Dr. Joe MacInnis talked to The Globe and Mail editorial board about his new book, Deep Leadership: Essential Insights from High-risk Environments, and about James Cameron's most recent expedition: a solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger submersible.
Q: What was it like working with James Cameron, best known for his Academy Award-winning film Titanic?
I have worked with him on two previous expeditions. They are emotional and physical marathons. I was the digital journalist posting daily blogs on National Geographic's website and one of two team physicians on the Deepsea Challenger expedition.
Q: What was the goal of the expedition?
Our objective was to take Jim's new sub, which he designed, and take it down into the Mariana Trench, seven miles from surface to sea floor. On March 26, Jim made that three-hour dive and explored and imaged what was there. He led from the front.
Q: Why did he decide to do this expedition?
He had seven years of mind, money and mortality invested in this project for one reason: He loves science-driven exploration. He embodied resolute courage and combat courage. He generates enough energy to power major household appliances. If he were the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk. We riffed off his energy and toughness and made it our own.
Q: What were the conditions like?
In 50 years of going to sea, this is the toughest thing I have ever done. The Western Pacific is a place of big waves, big heat, unknown currents and steel-bending pressure. There are terrific forces at play. We had injuries from cables under tension, heaving decks, motion sickness, lacerated arms, broken ribs, 60 days of deep-sea guerilla warfare. The sub weighed 12 tonnes. As soon as the ship moved, it became a wrecking ball, so controlling it and getting it back into the cradle was a real challenge.
Q: What did you learn about leadership?
In extreme stress events we are in desperate need of leadership. We're so desperate we steal the ideas and energy of the people around us.
Q: What got you interested in this topic?
What is fascinating about leadership in high-risk environments such as the battlefield, ocean and space is it can make the difference between life and death. We are in a time of extreme stress events. I was interested in creating a personal field guide into leaders past and present.
Q: What was the most difficult part of your expedition?
Our first dive in the sub was in a protected area south of Sydney, Australia. It was a success. Then the unthinkable happened. A helicopter carrying two teammates crashed and burned on takeoff. The leader of the undersea film team and the leader of film production were killed in the fire. The cause of the crash is still under investigation. We were shattered. I spent time with Jim, who initially thought maybe we should shut down the project. I thought a way to honour the men we lost was to move ahead with the mission. Slowly we climbed out of this. We were living on exhaustion and adrenalin.
Q: How do you draw commonalities between great leaders from Trudeau to Cameron?
Those two are capable intellectually and physically. It's one thing to be a genius but to also be comfortable in your own body and to toggle back and forth. Trudeau and Cameron are curious in an action way – they do things to answer the questions and take what they have learned and create a new set of actions. They have extraordinary memories. And they tell stories.
Q: Is leadership innate?
Many leaders are possessed with good physiological energy. Early in the game, they all have heroes. Jim's hero was Jacques Cousteau. We are led by our heroes and we try to emulate them. In Cameron's and Trudeau's case, they found out there was an area where it could work and they could apply their idea. Then there was good fortune. I think you can learn the elements of leadership. I was suggesting to young people in the book to look around you and to make a list of your own principals that drive you and how you can learn more to become better.
Q: What are some leadership traits you have identified?
Cool competence. Hot-zone humour. Warrior's honour. Resolute courage.
Q: What about leaders who fall such as General Petraeus?
He was such an incredible guy. It's glib to say, but testosterone got in the way – as it does with so many men. I'm worried about people such as Lance Armstrong and Conrad Black. I don't know what it is like to be Lance Armstrong. But I do know what it is like to be in denial. When you get that high in terms of professional celebrity and renown and expertise, you can start sipping the moonshine, the white lightning of your own perfection and you start to think you're better than other mortals.
Q: What about women leaders?
Hillary Clinton is a hero of mine. In many ways in high-risk environments I have found women to be much better than men. They seem to have great strength on soft leadership qualities – empathy and trust. I have a huge respect for women who struggle to become leaders and who succeed. Passing the flame is very important.
This interview has been condensed and edited.