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Blog : Shackleton’s Way


Shackleton’s Way

by Emily Perry, Marketing Manager, learnpurple

I first stumbled upon the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton whilst on a ‘staycation’ in Cornwall.

It was raining (as is typical for an English break...) and so I visited the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth. I was wandering aimlessly amongst the boats and gravity machines when I came to the Shackleton exhibit. His story absorbed me immediately and I became fascinated by the ill-fated Endurance expedition. It has become somewhat of a passion of mine and I’ve recently finished the book ‘Shackleton’s Way’ – a great read for anyone who is serious about their leadership career.

For those unfamiliar with the story, in 1914, Shackleton and his twenty seven men left on HMS Endurance for a dangerous expedition to the Antarctic. Their ship became engulfed in ice and the team of explorers found themselves stranded on an ice floe for almost two years. Twelve hundred miles from civilisation, no communication methods and little hope of rescue; it appeared death would be imminent. Shackleton however was no ordinary individual. In fact, he has been described by Sir Raymond Priestley as “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none”. As a result of his methods, and unlike other polar expeditions of that time, every single man survived those two difficult years – in reasonable health and great spirits.

The survival of the entire team was down to the outstanding leadership skills Shackleton possessed. Not only did he exert the characteristics of a true leader, including courage, determination and patience; he understood the importance of individual behaviours, team dynamics and motivation, especially in challenging situations.

Since researching the Endurance expedition and understanding the leadership style Shackleton possessed, I strongly believe his people-centric approach is the very best way to gain the most from your teams and thus achieving business success.

Whilst there are many lessons which can be taken from the Endurance expedition, my favourite four are:

1. Hire for attitude, train for skill

It’s an age old cliché– hire for attitude and train for skill. Shackleton used the interview stage to explore deeper than job experience and expertise. He asked questions which revealed the individual’s personality, values and their perspective on work and life. Then he recruited only those with unique talents who shared the same vision and values as the rest of the crew; spending time later to develop skill.

Once recruited the new recruits were very clearly briefed about ‘how things were done around here’ and the ‘non-negotiables’. By being clear from day one, each individual knew where they stood and if they were unable to meet expectations, or work to the rules of the crew, they could leave before the ship departed.

2. Establish routine and create a united team

When faced with a two year fight for survival, Shackleton understood the importance of routine in crisis. He allocated tasks for each individual to complete every day and ensured meals were always delivered at the same time. This helped to create a sense of normality and ensured things remained as consistent as possible.

Teams are united when people can see things in common with their colleagues. Shackleton not only used informal gatherings to raise spirits and  help his crew bond on an entirely different level; an opportunity for each man to find out about their fellow explorer. They shared family stories, work experience, and celebrated cultural milestones. This built a greater level of trust and respect.

3. Walk the talk to get the most

Shackleton always led by example. He recognised great leadership breeds great leadership and wanted to empower his people to be confident to make decisions and work independently when necessary. Therefore he communicated openly and honestly and was very visible in the day-to-day work; getting his hands dirty often and provided robust feedback to ensure work was carried out to a high standard.

He also took time to get to know every single member of his crew. No matter how large or small an organisation, leaders should take time to understand their people as individuals – recognising strengths and weaknesses and playing to these. One-to-one conversations are a powerful tool when obtaining this information.

4. Lead effectively in a crisis

Shackleton always kept sight of the bigger picture and was very aware that the only way to survive was to keep spirits high and people busy. He worked tirelessly to do just this. Lots of little achievable goals were set and when milestones had been met, celebrated – inspiring optimism amongst all.

He was also a confident decision maker and communicator. He was honest with his men about their situation and when plans changed, which was often, he explained why; helping teams to let go of the past and focus on the future instead. Each time things changed, he learnt from the experience.

And for those who weren’t engaged at all times, he resisted the urge to avoid them. Instead he spent time with them, keeping them close so tension could be diffused immediately and attempts to sabotage other's optimism, stopped.

The Endurance expedition is a great leadership model, proving that if you set your mind to something it can be achieved – no matter how difficult it may be.

Is there a leader who inspires you? What lessons could you take from their style?

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