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Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antartic Explorer by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell


Rating: (Recommended)


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I’ve deliberately avoided the entire genre of management and leadership books that draw lessons from historical figures. I don’t think Attila the Hun provides a good role model. I took an exception to that practice when an Executive Times reader recommended Shackleton’s Way. I’m glad I followed the recommendation. There’s much about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s leadership style that current managers and leaders would benefit from emulating, especially his total engagement as leader. Here’s an excerpt from the end of Chapter 1, “The Path to Leadership,” pp. 42-49:


Shackleton avoided public fights, engaging always in respectful competition with rivals.


Polar exploration was a matter of national pride. The Japanese, Norwegians, Germans, and Australians were all racing for the Pole and other destinations in the Antarctic and explorers waved the flag to whip up enthusiasm for their expeditions. Shackleton, though, felt a brotherhood with the other explorers and believed the realities of the exploration business meant they would have to cooperate with each other at some point. He looked to them for new ideas and offered them his in return.


In fact, his biggest rival was his countryman Scott, but Shackle-ton kept his feelings about his old nemesis to himself. When Scott announced he was going to take the Terra Nova to the Antarctic in another bid for the Pole, for example, Shackleton told Frank Wild that he would sit on the sidelines for a time and let Scott take a crack at it. Shackleton even helped Scott launch his expedition in 1910, lending a hand in organizing the provisions. He also helped equip expeditions from other countries, sharing what he had learned about packing and calculating what was needed for sur­vival.


In one letter of unclear destination, dated 1903, Shackleton wrote:‘I see that you are intending to take an Expedition to the North Pole, so as I am greatly interested in all these undertakings, I would be very glad to give you any assistance in my power to enable you to fit out or get the ideas of equipment for this sort of thing. My ex­perience with the National Antarctic Expedition enables me per­haps to be of use, and so as a member of the Southern Sledge journey and therefore dealing with dogs, some information might be useful, besides which I have just fitted out the Terra Nova for the Admiralty. Being conversant with the stores necessary I might help you.


“I should be glad to see you at any time, and please understand that this is only for the regard that one explorer has for another, for there is no money question in it.”


Just as Scott was organizing his expedition, Roald Amundsen of Norway was sailing for what he had told his men—and the world— would be a five-year trek across the North Pole. He changed course, however, and at Madeira disclosed that his actual destina­tion was the South Pole. The race was on. Arriving at Antarctica, he charted a new route to the South Pole. He reached it on Decem­ber 14, 1911.


“Heartiest congratulations. Magnificent achievement” was the cable Shackleton sent to Amundsen. He refused to play down the achievement as the British establishment was doing, writing in the press that he believed the Norwegians would have paid tribute to Scott had he been the first.


Maintaining the good will of fellow explorers paid off when it came time for Shackleton to write a prospectus for his Endurance expedition. He got glowing recommendations from the most suc­cessful explorers of his day. Amundsen wrote: “If you succeed in your brilliant enterprise (which I am sure you will) you certainly will have done your share of the work and added the most beauti­ful stone to the magnificent crown won by the hardy and enter­prising British explorers.”


Admiral Robert Peary added: “The idea is splendid. . . . he is un­doubtedly the best man in Great Britain for the task, and his previ­ous work in these regions have given him just the experience necessary to carry the expedition to a successful conclusion.”


From 1910 until the summer of 1913, when he began organizing the transcontinental Endurance expedition, Shackleton threw him­self as best he could into domestic life. He also dabbled in a variety of business ventures, all designed to return a quick profit to fund further explorations. He invested in such risky ventures as selling elegant cigarettes to Americans, building a taxi fleet in Bulgaria, and mining gold in Hungary.


In April 1912 the shocking news came that the Titanic had sunk, killing fifteen hundred people. Shackleton was asked to give testimony at the official inquiries as an expert on navigating icy waters. He absolved the shipmaster, saying the biggest problem was that the ship’s owners were on board. pushing for a faster and faster voyage.

