Leadership in an Extreme Environment

P.J. Capelotti, professor of anthropology and Penn State Abington’s resident explorer, chronicles three failed American expeditions to the frozen north in his new book, The Greatest Show in the Arctic: The American Exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898–1905.  His 2.5 pound, 624-page tome details what he describes as a three-ring circus of personalities, politics, and economics in the late 19th century scramble to be first at the geographic North Pole.

“No one had yet taken up the challenge to write about the American experience in the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land,” Capelotti said of his book, which was more than 20 years in the making. “Most histories and biographies on this era in exploration focus on Robert Peary or Frederick Cook and, even if someone had attempted it, most of the journals, diaries, and letters were only available in the last 10 or 15 years.”

Because the American explorers needed so much international—and especially Scandinavian—help with their plans, Capelotti’s two decades of research led him to relevant documents housed in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as England and Russia, along with stateside research in archives at Dartmouth College, the Library of Congress, the National Air and Space Museum, and local archives scattered from Missouri to Martha’s Vineyard. As a result, Capelotti was able to develop a comprehensive history that both describes and then explains what went right and what so spectacularly wrong for these men and expeditions.

The Greatest Show in the Arctic tells the story, as historian Michael F. Robinson writes in a review of the book, “of noble intentions, new inventions, and epic miscalculations.”  They were led by a colorful cast:

  • Walter Wellman, a Chicago journalist and social climber running from debts, his mistress, and an illegitimate daughter;
  • Evelyn Briggs Baldwin, an unstable meteorologist obsessed with balloons and Swedish conserves; and:
  • Anthony Fiala, a pious photographer in search of God in the Arctic.

These men, despite their limitations and often against impossible conditions, accumulated considerable geographic knowledge and left a legacy of place-names that provided the author, his Abington students, and experts worldwide material to further their research.  Today, the Franz Josef Land archipelago increasingly shows the effects of climate change. Broken skis and other items from a century ago are being revealed as the snow and ice melts, Capelotti said.

As the author of 20 books who has reached the North Pole twice and researched the region for almost four decades, he said the book is “the final statement of my career as a polar researcher.”  The expeditions, he discovered, foundered chiefly because of poor leadership and internal friction, not for lack of funding as previously suspected. Across the many years of writing, Capelotti saw these failures of American leadership reflected in his personal experiences as well.

“I’ve spent nearly 40 years as a student, grad student, and now professor in higher education, years that included more than two decades in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many leaders, both extremely good, horrendously bad, and everything in between,” he said. “The expedition members in The Greatest Show had bad leaders and, when you suffer bad leadership as these expeditions did, it becomes a hell on Earth. They were under the most stressful environmental conditions possible and saddled with bad leadership.”

“So this is very much an actual history, leavened by my own experiences with leadership,” he said.

Reviewers have begun to weigh in on this novel approach.  Arctic explorer Lawrence Millman calls it “astonishingly good,” and Dr. William Barr, writing in the Arctic Book Review, noted that: “By dint of his usual painstaking research … Capelotti has uncovered the remarkable intricacies of the less-than-admirable behaviour and the often incomprehensible decisions made by all three leaders.”

Capelotti continues his work in the north. He has been invited to deliver the Roald Amundsen Memorial Lecture at the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway, this December, and the U.S. Department of State this summer asked Capelotti to serve as guest contributor for their Our Arctic Nation blog. He discusses Pennsylvania’s connection to the Arctic through his work and focuses on his Penn State Abington student’s research that culminated in a National Science Foundation workshop in Oslo last year and continues with the dedication of an historical marker this month to one of the state’s own Arctic explorers.

Dr. P.J. Capelotti, is professor of anthropology at Penn State Abington College and a research associate of the Polar Center at Penn State, University Park. In addition to The Greatest Show in the Arctic: the American exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898–1905 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), he is the author or editor of nineteen other books, including Life and Death on the Greenland Patrol (University Press of Florida, 2006) and Shipwreck at Cape Flora (University of Calgary Press, 2013). His Arctic fieldwork has taken him several times to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land and twice to the North Pole. A retired Master Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, the Coast Guard decorated him with the Arctic Service Medal and twice with the Meritorious Service Medal. Follow him on Twitter at: @PJCapelotti.

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