The Deep End

The Strength of the Pack

December 30, 2019


We think of ISG as a "pack" or community, an homage to Rudyard Kipling's famous "The Law of the Jungle", in which he wrote:

The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack."

What is strength? How do we assess such a thing, and how can we cultivate it, both in ourselves, and for our "pack"?

As we continue, we will look at what we believe is the skeleton of any successful organization and we'll dive into the meaning of Kipling's 'Law of the Jungle' and how it relates to us.

Strength in Intelligence

If we are to examine the root of what makes humans 'strong', we can look at two different perspectives:

  • We're not biologically blessed with sharp teeth, talons, stunning speed or strength...
  • Our principle strength is our ability to solve problems because we have thought.

Giving homage to thinkers before us, this concept has deep roots throughout Western history... the story of Epimetheus and Prometheus defined humanity through civilizing thought. Kipling's Law of the Jungle itself is a poetic descendant of Aristotle's classic quote:

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts"

So, as we look at Google's "Project Aristotle", we should expect that what we find continues on this path; a path that illustrates reason as a foundation of humankind's strength.

Project Aristotle

Psychological Safety is a fancy term for "trust".

Perplexed by why some teams comprised of regular people were effective and teams of highly knowledgeable professionals were not, Google compiled research from a score of projects across psychology. They interviewed hundreds of employees. The great pain of the question stemmed from the basic premise:

'why can some groups comprised of so much talent fail so spectacularly, while others that seem average can manage to work so well?'

It's a frustrating situation that many of us have experienced. So, Google took research spanning years for the sole purpose of answering the question: "What makes a team work?"

Research showed that problem solving is not only about mental flexibility, but it's also about being able to work with others in such a way that solutions aren't only created, but they're acted upon. One of the biggest barriers to this is ego.

People who are driven largely by ego tend to withdraw or over-emphasize their experience in the cooperative environment. It becomes a competition of ideas between professionals who are deeply concerned with nuance. It also causes professional stagnation - the opposite of the self-development cycle we advocate.

In business, ego can lead to pragmatic solutions, but when things get tough, groups in which the members isolate into factions based on raw ability tend to fracture and become desperate. The 'pragmatic' decision to leave a sick or wounded comrade, for example initiates the disintegration of the group.

Why? What is it that damns a group to terminal failure?

This is important as well for, without failure, there would be no need for Project Aristotle.

For examples, we'll look to the findings of Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff's work "No Mercy: true Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality."

The scenarios they detail are a dubious shadow cast by the findings of the Aristotle project, as they take true stories of groups forced into 'life or death' situations, and analyzed the causes of group disintegration. They are an antithesis to Aristotle's "whole"; a whole that is less than the sum of its parts.

Trust vs Mistrust

Project Aristotle's years of study distilled group success into the phrase "Psychological Safety", but we think it can be further reduced to a single word:


No other single factor was as influential in a group's ability to work together. Trust, more than any other thing, predicted whether or not a group could function together as a pack or regress into squabbling, ineffectual ruin. Further, their findings maintained that successful groups tended to remain successful while those that failed continued to fail. This isn't new, either. Psychologist Erik Erikson proposed the first 'developmental task' a child undertakes is "Trust vs Mistrust". This is critical, and we can draw some similarities between infants and groups in their infancy. Like children, the groups that fail these first critical steps in establishing trust tend to fail.

Let's get to the root of this phenomenon: how is trust established and maintained?

Learmonth and Tabakoff's study of historic studies came to a similar conclusion as Google's study, Aristotle's philosophy, and Kipling's poetry: a point that was perhaps most punctuated during the shipwrecks of the Grafton and the Invercauld.

These vessels found themselves shipwrecked on the same island, during the same time... with drastically different results.

The Grafton (Trust)

The Grafton, captained by Thomas Musgrave and his crew of 4 ran aground in October 1864  after a failed attempt at anchoring in a harbor near Auckland Island, some 400 miles south of New Zealand. It was a harsh time of year in a harsh climate, and the crew was assaulted by gale force winds as they were forced to abandon ship. While the Grafton illustrates a story of general cooperation, it wasn't long before issues began to arise, challenging Captain Musgrave's resourcefulness and leadership.

