Leaders, Big Ideas & New Frontiers

Earlier this week, the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, announced his plans to send humans to Mars within six years and to, as he says, “become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.” His ambitious and adventurous announcement made national news and as I watched a video clip this morning, it was his response to an audience member’s question that resonated with me. The question was: “Who should these people be, carrying the light of humanity to Mars for all of us?”  Musk responded with: “I think the first journeys to Mars will be really very dangerous.  The risk of fatality will be high.  There’s just no way around it.”  He also responded with this rhetorical question “Are you prepared to die?  If that’s okay, then you’re a candidate for going.”

Musk’s brutal honesty immediately reminded me of another ambitious adventurer named Ernest Shackleton.  Shackleton was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. His most famous, and ill-fated, was called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1916) with a mission to lead an expedition across Antarctica via the South Pole. His ship was named the Endurance, and to recruit staff for his ship, Shackleton reportedly placed the following newspaper ad (see image below):  


3,000 men responded to Shackleton’s job posting and the fate of the Endurance has become one of history’s greatest stories of survival and teamwork.  There is a fantastic book and movie if you care to learn more.

Okay, so here’s where historical lessons become practical. After watching Musk’s news clip this morning I had the following realization: Despite the enormous and upfront risks associated with exploring new frontiers (arctic or planetary), both Musk and Shackleton clearly outlined their vision, identified the destination and then used an effective call-to-action to recruit the right people to accompany them on their journey.  Seems to me that these three elements and these two explorers reinforce a notion that people are willing to join the adventure if they believe in the vision, know the desired destination, and are compelled by strong leaders to accept shared risk in exchange for shared reward.

As campus recreation professionals, many of us have staff that respond and or report to us. They rely on our leadership to advance the mission. If you currently lead a team, then ask yourself these three questions: Do you clearly outline your vision?  Does everyone on your team know the desired destination. And finally, have you authentically introduced enthusiasm, passion, and emotion into your calls-to-action?

If leaders can put all three of these elements together, then history has shown us that great things are possible. Campus Recreation may not be as big as Mars or the Antarctic, but something tells me we have many new frontiers to explore within our own campuses. I see some of our colleagues doing that right now. With efforts towards inclusion, sustainability, technology, and wellness, there are several campuses on the leading edge, actively exploring these new frontiers. With each advancement, they reset the industry standards for us all to strive towards achieving.

And finally, my last thought was this. In my opinion, the most authentic leaders are those who engage in the front line efforts necessary to execute their vision. With that in mind, one important differentiating factor between Musk and Shackleton leadership remains to be seen. Knowing full well the risks associated with his journey, Shackleton accompanied and led his team whose “safe return was doubtful”…..will Musk climb aboard one of his rockets and do the same?

Tim Mertz is the Director of Recreation at MIT. 

Emily Harbourne was a previous editor for Campus Rec Magazine.

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