Antarctic Explorer: Earnest Shackleton

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The most important leadership lesson I learned from Sir Earnest Shackleton became his ability to keep his fists, heart and mind from becoming clenched tight. 

Why has Sir Earnest Shackleton been called the greatest leader the world has ever known? Authors of Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer,Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, wrote this book after discovering through their research the answer to that question.

Earnest-Shackleton

Shackleton was innovative and adaptive. He ran explorations to Antarctica, the coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth, covered by ice up to three miles deep with the coldest temperatures on earth, down to -128 degrees Fahrenheit or -82.2 Celsius.

Imagine a leadership test while stranded twelve hundred miles from civilization on Antarctic ice for nearly two years in temperatures so low you could hear water freeze. Earnest Shackleton not only led every one of his twenty-seven Endurance crew to survival, but led them to survive in good spirits.

What can business leaders learn about leadership from Shackleton?

  • His leadership was people centered
  • He hired people who were optimistic and cheerful
  • He gave his people the best compensation and equipment he could afford
  • He led fairly with order and established routine that let all workers know where they stood
  • He led by example and one-on-one talks to help each worker achieve his potential
  • He led with confidence and optimism to move forward
  • He fostered a spirit of cooperation among his men

Called by a friend a Viking with a mother’s heart, Shackleton built camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination and optimism into his crew of men. Rather than command and control leadership, Shackleton saw the value in nurturing, humor, flexibility, teamwork and individual triumph.

Like our contemporary leaders, Shackleton faced problems prevalent in today’s work environments:

  • Getting different personalities to work together toward a common goal
  • Handling the persistent pessimist
  • Dealing with the wearisome worrier
  • Keeping the disgruntled worker from pulling down the rest
  • Battling boredom and fatigue
  • Bringing order and success to a chaotic environment
  • Making the best of limited resources

The authors cite these Shackleton leadership tools: humor, generosity, intelligence, strength and compassion. Others cited his courage, willpower, loyalty, quick brain, forward thinking, good cheer, energy, fearlessness and kindness.

A principled, passionate individualist, Shackleton committed himself to his goals with a dogged refusal to quit despite rough times. Poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning inspired him–Tennyson for his compassion and Browning an optimistic hunger for adventure. It was Shackleton who inspired T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland.

Bold in his plans, Shackleton discerned their execution cautiously attending to details, calling himself Old Cautious, while his crew called him The Boss.

So, just what is Shackleton’s Leadership Way?

  1. Compassion & responsibility
  2. Stick it out through tough periods after career decisions
  3. A positive and cheerful workplace
  4. Broaden cultural and social experiences to be a better leader
  5. Seize new opportunities and learn new skills
  6. Learn from mistakes, setbacks and failure
  7. Carefully plan bold visions
  8. Never put undue hardship on your staff to achieve goals
  9. Avoid public disputes and rather engage in respectful competition

Of primary importance to Shackleton was a number two person who complemented his management style. The rest needed to be really hungry for the work. He valued loyalty, discipline, unselfishness, courage, optimism and chivalry among necessary employee character traits.

Shackleton commanded respect, confidence and affection. He led rather than drove. His motto was Prospice – Look Forward, the title of a Robert Browning poem.

1 Comment
  1. Craig Murray says

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I watched a PBS show last night on a group of men who recreated Shakleton’s search for rescue sail from Elephant Island, so this was timely.

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