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.

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