Diphtheria isn’t given much thought today. It’s in the category of diseases that have been conquered through modern medicine, much like polio or smallpox. Even so, Diphtheria has a nasty reputation. It can masquerade initially as tonsillitis, but the lesions it causes in the airways of its victims give it its nickname: “the Strangler”. It is highly contagious, able to live outside the human body for weeks.
It was January 1925, Nome Alaska, and the last supply ship of the season had left port before the sea froze over. The town physician, Dr. Welch, had recently diagnosed what he thought were cases of tonsillitis, but when a young child died, Welch realized he had something much more serious on his hands: diphtheria. The order Dr. Welch placed for diphtheria antitoxin in the summer of 1924 did not get filled before the port closed for the winter. In her book, “The Cruelest Miles,” Laney Salisbury tells this story.
A quarantine was ordered in Nome to limit the spread of the disease. On January 22nd, Dr. Welch wired that the situation in Nome was serious and requested antitoxin. A supply of antitoxin was located in Anchorage, but the challenge was getting it the almost 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome. There were three airplanes in the Alaska territory at the time, but flying that distance was a risky proposition even under ideal conditions. Governor Scott Bone concluded that doing it in an open cockpit aircraft during winter was a fool’s errand. The only viable option was a dogsled relay.
The relay began on January 27th in Nenana, Alaska, which is as far as the train from Anchorage could take the serum. From there, it travelled virtually non-stop along the mail route to Nome, passing from one musher to the next. Temperatures were at 20-year lows, with winds causing whiteouts and snowdrifts as high as 10 feet, making the entire journey perilous. Leonard Seppala covered the most dangerous stretch across the open ice of Norton Sound, which lead dog Togo successfully negotiated just hours before gale force winds broke the ice up. The final handoff was to Gunnar Kaasen, whose team was led by a Siberian Husky named Balto. The serum entered Nome early the morning of February 2nd, after having covered 674 treacherous miles in just seven days to save the children of Nome.
I have to wonder if the motivation for the serum run had been money, not saving the lives of children, could they have accomplished this amazing feat of speed and endurance? I think the answer easily is “no”. There was something much bigger at stake than money. The lifesaving nature of the mission inspired the courage, unity and exceptional performance required to do it. In whiteout blizzard conditions, with temperatures as cold as -50° F, it would have been too easy for the mushers to decide the money wasn’t worth the suffering. It takes compelling reasons to inspire extraordinary achievement.
Great leaders understand these motivational dynamics. Inspiring great performance with money might seem like a great strategy, but it doesn’t work well. Sure, money can buy good performance, but great performance requires something that ignites resolve. Daniel Pink discusses these dynamics in his book “Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. He observes that it’s important to pay employees enough to get money off the table as an issue, but it doesn’t inspire exceptional performance. What does? According to Pink, it is the opportunity to work autonomously, to gain mastery over a skill or profession, and to have purpose in work. Saving lives is about as powerful a purpose as one can find. This same motivation inspired the herculean effort in 2010 to free 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 68 days.
Leaders who search for ways to inspire their teams to stellar performance realize that it’s not possible to link every task or project to saving lives. It’s also absurd to consider artificially creating a crisis in order to motivate employees to higher performance. What is possible, however, is to have a vision for changing lives. If you could survey the highest performing teams in any setting, they would answer the motivation question the same way: the results of their efforts have a measurable impact and it’s not just about the money. If you’re a leader and you want your team to excel, examine your vision for work and how well you’re infecting your team with that vision. If you think it isn’t possible to do this in an ordinary workplace, you’re wrong. A great example of what I’m talking about is found in this clip from one of my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The dire situation in Nome captivated and tugged at the heartstrings of the entire nation. The mushers and their dogs that made the serum run were instant heroes. Gunnar Kaasen, who with Balto drove his team into Nome with the serum, understood another important principle of achievement: the accomplishment wasn’t his alone. When a grateful Nome populace thanked Kaasen, he suggested that Balto and the team deserved the credit. Just 10 months later, a bronze statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park with this inscription:
“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925. Endurance · Fidelity · Intelligence”