Excerpt: Deep-sea doctor Joe MacInnis on high-pressure management situations

How a risky dive to the wreck of the Titanic offered a memorable lesson in leadership
Ralph White/Corbis

Joe MacInnis has been a part of some of the most historic deep-sea dives ever attempted. A Canadian doctor with an expertise in dive medicine, he has led teams that performed the first scientific dives at the North Pole, created the first polar undersea station and discovered the northernmost shipwreck, the HMS Breadalbane, which sank in the Northwest Passage in 1853. MacInnis was also one of the first people to dive to the Titanic and more recently worked as a physician on James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge expedition—a solo dive to the deepest point on Earth in the Mariana Trench. In his book, Deep Leadership: Essential Insights from High-Risk Environments, MacInnis draws on his experiences and relationships with fellow adventurers to identify some of the traits that make great managers and leaders.

“Tomorrow, you’ll dive to Titanic with two of the best men on my team. Jean-Michel will be your pilot and Pierre-Yves your co-pilot. It will be a long dive—three hours to the sea floor, six hours on the wreck and three hours back to the surface.”

I was standing on the deck of the French government research vessel Nadir looking into the blue eyes of Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a former French naval commander. In the shadows over his shoulder, his team of sub pilots, engineers and technicians was preparing Nautile, a $20-million research sub, for the next day’s dive.

Nargeolet was tall and muscular with a movie-star smile. He knew every inch of his ship and his sleek yellow sub. Fluent in French, English and Spanish, he communicated as easily with gestures as he did with words. Nargeolet was tough, proud and focused. He respected sailors and sub pilots, men like himself who were willing to put it all on the line to get the job done. He’d seen the immutable forces of the ocean—the wind, the waves, the currents and the pressures—shape the character of those who worked in its depths. He had an old and visceral conviction that exploration was the business of daring individuals.

His military background served him well. He possessed competence and character. He made quick decisions and valued the contributions of others. He shared his team’s worries and hardships. For Nargeolet, being a leader was not a role; it was who he was.

Because a deep-sea research ship is jammed with sailors, scientists and technicians, it’s a place of contained but powerful emotions. And when a 10-ton submarine is lowered into a moving ocean, the tension soars. Nargeolet continuously assessed the mood swings of his team and tried to channel them in a positive way.

As we walked toward the sub, Nargeolet put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s your first dive to Titanic, but don’t worry. My team will take care of you in ways that will surprise you.”

The next morning I climbed down through Nautile’s narrow hatch. Its combat-tight crew sphere was filled with dozens of dials, gauges and switches. There was a central control stick and three forward-looking view ports. I positioned myself on the thin cushion on the starboard side and my knees almost touched my chest. Then Jean-Michel and Pierre-Yves slid in beside me. As they began going through their checklist, I realized I was descending four kilometres under the ocean’s surface to explore the Mount Everest of shipwrecks with two men I hardly knew.

The hatch closed and we were lowered over the stern of the ship into the cold North Atlantic.

It took almost three hours to get to the Titanic. We dropped through the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current, and the ocean got colder and blacker. The air was heavy with processed oxygen, scrubbed carbon dioxide and working sweat. As the crew cabin groaned with the increasing pressures, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. When it comes to this kind of depth, I have a Ph.D. in fear.

As we passed 1,800 m I took a long look at the electrical panels and junction boxes in the crew cabin. They contained hundreds of electrical connections. If a single connection overheated, the fire and smoke would immediately fill our lungs.

Jean-Michel looked at the sweat gleaming on my forehead, glanced at his watch and grinned. It was the infectious smile of a French pilot who knew he had an alpha coward in his sub. As we dropped through 2,700 m I thought about the giant rust-hulk of the ship below us. It was surrounded by torn pieces of metal and thick tangles of wire.The ocean would be tomb-black, filled with unpredictable currents. We might get swept into a snarl of heavy-gauge wire. Twenty years later wide-eyed observers in tourist subs would be whispering: “Those are the guys who never made it.”

When we reached the sea floor, Jean-Michel flew over the tan-coloured sediments and gently parked the sub. Then he leaned forward, opened an aluminum drawer, brought out three plastic containers and placed them on our laps. Inside were open-faced sandwiches and a small bottle of Beaujolais Blanc. Jean-Michel looked at his watch, smiled and said, “Monsieur Joe, we see zat you are a beet nervous, so we zink it is time for zee peekneek.”

We sat on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean eating the sandwiches and sipping the wine. We talked about French politics and French literature and I completely forgot where I was. Then, about 20 minutes later, it hit me. This was not just a picnic at the bottom of the Atlantic; this was a gift from Nargeolet. He knew I’d be anxious on my first dive, and that a Beaujolais Blanc lunch would give me confidence in the pilots and their hard-won skills. This was communication beyond meetings and memos; this was anticipating and responding to the unspoken needs of someone you were responsible for.

We spent nine hours exploring the Titanic. I saw the giant boilers that powered the 50,000-ton ship. I saw the debris field and hundreds of nautical and personal objects that had spilled out of the interior when the ship broke apart. I saw the shattered stern where so many lives were lost. I was anxious, but my heart beat at a reasonable rate. I was with two men whose emotional awareness diminished my fear.

Beyond most meetings, memos and tweets, there are moments of authentic communication. They are supported by invisible bridges of trust and confidence. They are moments of potential and peril.

The best leaders have a soul-whispering empathy. They know their team partners so well that they read their minds, finish their sentences and articulate their unspoken worries. This empathy is a foundation upon which they build their teams. As a result, their teams are bound together by professional skills, a sense of mission and close friendships supported by random and excessive acts of kindness. The kindness runs like an electric current among them.

In a commercial office or military battlefield, leaders are never as much in charge as they are pictured to be, nor are followers ever as submissive as they seem. Insights, influence and empathy flow both ways. This flow of ideas means that leadership is a conversation between minds. It also means that to a great extent followers “make” the leader.

Each morning when he first saw me, the captain of the French research ship looked directly into my eyes, smiled, clasped my hands and said, “Bonjour, mon ami.” He performed this ritual with everyone on the ship, from the youngest deckhand to his first mate. On the last day I asked him why he did this. “We’re hundreds of miles from shore,” he said. “It’s my way of confirming that while we’re out here I depend on you and you depend on me.”

On the French ship, everyone was fully immersed in purposeful tasks, balanced between adrenalin and exhaustion. In spite of this, the mood on the ship was relaxed. If there was one thing everyone shared it was professional calm—a serenity born of confidence. No one knew their sub better than they did—on every dive they bet their lives on it.

Excerpted from Deep Leadership: Essential Insights From High Risk Environments, copyright 2012, Dr. Joe MacInnis. Published by Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited.