Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sir Ernest Shackleton: Extreme Leadership


Leadership is often discussed within the framework of success and successful achievements, even after a series of failures.  We are all familiar with the string of “failures” experienced by Abraham Lincoln prior to his election as the country’s 16th President.  I am not going to cite them here, only to say the culmination was his election to the Presidency.  He achieved a goal; he succeeded; he was a great leader!

But can one be a great leader even if one does not achieve some great landmark accomplishment?  The simple answer is yes!  I present as evidence the great Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  Shackleton had as a goal to reach the South Pole.  He never made it.  He died in 1922 during his final attempt.  In 1902 he attempted to reach the South Pole with Robert F. Scott and fell short by 460 miles.  He tried again six years later and this time fell 97 miles short abandoning the effort in lieu of certain death.  As a result of this heroic failure, he was knighted by King Edward VII.  He tried again in 1914 and this time did not even reach the continent of Antarctica.  His ship, the Endurance, was caught in early ice and his entire crew became trapped.  They could not go forward, they could not go back!  It was a colossal failure…or was it?  Shackleton’s crowning achievement was what is commonly called a successful failure. 

What ensued was perhaps the most heroic example of raw leadership in recorded history.  28 men survived the harsh Antarctic winter.  The Endurance’s First Officer, Lionel Greenstreet, was once asked in an interview how they all survived when so many other expeditions ended with a number of deaths.  He simply replied “Shackleton!”

Shackleton had Character.  One of Shackleton’s priorities was the professional development of his crew.  He was not satisfied with just achieving his personal goals (many of which he would never achieve); he was dedicated to the development of others.  Shackleton saw the potential in each of the members of his crew and challenged and encouraged them to improve and fulfill their potential.  By setting personal and character development as a priority, he demonstrated great character himself.

Shackleton had Courage!  You would be hard pressed to list any leader who out performed Shackleton in the area of courage.  He was faced with a lose-lose situation and he won.  Not only did he win, all of his crew won (win is defined in this case as lived!).  His ship was caught and crushed in early drift ice and then sank, his crew was stranded and eventually made their way to a deserted Elephant Island without a chance of surviving the Antarctic winter, he embarked on and successfully made an impossible voyage of 800 nautical miles to South Georgia Island in a converted lifeboat, and landed on the “wrong” side of the island and had to travel over a mountain range to reach help.  Eventually his entire crew was rescued.  No one died.  Let me repeat that…everyone lived!!  To the man, credit was given to Shackleton’s courage and leadership as the sole reason for their survival.  He exuded confidence and instilled hope.

Finally, Shackleton had compassion.  The needs of the crew came before his own.  After the Endurance was trapped, crushed, and sank, Shackleton and his crew launched five life boats and sailed 346 miles to Elephant Island.  One of the crew lost their gloves.  Shackleton gave him his.   Shackleton suffered severe frostbite as a result.  Further, Shackleton developed a personal relationship with each member of his crew.  They were each an individual, and Shackleton knew this.  He built rapport and trust.  He got to know them and as a result they trusted him.  I would argue that one of the reasons that Shackleton was able to pull off this miracle was due to the relationships he built, the rapport he established, and the trust he earned.

As with all leaders, Shackleton was not without his warts.  He was obsessed with the Antarctic.  He died of a heart attack at the age of 47 while on an Antarctic expedition.  He just could not let it go, but he was one of the greatest leaders when it came to stepping up when it counts.  In their book Shackelton’s Way, Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell offer the following:

“British explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard best expressed the feelings of his fellow ‘Antarcticists’, as he called them, when he explained: ‘For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott: for a winter journey, give me Wilson: for a dash to the pole and nothing else, give me Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”

Shackleton was a great leader!!

For a great read on Shackleton and his leadership, I recommend:

Morrell, Margot; Capparell, Stephanie (2001). Shackleton's Way: Leadership lessons from the great Antarctic explorer. New York, N.Y.: Viking. ISBN 0-670-89196-7.