More shocking news followed: Scott and his four companions had died early that year on their trek back from the Pole, having arrived one month after Amundsen’s party. The public became obsessed with Scott’s sacrifice, which fit the romantic image of the Victorian-age hero. Maybe others had beaten him to the Pole, the public reasoned, but he had paved the way and paid the ultimate price for it. Shackleton paid tribute to Scott, and given the grim circumstances, it was fortunate that he had never positioned himself as his enemy.


Shackleton was desperate to return to the Antarctic which was never far from his mind. His business dealings mostly had soured and were nothing but a headache. “All the troubles of the South are nothing to day after day of business.’ he said.


                                                                                                                                            SHACKLETON’S WAY OF DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP SKILLS

·         Cultivate a sense of compassion and responsibility for others. You have a bigger impact on the lives of those under you than you can imagine.

·         Once you make a career decision, commit to stick through the tough learning period.

·         ­Do your part to help create an upbeat environment at work. A positive and cheerful workplace is important to productivity.

·         Broaden your cultural and social horizons beyond your usual experiences. Learning to see things from different perspectives  will give you greater flexibility in problem solving at work.

·         In a rapidly changing world, be willing to venture in new di­rections to seize new opportunities and learn new skills.

·         Find a way to turn setbacks and failures to your advantage. This would be a good time to step forward on your own.

·         Be bold in vision and careful in planning. Dare to try something new, but be meticulous enough in your proposal to give your ideas a good chance of succeeding.

·         Learn from past mistakes—yours and those made by others. Sometimes the best teachers are the bad bosses and the nega­tive experiences.

·         Never insist on reaching a goal at any cost. It must be achieved at a reasonable expense, without undue hardship for your staff.

·         Don’t be drawn into public disputes with rivals. Rather, engage in respectful competition. You may need their cooperation some day.




Richard Danzig, appointed U.S. secretary of the navy in 1998, was so impressed with Shackleton as a model of good leadership that he held a seminar on the explorer’s Endurance expedition in De­cember 1999. About seventy invited guests attended, including the deputy secretary of defense, senior naval officers, and senior civil­ians in the Pentagon.


“The values of leadership he provides are eternal,” says Secre­tary Danzig. “They’re derived from the nature of human character and involve making bold ventures and bringing out the best in hu­man beings.”


The secretary discovered Shackleton years ago reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. He is convinced that Shackleton’s knowledge of a wide variety of literature contributed to the explorer’s success as a leader. Mr. Danzig gives copies of the Endurance story— among other books—to navy and marine officers, as well as visit­ing dignitaries. “One of the great advantages of reading fiction or history is it gives you the opportunity to understand the world from different vantage points and different time periods and dif­ferent psychologies,” he says. “That’s important to a leader, so one of my prime aims in distributing books is to get people to think outside themselves and to think broadly.”


The secretary wrote an article for the Marine Corps Gazette in 1999 recommending works of twentieth-century fiction and non­fiction. They were: Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfleld about the Spartan battle at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.; I, CIaudius and CIaudius the God, books by Robert Graves about the Roman emperor; Shogun by James Clavell about an Englishman in seventeenth-century Japan; Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad about a sailor’s loss of honor; All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren about a young man’s loss of innocence amid the politics of 1930s Louisiana; and Generations of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov about a Russian fam­ily’s survival in a totalitarian state.

The secretary says he uses the Lndurance story to illustrate the kind of leadership he wants to encourage in the navy and marine corps, which he oversees. For him, the Shackleton model works on many levels: leadership in response to danger and adversity, work­ing in extreme environments, surviving unforeseen challenges, flexibility in planning, and gaining and retaining the loyalty of those in your command. Through great danger and under tremen­dous pressure, the explorer kept his crew together, maintained morale, and improved on his escape Plans until he got everyone to safety, Mr. Danzig says. He particularly admires what he identifies as Shackleton’s thoughtfulness, in every sense of’ the word: “He was thoughtful in the emotional sense—--he was empathetic and caring. He was also thoughtful in the cognitive sense-—he thought logically even while under great stress.”


