Revisiting leadership lessons from Shackleton’s Way

Templar consultant Harry Emck, MBE,  delivers the entire range of communication and negotiation courses to clients in the financial, accountancy, legal and corporate sectors.

This week Harry revisits Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.

This excellent book looks at how the famous expedition 100 years ago still manages to provide great insight for leaders and managers today.

I first came across this book almost sixteen years ago.  I picked it up again at the end of last year and re-read it.  If anything, I got more out of it second time round.  For once, this business book actually does live up to the hype.  It’s a leadership book that reads like an adventure story.

I re-read it in conjunction with Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, which looks at things from the crew’s perspective. If you are not remotely interested in leadership, don’t bother reading this book.  If you have no interest in leadership or the human spirit, don’t bother reading this article. If you do, then add this book to your library and read on.

The book portrays an incredible tale of endurance and survival in one of the bleakest places on earth: the Antarctic.  It’s also a remarkable story about the triumph of the human spirit in adversity.

In the early years of the 20th Century, the Antarctic was like the other side of the moon.  No telephones, no satellites, no rescue helicopters, no aircraft.

This book focuses on the behaviour and actions of the expedition leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton, described by one of his crew as ‘The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none’.

Shackelton's WayShackleton selected his people with the utmost care.  He had learned much from prior service and experience in the Antarctic, and service in the merchant navy. A natural psychologist, he broke down the existing class and professional barriers on his ship – the aptly named ‘Endurance’ – by getting people to do each other’s jobs. The officer class swabbed the decks.  Ordinary seamen learned how to conduct scientific experiments.  And scientists learned how to sail the ship.

By the time the ship arrived in the Antarctic, he had welded together a happy and effective team.  And one which was kept busy through useful, predictable routines in the dark days ahead.

Most of us are acquainted with the story.  How the ship got stuck in a floating ice-pack in the Weddell Sea, and was eventually crushed.

How the team maintained its cohesion in the face of disaster.  How the men felt reassured by the guidance of the one they called ‘the boss’. And how the isolation and wilderness was captured for all time through the photographs taken by James Francis “Frank” Hurley, the Australian photographer and adventurer.

Eventually, when the ice started to break up around them, Shackleton and his crew took to the three lifeboats to make the hazardous and uncertain journey to Elephant Island. They just made it. But the most magnificent part of the saga was yet to come.

In the most sea-worthy lifeboat, Shackleton then sailed to South Georgia, some 800 miles away, in order to affect a rescue of his team. He and his small crew then traversed a mountain range to get from one side of the island to the other.  Having raised the alarm at a whaling station – and after a considerable period of time – he then returned with a rescue ship to Elephant Island to rescue the remaining crew.

What made Shackleton ‘The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none’?

As the book makes clear, Shackleton made many mistakes in life.  He wasn’t clever with money or investments.  But he knew how to raise expeditionary funds, hire a first-class crew and get the best from his people.

As a leader in adversity, few can compare.  For the downside, Shackleton had the right qualities in spades.

There are many lessons that shine through in this book.  These are a few that I took away from this excellent read:
  • Practical psychology:
    • Team selection and training
    • Genuine care & compassion for people
    • Anticipating conflict and dealing with it
  • The power of personal example
  • Adapting to circumstances
  • Enduring faith

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