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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Story Time:Leadership Lessons From Sir Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer

Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer of the Antarctic in the early 1900's who can teach us a thing or two about leadership. His expedition from 1914-1916 in the HMS Endurance is the one best known. During this expedition, his ship got stuck in the ice in the waters of the Weddell Sea near the Antarctic continent. Shackleton and his crew of 27 men were stranded on an ice floe, 1,200 miles from civilization. They survived 19 months before they were rescued. Yes, 19 months, under extreme conditions to say the least. Shackleton organized the rescue personally after he made an 800 mile open-ocean journey in a life-boat to the inhabitated island of South Georgia. He then returned on the rescue mission to the desolate Elephant Island where he had left the majority of his crew under the care of his Executive Officer.
Here is what happened in more detail. For ten months, Shackleton and his crew lived on an ice floe and waited for the ice to break. It didn’t, but it did crush the ship in its floes, leaving the men shipwrecked and stranded on the ice, having to endure extreme conditions of icy temperatures that froze their clothes and sleeping bags and caused frostbite, with one crew member having to have his toes amputated. Their diet consisted of penguin whenever they were able to catch one which turned them into weak and malnourished men, but only weak physically. When the ice finally broke up they were forced to take their three small lifeboats and survive on the open sea. They endured these living conditions for an amazing four months, withering storms, one of which produced 50ft high waves crashing onto the boats. When Shackleton and his crew finally reached the promised land of Elephant Island they found it to be completely inhospitable. And so this leader and his men spent more months under difficult living conditions, this time under two upturned lifeboats.
Finally, Shackleton and five of his men left in one of the patched-up lifeboats to sail 800 miles over unimaginably stormy seas. Their goal: reaching a whaling station in South Georgia. Against all odds they made it and did not show themselves discouraged when they found out that they still had to cross a mountain range before arriving at the station. Incredibly, they managed that too, upon which Shackleton returned to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of the crew. It sounds too good to be true, but every one of his crew members survived.

The miraculous survival of the whole crew has been credited to Shackleton’s remarkable, consistent leadership skills. Some insights:
-          Shackleton led by strong personal example which created trust.
-          He showed remarkable flexibility and an outstanding ability to define goals, then redefine them when the situation called for it. For example, when the Endurance first set off it was Shackleton’s mission to be the first to cross the Antarctic. When the ship was destroyed in the ice Shackleton didn’t weep and wail over the loss of his life’s ambition. He immediately set to work on his new mission – getting his men home safely. One mission fails, so he simply moves on to the next. In short: no dwelling but dealing with it the best possible way.
-          He had a great sense of optimism which enabled him and his crew members to keep going in conditions beyond tough. Shackleton’s optimism also translated into his energy and enthusiasm. He was always full of plans, encouraging the men to have a laugh and finding the slightest excuse for a celebration with which he held spirits and confidence up.
-          Highly unusual for that time, Shackleton mingled easily with all of his crew and he literally served his men. He rose early in the morning to make hot milk and hand-delivered it to every tent in the camp. Shackleton's mantra of unity and show of humanity was infectious. While his men were suffering from the most terrible deprivation, they often rose to his example and showed tremendous compassion for each other.
-          He kept everyone busy and equal having university professors and scientists perform the same jobs as the fishermen. This created morale and a real team.
-          He never showed disappointment when things didn’t work out, he just dealt with it and moved on to plan B, C, or D.
-          Just like the miners in Chile, the crew members came together and socialized for games, sing-a-longs, ice football, and more.
-          Shackleton instilled a feeling of equality by consulting his men and listening to their views on a proposed plan of action. He considered each view valuable which resulted in everyone sharing in the responsibility for the mission’s success. And once their contribution was received, the captain made the final decision on which course of action to follow.
-          Captain Frank Worsley wrote, "Whenever Shackleton notices that a man seems extra cold and shivering, he immediately orders another hot drink served to all." Shackleton was careful not to single out the man suffering the most, for he would not want to frighten him about his condition.
-          Facing changing circumstances and constant danger Shackleton managed to remain positive, decisive, calm, and self-confident.

In short, this incredible leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton. worked relentlessly and very successfully to keep his men hopeful, focused, positive, and cooperative. Ice floe soccer games, Saturday evening sing-a-longs, a clear and regular daily regimen for all and regular personal time with each of his men were some of the methods he used to accomplish this. Shackleton may have failed in his initial objective—to traverse the Antarctic—but he succeeded famously in his greater goal – the safe return of all 27 of his crewmen.

What is your greater goal and what leadership skills do you bring to your organization?

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