Earnest Shackleton set out to cross the Antarctic on foot in 1914. When his ship Endurance became trapped and subsequently destroyed Shackleton and his crew spent the next two years rescuing themselves. Shackleton’s leadership has been closely studied in recent years as an example of adaptation to tremendously difficult circumstances.
We’re unlikely to experience anything near the physical privation, harshness and length of Shackleton’s misfortunes as Scout leaders. What we will share is the mental and spiritual challenge to adapt, to seize opportunities and to make good.
Nancy F. Koehn, historian and professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, wrote recently of the strength of Shackleton’s adaptive leadership style:
Real leaders, wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
Shackleton exemplified this kind of leadership for almost two years on the ice. What can we learn from his actions?
This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.
The Endurance was immobilized, held hostage to the drifting ice floes. Shackleton realized that his men would have to wait out the coming winter in the ship’s cramped quarters until summer’s thaw.
Shackleton feared the potential effects of idleness, ennui and dissidence among his men more than he did the ice and cold. He required that each man maintain his ordinary duties as closely as possible …
Through the routines, order and interaction, Shackleton managed the collective fear that threatened to take hold when the trip didn’t go as planned. He knew that in this environment, without traditional benchmarks and supports, his greatest enemies were high levels of anxiety and disengagement, as well as a slow-burning pessimism.
Days became weeks, and weeks became months, and still the ice held the ship. By June 1915 — the thick of winter in the Southern Hemisphere — the ship’s timbers were weakening under the pressure created by the ice, and in October water started pouring into the Endurance.
Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon the sinking ship and make camp on a nearby ice floe. The next morning, he announced a new goal: “Ship and stores have gone — so now we’ll go home.”
A day later, in the privacy of his diary, he was more candid about the gauntlet in front of him. “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground,” he wrote. “I pray God, I can manage to get the whole party to civilization.”
After the Endurance sank, leaving the men stranded on the ice with three small lifeboats, several tents and supplies, Shackleton realized that he himself had to embody the new survival mission — not only in what he said and did, but also in his physical bearing and the energy he exuded.
He knew that each day, his presence had huge impact on the men’s mind-sets. He managed his own emotional intelligence — to use a modern term — to keep his own courage and confidence high; when these flagged, he never let his men know.
Andrew Little, group managing director for the Melbourne unit of DDB, the advertising firm, has been strongly influenced by Shackleton in his own work with his team. Mr. Little read the case several years ago in a company-sponsored executive education course. “What I realized from the case is that as a leader, you have to have an unshakable faith in your mission, yourself and your abilities,” he said. “The hardest part of leadership is not just feeding your team with ideas and motivation, but feeding yourself. In the face of enormous obstacles, Shackleton found a way to do this.”
Just as important, Shackleton kept his men’s focus on the future. The ship was gone; previous plans were irrelevant. Now his goal was to bring the team home safely, and he improvised, adapted and used every resource at hand to achieve it. …
Shackleton assumed ultimate responsibility for his team. Perhaps he recognized that he was partly to blame for the crisis that befell the Endurance. Perhaps his naval training instilled in him a deep sense of loyalty and obligation to his fellow crew members. The men themselves understood this, and most, in turn, offered him their commitment. …
Shackleton’s sense of responsibility and commitment came with a great suppleness of means. To get his men home safely, he led them across ice, sea and land with all the tools he could muster. This combination — credible commitment to a larger purpose and flexible, imaginative methods to achieve a goal — is increasingly important in our tumultuous times.
Read the full article at NYTimes.com