Recently I have become reacquainted with a story of amazing leadership. It is the story of Sir. Ernest Shackleton – a polar explorer from the early 1900s - a story of amazing challenges met by extraordinary leadership. It reminds me that during the good times, leadership is nice to have, but during times of crisis, strong leadership is essential for survival of the organization and its employees. Here is the kicker. As in the life of Shackleton, there is usually little to no warning that we are shifting from smooth sailing to stormy seas. This mandates that leaders must be prepared for both scenarios.
In 1914 Shackleton set out to circumnavigate Antarctica via the South Pole. This followed his involvement in prior trips that failed to reach the South Pole – one which nearly ended his life. Now, as the captain of the Endurance, Shackleton assembled a unique group of 28 sailors to accompany him on his journey. The advertisement he placed to recruit those that would join him on this treacherous journey was brutally honest and meant to scare off the weak of heart. It read: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful, Honor and recognition in event of success.” Several thousand people responded.
The first crisis was a game changer, as the Endurance encountered higher amounts of ice flow than usual. To conserve fuel, Shackleton ordered the ships engines to be shut off overnight. They awoke to a ship fully frozen in the ice. Over the next two years, Shackleton and his men went from living on the ice-locked boat to setting up camp on ice flows when the ship finally succumbed to the ice, to a five-day harrowing journey to reach a small island known as Elephant Island. Knowing they would never be found on the desolate island, Shackleton left all but five men behind and set out on one of the most amazing journeys ever recorded over 800 miles of the roughest waters in the world. Ultimately, they landed on South Georgia Island where the head of a whaling station helped them commandeer a ship to return and rescue the remaining men. After three failed attempts, he was finally able to return to Elephant Island. Miraculously, every man survived.
In contrast to Shackleton was Vilhjalmur Stefansson who set out on a similar expedition to the North Pole. While Shackleton’s ultimate goal was always the safety of his crew, Stefansson felt that the importance of the expedition, its overall goal, was more important than the safety of any crew member’s life. He once told the scientists on his crew “lives were secondary to the success of the exploration.” Stefansson was the leader of the Karluk, a vessel that was similarly trapped in the Arctic Ocean in 1913. Rather than hold his crew together, Stefansson abandoned them, and the crew struggled for survival—many perished.
Here are a few lessons from the life of Sir Ernest Shackleton that those who seek to be great leaders should emulate:
- Surround yourself with the right people – Shackleton hired right. He didn’t simply fill a void. He evaluated what would be needed for success and sought out that blend of individuals. It doesn’t matter what type of leader you are if you are leading the wrong team. Be honest during the interview about what others have found challenging about the position for which you are hiring.
- Hire for attitude – Most people are trainable, but attitude is most often locked in. If you hire someone who is good at selling or installing, but their attitude alienates other employees and your customers, you are in a worse position than when you began. It is fair to ask yourself if someone is likeable, but it is wise to involve that person’s potential co-workers in the decision. If they approve the hire, they feel somewhat responsible for that person’s success.
- Live the example – Shackleton was wise enough to mandate that every man keep a journal. In those journals, the men constantly noted their amazement at Shackleton’s positive attitude – no matter how dire the situation. He acknowledged the challenge but never publicly gave the impression of the situation being bigger than him. It was also pointed out that Shackleton carried his weight with every task. He worked and presented himself as simply one of the men except when it came to moments of decision.
- Share and update the vision – Obviously, the men knew the journey for which they had signed up. What they needed was a leader who communicated the vision each step of the way. When it became obvious that crossing Antarctica was no longer possible, Shackleton openly communicated the new vision of reaching land and ultimately survival. It is likely that the goal you had for your business 5 years ago has changed. Have you communicated that change to your employees? Are you sure? Try asking one of your employees to share with you what they believe your vision to be. If they are able to articulate it, only then can you be assured that you are on the same page.
- Build loyalty – We can all admit that the hiring process is something that requires time we just don’t have. Why not invest more in keeping your team? Shackleton cared about his men. Obviously, when stuck on a block of ice, it isn’t like they could go to a competitor. But, they could have gone off on their own. That is what happened to the Arctic expedition led by Stefansson. What is even more telling is the fact that many of those men signed up to go back with Shackleton on one final journey in 1922. That is right, a group of men that spent 2 years trapped away from civilization, and many of whom had still not been payed from that journey, signed up to go back. Why? The answer quite simply was because of leadership.
We never know when leadership will be required to move from a point of status and title to being essential for survival of the organization and its people. In order to be ready when that time comes – and it will, begin implementing these five skillsets displayed in the life of Sir Ernest Shackleton.