Monday, September 8, 2014

John Adams: A Leader of Influence

Frequently leadership gurus wax eloquent regarding great philosophical principles of leadership, but have very little fruit on the tree.  If the true mark of leadership is influence (and I believe it is), one must ask, “How is that influence gained?”  I believe influence is earned through actions.  The old cliché “actions speak louder than words” is true.

So if leadership is influence, and influence is earned through actions, that is, practicing what one preaches, then let’s examine some examples of true leadership.  Before I launch into this series of figures that I feel have shown great examples of leadership, let me offer this disclaimer.  None of them are prefect.  In fact some of them are deeply flawed.  Great leaders are not perfect, but they do stand out through their actions when it counts.

So let’s dig in.  As I examine those whom I believe offer us great examples of leadership, I will use the lens of character, courage, and compassion that I addressed in an earlier blog post.

John Adams was elected President of the United States in 1796 narrowly defeating Thomas Jefferson.  He became the 2nd President of the United States in 1797 and served one term.  He was defeated in his reelection bid as the tables turned and Thomas Jefferson became the 3rd President of the United States.

John Adams had his faults.  Many, including his friends, considered him vain, opinionated, and stubborn.  And yet it may be those perceived human failings that led to some of his greatest leadership moments. 

John Adams had character.  Many Americans do not realize that during John Adams Presidency, the United States came dangerously close to declaring war on France. Popular opinion favored such an action.  Adams knew that the United States was in no position to fight another war and, if it did, would most likely lose.  He pursued a policy of diplomacy and peace, and was able to avoid war.  While it cost him dearly in the public opinion arena (it most likely was one of the leading causes of his defeat in his bid for reelection) he nevertheless pointed to this as one of his most important accomplishments as President.  As Orrin Woodward states in his book Resolved: 13 Resolutions for LIFE, a great leader will “…choose character over reputation any time they conflict.”  Adams did!

John Adams had courage.  In perhaps one of the greatest ironies in American History, John Adams, a leading advocate for American independence and a complete break from Great Britain, headed the defense of the British soldiers who were charged and tried for the shootings that are commonly known as the Boston Massacre.  At the time, most Bostonians had a mob mentality and wanted the eight soldiers immediately executed for murder.  I will not go into the details of the event here as they are really irrelevant to the point (you can read more at; suffice it to say John Adams was not a very popular figure for defending the British Soldiers.  Adams was a man of conviction.  Not only did he lead the defense in the name of justice and providing a fair trial to the soldiers, he won.  Six of the soldiers were acquitted and two were convicted on lesser charges.  Adams’s courage throughout the trial established him as a man of immense integrity who would follow his principles regardless of the personal price that may have to be paid.

John Adams had compassion.  One only has to read the letters between Adams and his wife Abigail to get great insight into the depth of Adams's compassion.  He had great passion not only for his wife and children, but also for the new country that was being born on his watch.  These letters, with perhaps the exception of the John Adams/Thomas Jefferson letters, are the most revealing evidence of the heart and soul of the man.  He discussed in detail the many issues that were facing him, the colonies, and the new country.  If you are unfamiliar with either of these sets of correspondences, I highly recommend them.  Both are easily found. 

John Adams was not perfect and all of his decisions have not been gained favor with posterity (let us not forget the Alien and Sedition Acts).  However, even his staunches critics cannot deny that as a leader and as a man, John Adams was a man of great influence and demonstrated Character, Courage, and Compassion!  John Adams for a leader!

On another note, I am pleased to share that my good friend and follow student of leadership, John Plastow, has published his second book…his first on leadership.

ALL THINGS LEADERSHIP: Real Life Practices from the Trenches of Leadership is a comprehensive treasury of leadership lessons told through John Plastow’s unique lens of personal experience, humor, and the high energy and enthusiastic approach he’s used in leading tens of thousands of people during his career. This book will motivate and encourage leaders to raise their standards, expand their vision, give their best, and above all, serve the people entrusted to them. It will also help leaders achieve great things beyond their wildest dreams!

You can purchase your copy on,, or ask your favorite bookstore to order it for you. It is available as a paperback and in most e-book formats.