"Up to the present time the men have worked well, and conducted themselves in a very obedient and respectful manner towards me, but I find there is somewhat of a spirit of obstinacy and independence creeping in amongst them [5]"

After one particularly tense altercation, Musgrave displayed what is perhaps one of history's most poignant examples of humility. He abdicated power and put his position to a vote after allowing his men to draft a constitution. He was unanimously re-elected, but rather than as a leader, it was said:

'Not a master or superior, but a "head" or "chief of family".'

Their constitution essentially mandated fair treatment, listing the following:

  • Be firm but fair in keeping order.
  • Work to avoid disharmony and controversy within the group.
  • Adjudicate quarrels and hand out punishments. Punishments for offenders would initially be just a reprimand, followed by temporary or permanent ostracism for recidivists.
  • Assign daily chores fairly for all including ones self.
  • For major decisions, take a vote, with a majority verdict to decide the outcome.
  • The community reserves to itself the right of deposing the chief of the family, and electing another, if at any time he shall abuse his authority or employ it for personal and manifestly selfish purposes. [5]

This familial commitment to trust doesn't lose importance outside the emergency framework either. Erik Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development [6] defines the first step in a child's life as "Trust vs Mistrust". In much the same way, those who find themselves pressed into life or death situations could be thought of as having been born again into circumstance and their development will mature along similar lines [6]. A group's formation, similar to a child's development, is established on mutual trust or mistrust.

In the end, the crew of the Grafton persevered by:

...building a solid cabin with a stone chimney, furnished with stretchers, a dining table and writing desk. However it took some time to build as the only available tools were an axe, an adze, a hammer and a gimlet.... The men manufactured clothes from sealskin and hunted and fished for food. For entertainment Captain Musgrave started reading classes and Mr Raynal manufactured a chess set, dominoes and a pack of cards.[6]

This is incredible considering that even in such circumstances, they had the presence of mind to cross-train one another in what passed for free time.

They waited for rescue but in the end, fashioned a boat from the wreckage of the Grafton, and rescued themselves by sailing to New Zealand, 400 miles to their North. The crew of the Grafton survived for one year and seven months.
All of the men survived - a stunning 100% survival rate.

The Invercauld (Mistrust)

The Auckund Islands - not overly hospitable sub-Antarctic accommodations.

If the Grafton and her crew were a story of success and trust, the Invercauld, captained by George Dalgarno, is an example of a more tragic fate. Crashing in May of 1865, they left men to die, falsified reports of their scouting attempts, failed to define a way to kill the seals which could have provided a sustainable source of meat and ultimately succumbed to cannibalism.

Learmonth and Tabakoff paraphrase this, saying:

Often in dysfunctional survivor groups, a division quickly appears between the healthy and strong, and the weak and sick. Anyone who displays an illness, injury or loss of strength can find themselves with a target on their back, particularly when the group starts doing the 'survivors math' calculations. [5]

"Survivors Math" as per Learmonth and Tabakoff is the process of determining who will die so the others can live, but it's not just the weak that end up sacrificed. Trust and group cohesion in all cases they analyzed deteriorated rapidly once this begins, as paranoia and power struggles split groups into rival factions.

From the beginning of the Invercauld's trial, the crew of 25 struggled against panic to get ashore as their ship broke apart. They found themselves immediately panicked, leaving six of their own to drown. During the commotion many of the survivors were injured and were forced to sleep "under the trunks of trees like wild beasts". No attempts were made to scavenge or salvage and no efforts were made to construct shelter. The following day, the crew was left with only some biscuits and salted pork, and more men perished in the night.

The act of abandoning the sick, injured, and weak - which could be considered a prudent, calculated move - is the ultimate expression of "every man for himself". The lack of cohesion between the men continued to its horrifying conclusion, and few of the men had direction or skill necessary to sustain themselves under the conditions. Violence between the men occurred and, at one point, crewman William Hervey killed another man named Fred Hawser, and was later seen eating him.