Mr. Danzig believes Shackleton had some flaws. “He is not the complete leader,” he says, “but he is an exceptional example of a set of traits that we highly value . . . Warfare constantly requires adaptation and innovation, and he was extraordinary in that.”


Mr. Danzig, as a top manager of the Pentagon, has made some astute observations about the nature of organizations. In the February/March 2000 issue of the magazine Civilization, he was quoted as saying, “Organizations are a kind of fossil record of what bothered their predecessors.” That record should be studied, he argues, to better anticipate how organizations will change. “The is­sue is not whether they will encounter different types of crises; they will. The issue is whether or not they will change fast enough to be prepared for those crises when they occur.”


Still, Mr. Danzig, a student of history, warns against what he calls “overlearning” from the past; that is, looking too much at one set of circumstances instead of’ contemplating all the possibilities and discontinuities one might face in current situations. Likewise, he is not particularly confident of’ anyone’s ability to predict the future. So he is interested in highly flexible strategies. For that rea­son, he admires the way Shackleton mapped out several alternative step-by-step plans for the rescue of his men. “There was no gloss­ing over of the situation.” he says. “Shackleton came to grips with the cold, hard realities and constantly generated options that of­fered his group ways of getting out.”


Secretary Danzig has written broadly on the subjects of law, na­tional security, and leadership, especially leadership during crisis. He received a doctorate of law from Yale and a Ph.D. in history from Oxford University, where he was also a Rhodes scholar. He served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Byron White, and went on to teach law at Stanford and Harvard. In 1979 he left aca­demia to work in deputy assistant posts under the secretary of de­fense. Later, he became a partner in the Washington-based law firm Latham &Watkins. He left the firm to serve as an undersecre­tary of the navy from ‘1993 to 1997. While in that post he helped in­tegrate the functions of’ the navy and marine corps, reducing the size of his department, developing a program to increase minority participation in the officer ranks, and making available online sys­tems of information. His honors include the Defense Distinguished Service and the Navy Distinguished Service awards.


Mr. Danzig looks to Shackleton for examples of how to build the loyalty of those under one’s command. Shackleton’s commitment to his men was total, and he protected them from physical and psy­chological harm. The stranded explorer had to deal with the gamut of human emotions, including fear, anger, and despair, Mr. Danzig observes. “At the same time, the men had only one asset, and that was each other. There were no other people for thousands of miles. In that circumstance, the pressures of that situation, you could ei­ther fracture and divide or weld into a tight group. Shackleton’s amazing achievement is he always got things to go in the direction of staying together.”


Today’s military, Secretary Danzig says, emphasizes recruitment, but the greater challenge is retention of good people. He says he is trying to rid the military of the “conscript mentality,” the notion that the leadership will always have an unlimited quantity of low-cost labor. His goals are to provide them with better tools, better working conditions, and automation where it can relieve burdens.


In 1999, he helped get Congress to approve the largest pay raise for the navy and marine corps in fifteen years. He also reversed the “zero defect” promotion policy, in order to advance “the best people, not the most immaculate records.”


He says his own philosophy of how troops should be treated fol­lows the Shackleton tradition and is another reason he held the seminar on the explorer. He says he has tried to instill among navy and marine officers “a richer sense that our enlisted people are professionals, and that they should be treasured, and their loyalty earned and retained.”

Each chapter of the book tells a Shackleton story, lists lessons to learn, and uses a current example of using those lessons today. Shackleton’s Way is a path well worth following. Leaders who become remote from their followers fail, sooner or later. Engaged leaders, working side by side with followers, do whatever is necessary to ensure success. To enhance the journey after reading this book, follow up with Shackleton’s own story, South.

Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2004 issue of Executive Times

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