A lesson in quiet leadership


Forgive me, an indulgent post in the run up to Armistice Day, about leadership from a very personal perspective.

“The MV Athelknight traded from the commencement of hostilities principally in the North Atlantic, without undue incident until 26th May 1942 when she was attacked by submarine and sunk whilst sailing on passage from UK to Cuba.  Four men were killed and the remaining 48 abandoned ship in two lifeboats in the middle of the North Atlantic.  No news, except the cryptic message that the vessel had been attacked, was received until one lifeboat containing 23 men after a voyage of over 1000 miles lasting 28 days landed in Antigua in the West Indies.  The second lifeboat was picked up after  26  days off Capetown, South Africa”.

So reads the excerpt from “Contribution to Victory” a short account of wartime activities of the Tanker Fleets owned by Athel Line Ltd.

In that first boat, that landed in Antigua was a 19 year old apprentice by the name of John Nicholson.  He later went on to become Marine Superintendent of the parent company United Molasses, part of Tate and Lyle Sugar.

In 1956 his first command was the Athelbrae – a low bottomed small vessel that brought the molasses from the rivers in the West Indies to the main tankers in Georgetown, where they sailed for the UK.

John Nicholson was my late father and we named our house and then our business after his first command – hence the Athelbrae ship as our business logo.

Our father never really spoke of his experience in that lifeboat – we knew they had few rations and little water. He only once discussed it when I asked about it (I was about 10 years old) and he recounted hanging onto the guardrail as the ship listed before she finally sank.  The U boat strafed the water with machine guns and I asked wide eyed what he’d done – “I ……. let go” was the rather deadpan response!

Undoubtedly his experiences shaped his development within the Service and it wasn’t until his untimely death aged 69, that so many people wrote about how he had influenced their working lives; how respected he was as a leader of men; what they owed him for their own development.

What I have realised though is that he epitomised what good leadership is:-

  • He didn’t “expect” respect, he knew it had to be earned
  • He wouldn’t ask anyone, whatever their rank, to do a job he wouldn’t do himself
  • He knew what the vision was and could communicate it to every member of staff
  • He faced problems, and there were many, including at times in the 60s and 70s where crews lives were lost in catastrophic accidents, but saw beyond the problem to what was the best solution and acted accordingly.
  • He held people to account – he didn’t shirk from difficult conversations
  • I don’t think he ever saw himself as a “leader” – he knew the job that had to be done, and he got on and did it.  He didn’t look for rewards, or expect praise.  He put his team and his crew first in all things.  He’d go to the ends of the earth for his staff and took the time and trouble to know about their family lives, children, important events.

He loved his job – which we all know helps tremendously on those days when things aren’t going so well.

Beyond that though, he understood from his time in that lifeboat that working together on a common goal, sacrificing small things for the good of the whole, taking the tough decisions (in his case, cutting out shrapnel from his foot to avoid gangrene) shaped his work ethic and that developed his leadership skills in later life.

Many say leaders are not born, they are made and I’d not disagree with that.

So, on 11th November, we’ll stop to remember those who gave their all for freedom and democracy – and indeed those who still do so and for those quiet leaders from whom we can learn so much.

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