The case for courage

The case for courage

If you would ask me to give the names of two courageous men, I would definitely mention the Norwegians George Harbo and Frank Samuelson.  Part of their life was truly remarkable... 

In 1896, when they were 32 and 26 years old, they invested all their life savings into a six-meter wooden boat. Both men had a very clear ambition: they wanted to be the first to row from the USA to Europe.  From New York to Le Havre in France.  Of course, everybody told them they were crazy.  This is what The New York Post wrote on 6 June 1896, the day both men left Manhattan for a journey of over 5.000 km: “They are very confident that fortune is ahead of them, but seafaring men say it is nothing short of suicide”.

Harbo and Samuelson packed their boat with the necessary provisions: almost 200 liter of water, canned beef and ham, biscuits, coffee and eggs.  To navigate their way to Europe, they carried a compass and a sextant.  That’s it.  They calculated that they would arrive in France in 54 days.  

After several weeks on the ocean, they crossed the German steamer "Fuerst Bismarck".  The New York Herald described the meeting as follows: “The captain of the liner waited until they got within hearing distance and then shouted, “Are you shipwrecked?” “No. Bound for Europe.” “In that boat? Never. Better let me take you back.” “Thanks, no,” they replied. “Are you crazy?”  “No, indeed.”

Every ship they met on the ocean offered to carry them home, but Harbo and Samuelson would not be persuaded.  Although their time at sea was very tough, with numerous fierce storms and near-death experiences, they finally arrived at Le Havre on 7 August 1896.  62 days after leaving New York.  

When we look at their achievement in hindsight, it was a truly heroic journey.  Harbo and Samuelson were the first to cross the ocean like that and for 116 years also the fastest.  Today, rowing small boats or paddling specialized kayaks across the Atlantic Ocean is no longer an exception.  However, most people choose for the most common route: from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, taking advantage of the subtropical current.  Harbo and Samuelson took a more demanding route: from west to east across the volatile North Atlantic Ocean.  This journey has only been repeated 18 times (or perhaps fewer, depending on how you define such a crossing).   The record of both men was finally broken in 2010, when a team of four – equipped with the best material and top technology – finished the same route in just under 44 days.  But Harbo and Samuelson’s legacy will never be eclipsed.

In fact, their achievement emphasizes the need for courage.  In life, but especially also in business.  What could the future of your company look like with a calculated infusion of courage?  Most corporations are focused on mitigating risk.  However, when doing so, they are also mitigating courage.  Most companies have regular meetings in which they talk about risk.  Rarely do you see discussions about courage.  

Let me quote former Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall: “The thing that drives a lot of traditional companies is the fear of losing what you already have.  That means you grow incrementally; you put artificial constraints on imagination, creativity, and innovation”.  So let’s put “courage” on the agenda again.  There is a high chance your company will need it.  

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