills, Kennedy and then Leichardt, who disappeared without trace. One particular explorer stood out, John McDouall Stuart.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about management lessons from the failed and tragic Burke and Wills expedition. The contrast between Stuart who was a dour alcoholic, careful, physically small and a shy Scot to Robert O’Hara Burke who was a moody, impulsive, eccentric and physically intimidating Irishman, could not have been starker.

Leaving from Adelaide, Stuart successfully crossed Australia from south to north through the harsh desert interior and returned, without losing any member of his expedition.

So how did he do it?

Trained as a civil engineer, Stuart accompanied the famous explorer Captain Charles Sturt in 1844 to search for the inland sea in central Australia. This expedition returned to Adelaide, exhausted and suffering from scurvy after discovering two of the harshest deserts in Australia, the Simpson Desert and Sturt’s Stony Desert; but failing to find the island sea. The conditions were so horrendous, the lead fell out of their pencils, and the screws fell out of their wooden equipment boxes as they shrank in the heat. The horses became lame and many died. Sturt became nearly blind and the second in charge, James Poole died of scurvy.    

Over the next nearly 20 years Stuart led five expeditions into the centre of Australia before his final and successful expedition in late 1861. Each subsequent expedition explored further and further into the harsh desert interior, finding the geographic centre of the continent and finally solving the riddle of the inland sea. On his fifth expedition Stuart reached Newcastle Waters north of what is now known as Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. They were forced back from reaching the northern coastline near Darwin due to the lack of water and inhospitable scrub.

His sixth and final expedition was successful, reaching the north coast on July 1862 and arriving back in Adelaide in December 1862. The crossing did not come easily.  The men were sick with scurvy and malnourished, many of the horses were abandoned as they became too weak to continue, and Stuart himself had to be carried on a stretcher between two horses on the final leg of the return journey. In contrast to Burke, and despite these hardships, no person ever died on any of the expeditions he led.

Returning as a hero, Stuart was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Geographical Society to add to a gold watch he had previously been awarded. The only other person to ever receive both a watch and medal was the missionary and African explorer, Dr David Livingstone such was his prestige. Stuart and his group were given a special welcome in Adelaide as heroes and crowds lined the streets, ironically on the day that Burke and Wills were buried in Melbourne. The government proclaimed a holiday.

Sadly, nearly blind and very sick, he died less than four years later.

What are three lessons for managers we can learn from John McDouall Stuart?

How does this compare this to the infamous and failed Burke and Wills expedition?

1. Planning – there is no substitute for sound planning. In contrast to Burke and Wills, his rivals in crossing Australia, he carefully planned his expeditions using a smaller and more mobile team. Being a qualified surveyor, he used these skills in planning his expeditions, combined with the experience gained from previous exploratory expeditions.

2. Experience – in contrast to Burke and Wills, Stuart was an experienced bushman. He spent nearly 20 years gaining experience in exploring the central Australian desert. Stuart travelled lightly and with small numbers of men on horses. There were no bullock drays and flocks of sheep to slow them down. They could travel far more quickly than all the explorers before them, and they followed the water courses. Stuart did not keep to a predetermined route and he used experience gained from the Aborigines. In the harsh Australian desert, he observed bird and animal movements which he used to discover water. Furthermore, the small party did not need large amounts of water.

3. Persistence – it took Stuart six attempts to cross Australia. Unlike Burke, he did not put his expedition members in danger.  When it became too difficult the expedition returned home. Persistence paid off in the end, although it could be argued to terrible effect on his physical health. Overnight success is very rare – there is no substitute for hard work and staying the distance.

Stuart’s exploits can be summed up in the following quote by T.G.H. Strehlow, an Australian anthologist who specialised in Central Australian Aboriginal culture:

“In Stuart, Australia possessed a man cast in the mould of a hero – a man whose amazing persistence, indomitable courage, and unfailing common sense enabled him to succeed in a mighty task in which most others would have failed”

Do you agree with these lessons?

What other lessons can we learn from the success of John McDouall Stuart?


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