The surviving crew were rescued by luck when a Spanish ship called Julian harbored near their encampment on the island for repairs with hopes of finding the  Enderby's settlement (the ruins of which Dalgarmo's group had found), which they incorrectly believed to be an active fishing village.

In the end, the crew of the Invercauld lost 22 of 25 men, a stunning 88% mortality rate.


An illustration of the Grafton's crew; "We pressed closely bound to protect the flame."

If we look at the two examples objectively, the survivors were in the same climate with similar resources. It could be said that a smaller crew could be closer knit, and demanded less calories, but the disorganization that plagued the Invercauld showed that they didn't have the necessary discipline or bonding to act as a pack. The stories of the Grafton and Invercauld punctuate what "Project Aristotle" concluded: without trust, cohesion cannot exist.

Grafton vs Invercauld

  • Trust vs Mistrust
  • Composure vs Panic
  • Salvaged food and material vs Sat idle
  • Assisted one another vs "Every man for himself"
  • Improvised materials vs Falsified reports of scouting
  • Communicated solutions vs Infighting
  • Leadership vs Entitlement

There's one final consideration in two these cases: Both ships had sick crew members.

In the instance of the Grafton, Francois Raynal was considered "critically ill". When the Grafton ran aground, instead of panicking and abandoning the vessel and Raynal, the crew waited until the morning when a crew member swam ashore with a rope so that supplies - and their wounded companion - could be brought safely to the island.

On the Invercauld, a young man called Tom Page was ill and was last heard crying "for God's sake. Don't leave me.' Page perished by drowning as the Invercauld broke upon the rocks.

After making a stunning recovery, Raynal went on to construct a double-chambered forge and bellows which was instrumental in constructing the 'ship' used to self-rescue the Grafton's crew.

Survivor's math would say Raynal was an extra mouth to feed and was sick anyway. Captain Musgrave nearly perished under the weight of Raynal when the rope was pulled into the waves below. Raynal's sickness was such that no one expected him to survive. Musgrave chose to save him anyway, at great personal risk.

Trust and mistrust mean different things to those in an office than they do for a castaway, but ultimately, the "psychological safety" experienced by modern, effective teams is little different than those facing life or death. So in our view, building trust and rapport with people is the single most critical thing you can do for your 'pack'.

Contagion and Conclusion

So, when we say the "Strength of the Pack", we mean intellectual flexibility, accountability, honesty, and trust. It means that each individual bound by these things to a group will lend his strengths to that group, and they're all stronger for it.

We can't arrive at these conclusions without acknowledging that the flip side of that - the weakness of the pack - is selfishness, ego, instability, dishonesty, and deception. If we are to be trusted leaders in any endeavor, we must be trusted beyond a doubt to act in the best interest of those in our care. As if they were our family... our pack.

Even if they become ill or injured, our commitment to them is a bond to our group, and our treatment of our weakest members reflects our true selves. In times of hardship, it's easy to become preoccupied with one's own safety.

It's easy to panic, and panic is contagious... But so is composure.

Cultivate trust and composure as if your life depends on it. Someday it might.

May your composure be contagious,

ISG Team


[1] Anita Williams Woolley, et al. "Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups"  Science 330, 686 (2010); DOI: 10.1126/science.1193147. Recovered from Web.

[2] Bariso, Justin. "Google Spent Years Studying Effective Teams. This Single Quality Contributed Most to Their Success."  November 30, 2017.
Recovered from web.

[3] Cherry, Kendra "What is General Intelligence?" VeryWell Mind. July 6, 2018.
Recovered from Web.

[4] Duhigg, Charles "What Google learned From it's Quest to Build the Perfect Team." February 26, 2016.
Recovered from web.

[5] Learmonth, Eleanor and Tabakoff, Jenny "No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival, and Brutality." July 24, 2013.

[6] McMaken, Michael, "The Relationship Between Erikson's Developmental Tasks and Children Identified as At-Risk" (2000). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 2630.

[7] Psychology Notes HQ "Erik Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development". May 19, 2017.

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