7 Characteristics of Leadership I Learned From Sir Ernest Shackleton.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success”. Sir Ernest Shackleton

I just read Alfred Lansing’s book, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.”  The book is about the voyage of the British ship “Endurance” in 1914 and, it’s leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  It is an amazing account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and how 28 men survived for 21 months after the ship was beset in the ice floes of Antarctica.  How does a man lead 27 men to safety in sub freezing temperatures, no digital equipment (not even a radio) and countless obstacles (including climbing for 36 hours over uncharted mountains without climbing gear); leadership and grit, that’s how. Sir Earnest Shackleton and Leadership

The ship was first beset in the ice floes for 9 months and then, the pressure of the ice pack slowly (but surely) crushed the boat, so the crew of 28 had to take to the ice pack on the Weddell Sea.  The ship sank about 30 days later after the crew had taken most of the provisions and three life boats off the ship.  The rest of the odyssey involves 7 months of camping on ice, rowing on the open seas in lifeboats, breaking the group up and eventually, hiking uncharted mountains without any gore tex or ice picks to an eventual rescue of the entire group (every frostbitten one). 

This is what Shackleton taught me about leadership.

1.  Honest.  Shackleton was brutally honest in the expectations of the expedition (see quote above).   Safe return doubtful.  Only those who are up to the challenge are going to sign up.  All leaders can learn from this.  Don’t sell the job as something it isn’t.  If the work is tedious, say it.  If there is constant travel, be upfront.  Be honest when you are bringing someone on to your team.

2.  Team.  Shackleton built a cohesive multi-national team of 28.  He made an instant gut decision.  He asked Reginald James if he could sing (he could and was chosen).  Two Surgeons, a tried and true Navigator, Photographer, Artist, Seaman, Cook and Carpenter. He fit the team together like a puzzle. Great leaders do.  They don’t look for carbon copies of themselves, they look for complementary pieces.  Have a diverse team of talent and character with traits that don’t resemble you.

3. Decisive.  Shackleton made a decision and stuck to it.  There was no waffling.   When you decide to get off a breaking ice floe, you can’t turn back.  He adjusted the goal several times from one island to another but he never waffled.  The men knew that Shackleton could be counted on.  When you lead, be decisive.  Your folks are counting on you.

4.  Inclusive.  He was constantly seeking opposing viewpoints.  He would listen to other’s viewpoints whether it was which direction to go or how much food to dole out.  In the end, he would make the decision, but everyone would be heard.  When they were on the 7 day sail to Elephant Island, if one person was chilled, he ordered  hot beverages for all.  Inclusive leaders have their finger of the pulse of the group as a whole.

5. Delegate.   Shackleton delegated clearly, definitely and with no regrets.  He left Frank Wild in charge of 22 men on Elephant Island.  Everyone knew Wild was in charge and Shackleton left him there with full confidence that Wild would succeed.  He did.  Delegate projects with full confidence in your team.  Don’t waver or take it back.  Delegate with clarity.

6. Improvise.  Obviously they had to constantly improvise.  Wood from the sinking ship was used for shoe bottoms, blubber from penguins to light the lamps, lashing three men together to slide down a mountain face like a toboggan.  Shackleton and his men made do with what they had.  Don’t wait for the next software upgrade or next year’s budget to move the project forward.  Improvise with what you have now.

7. Faith.  Shackleton had unfailing faith and optimism.  He kept the more pessimistic and ornery folks in his tent, lest they infect the others.  You cannot survive 21 months in the bleakness of the Antarctic with little more than the clothes on your back, a compass and a stove without optimism.  Leadership is all about having undying faith that you can overcome any obstacle.

I have to say that as I read the book, I was stunned, and impressed with the insurmountable obstacles that they did overcome and for Shackleton’s heroic, unfailing, inspiring leadership.

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