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Shackleton’s Way

Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton never reached the South Pole. So why is he a legendary model for leadership in our age? Because sometimes, surviving the impossible is success enough.

It was the summer of 1915, and the great Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was trapped. Ice floes in the frigid Weddell Sea had locked in his ship, the Endurance, for a polar winter so cold that the crew could hear the ice freezing around them.

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By September of that year, grinding icebergs had crushed the ship’s hull, leaving Shackleton and his men stranded on a vast ice sheet 1,000 miles from the nearest inhabited land.

And you thought it was bad at couldabeenacontender.com.

In a new book, Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer (Viking 2001), coauthors Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell tease out Shackleton’s remarkable leadership methods — strategies the explorer employed for 19 months while leading his crew across treacherous ice, through uncharted waters, and over a murderous mountain to safety. The book examines all of Shackleton’s expeditions and includes testimonials from Shack-heads like secretary of the U.S. Navy Richard Danzig; Apollo 13 commander James Lovell; and business leaders from Jaguar, TheStreet.com, and Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette.

In a recent interview, Fast Company asked Morrell and Capparell how Shackleton can guide leaders facing disaster and disappointment in today’s icy economic climate.

Why did Shackletonmania escalate to a fever pitch in the past five years?

Capparell: This turn of the century resembles the last in that there’s a lot of energy and excitement in business right now. I think people are once again interested in the pioneering spirit and explorers who venture into new territory — whether that’s the South Pole or cyberspace.

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When Shackleton returned to Europe at the tail end of World War I, the war hero took the spotlight from the explorer. Now the war hero is fading, and we’re looking again to pioneers for inspiration.

Morrell: A number of books were written about Shackleton in the 1950s too.

Capparell: The United States and Russia were exploring space then. It seems that whenever a generation is looking for pioneers, it turns to Shackleton.

How would you characterize Shackleton’s leadership?

Capparell: Shackleton never got any kick out of control. He had a genuine concern for his men — for each individual, as well as the group. He was nurturing when the crew needed nurturing, and he gave pats on the back when people needed it. He focused on each individual’s needs, but he also took a very broad view of the world, and that showed in his leadership.

Morrell: One friend called him a Viking with a mother’s heart. Shackleton was the oldest of ten children. He had eight sisters and one brother. He learned to motivate, punish, and nurture a group of disparate personalities very early in life. He became the alpha male with a nurturing, even feminine, side.

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You suggest Shackleton learned to be a great leader, but so much of his leadership seems instinctual. In his interviews for the Endurance voyage, for instance, he asked candidates if they could sing. Readers get the impression that Shackleton could peg any personality within five minutes. Can those leadership instincts be learned?

Capparell: Shackleton undoubtedly had a natural instinct for listening. A lot of leaders fail to watch and listen to their people. Shackleton did listen — and that made him a powerful psychological leader.

Morrell: Shackleton cut his teeth in the merchant navy. By the time he led his first expedition, he had developed a formula for great leadership by watching the captains he worked with. There’s no doubt in my mind that he learned an enormous amount in the seven years between his first expedition and the Endurance.

Who is Shackleton’s antithesis?

Morrell: General George Patton — the old-economy model of a leader.

Capparell: The best modern-day contrast was Vladimir Putin’s handling of the Kursk. If he knew anything about Shackleton, he would have handled the Kursk situation very differently.

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Did Shackleton ever borrow strengths from the Putin-Patton model?

Morrell: Shackleton would say, “What’s the point?” He knew you sometimes have to shout down insurgents, shove them, or threaten to shoot them. In general, though, he didn’t believe in belittling, intimidating, badgering, or prodding his people. You get better work done faster if you inspire people rather than crack the whip behind them. He needed to keep his team together during the grueling Antarctic winter, and he succeeded brilliantly.

Sidebar: Five Guiding Principles of Shackleton’s Leadership

Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell boil down Shackleton’s heroic leadership to the following five elements.

Optimism: Shackleton called optimism “true moral courage.” He surrounded himself with optimists and managed to keep the tenor of the Endurance disaster surprisingly upbeat. “It’s not easy to be an optimist on an ice sheet,” Capparell says. “And it’s even harder to make other people optimistic as well.” No matter the difficulty, Shackleton cultivated an optimistic outlook and communicated that to his crew.

Communication: Shackleton was a remarkable communicator who made his crew feel part of an inner circle. He treated everyone with equal respect and constantly checked in with his subordinates, joking with them, fine-tuning their duties, and soliciting their opinions on a one-on-one basis. He listened carefully, and though he often rejected suggestions flatly, he also would often take forceful, unpredictable action. When confronted with many complaints about one crew member hoarding supplies, for instance, he put the hoarder in charge of the stores. The complaints died down.

Flexibility: Shackleton was a constant and meticulous planner, but he never stuck to a plan that wasn’t working. “Shackleton took things as they came,” Morrell says. “He planned out all the contingencies to minimize disruption if he did resort to Plan B.” When the ice finally broke up, for example, Shackleton planned to head for the Palmer Peninsula. But both wind and waves were against him, so Shackleton quickly shifted destinations to Elephant Island.

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Strong example: “Shackleton never ever asked anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t or couldn’t do himself,” Morrell says. He was known to pitch in scrubbing the decks, making repairs, and helping with scientific measurements. He always led from the front, showing his crew how he wanted things done and inspiring them to overdeliver.

Encouraging enjoyment: A huge part of Shackleton’s success as a leader came from maintaining morale. He held regular entertainment nights onboard the Endurance — crew members would sing, play instruments, perform skits, and give the customary sailors’ toast: “To our wives and sweethearts, may they never meet.”

Once the ship was mired in ice, he encouraged his men to play sports on the floes. They held soccer tournaments and dogsled races. The games served a dual purpose by keeping the crew fit while keeping their spirits up.

Morrell likes to tell the story of one crew member who hated the sing-alongs at the start of the journey. “Eighteen months later,” she says, “he’s living under an overturned boat on Elephant Island, waiting for a rescue that may never come, and he writes about eating his midwinter’s dinner and having some songs. He writes that it’s the happiest day of his life.”

That may be the greatest testament of all to Shackleton’s leadership. After nearly 19 months mired in one of the world’s most inhospitable spots, his crew had still not lost its spirit nor its ability to enjoy life.

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