Lessons in Leadership

Lessons in Leadership


Written by Craig Allan

There are great values to be learned by modern day leaders in this story of passion, trust, teamwork, devotion and yes, even love. But do these values still exist in businesses today?

You tell me.

Leadership – The Shackleton Way

It was December 1914 when Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed from the island of South Georgia onboard the Endurance to begin the historic Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His aim was to make the first crossing of the Antarctic continent from coast to coast.

Just over a year earlier, another expedition at the opposite end of the world set out from Canada to explore the Arctic. This expedition was led by Vilhjalmur Stephansson and his ship was the Karluk.

Early in their expeditions, both men – Shackleton in the south and Stephansson in the north – found their ships stuck solid in heavy flow ice and unable to move. With their expeditions over before they had properly begun, both crews found themselves in a terrible and unexpected fight for survival in the worst environments in the world. Yet the way the leaders managed their respective situations and their crews, were as far apart as the poles themselves

Both crews were forced to abandon their ships and camp for months on end on the flow ice, never knowing whether the ice might open up and swallow them or if the huge bergs would crash together and crush them. Their fear must have been unimaginable.

But from this point on, their stories were entirely different. The crew in the north slowly disintegrated into a gang of desperate, self-interested individuals. Stealing from each other, lying when confronted, cheating and fighting. This was no place to lose focus or direction and soon, the Karluk’s eleven crew members succumbed to the ravages of the icy Arctic.

Shackleton’s men in the south faced similar problems, shortage of food and supplies, howling hurricanes and temperatures far colder than the Arctic could ever produce and yet for the Endurance, it was an entirely different story. Its crew responded to their horrific situation by working for each other. Displaying exemplary teamwork, making personal sacrifices to help their friends and doing it all happily with good cheer. The lying and cheating that had so beset those in the north had been replaced with genuine caring and encouragement for their colleagues. The response of Shackleton’s crew could not have been more different, such was their respect for their leader and their trust in the one they called “The Boss”

Recruiting the Right Crew

Shackleton’s recruitment advert for this expedition, was placed inconspicuously into the middle of a broadsheet newspaper and yet he received more than 5,000 applications to accompany him on his dangerous mission.

In addition to the scientific and photographic skills he needed to measure, record and document his expedition, he wanted to know if the applicants could “sing”. He wanted to understand how they interacted with colleagues, knowing from painful previous experience that the journey they were about to embark upon would require the ability to work as a strong coherent team. He also wanted to be sure that the recruits would actually enjoy being in each other’s company, as they were going to be working and living together for a great many months.

Even at this early stage, months before the expedition was due to depart, it was Shackleton’s leadership skills and certain knowledge of what lay ahead that helped him plan and prepare his crew for what they would face in the Antarctic.

His meticulous attention to the merest detail, ensured that nearly 2 years after they first sailed from South Georgia island, all 27 crew members, including Shackleton, were rescued and survived their ordeal. A true testament to the value to teamwork.

“The Boss” and his Right-Hand Man

Shackleton’s great friend and right-hand man was a quiet, unassuming Yorkshireman, called Frank Wild. Shackleton’s trust in Wild was such that he would rarely make a serious decision without first consulting him.

It was with heavy heart that The Boss left Wild in charge of 21 men on Elephant Island after they had escaped from the ice flows in the Weddell Sea. Yet he knew that Wild was the only man who could cope with the uncertainty and hold the men together until he came back to rescue them.

Shackleton and 5 crew left Elephant Island and made the epic 800-mile journey in an open boat, to raise the alarm at the whaling centres of South Georgia and five long months after leaving Wild, Shackleton returned with help, to rescue the entire crew.

Wild said at the time, “I felt jolly near blubbing.”

Some years later Shackleton died during yet another polar expedition and his body was buried on the island of South Georgia, as was his wish. Wild described the location as “an ideal resting place” and his utter devotion to Shackleton led to him making his own arrangements, so that when he died his ashes would be buried next to The Boss, on his right-hand side.

Wild died in Africa in 1939 and only a month later, World War 2 broke out meaning his plans were put-off indefinitely.

His ashes were rediscovered in 2011 and soon after, his family travelled to South Georgia, where, more than 72 years after his death, Commander John Robert Francis Wild, was finally laid to rest at the right-hand side of the Boss, where they “were always supposed to be”.

The Lesson

Shackleton didn’t win the devotion and respect of everyone who knew him by being more important than them, or by being forceful, or by shouting at them. Leadership was not a rank to him, it was a choice.

He did something that most modern leaders would consider a sign of weakness, he cared passionately for everyone in his charge and in return they cared passionately for him.

This was ‘The Shackleton Way’ and he became recognised as one of the greatest leaders of the century because of that.

Maybe we can all learn something here? If you’d like to find out how you could benefit from ‘The Shackleton Way’, get in touch today.