7 Leadership Lessons From Sir Ernest Shackleton.

This is a re-post from 2013 as my husband and I unpack our still unlivable house (no plumbing yet). It’s one of my most popular posts.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” – Sir Ernest Shackleton

I just read Alfred Lansing’s book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. The book is about the voyage of the British ship Endurance in 1914 and its leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton. It is an amazing account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and how 28 men survived for 21 months after the ship was beset in the ice floes of Antarctica. How does a man lead 27 men to safety in sub freezing temperatures, no digital equipment (not even a radio) and countless obstacles (including climbing for 36 hours over uncharted mountains without climbing gear)? Leadership and grit, that’s how.

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The ship was first beset in the ice floes for 9 months. However the pressure of the ice pack slowly (but surely) crushed the boat, so the crew of 28 had to take to the ice pack on the Weddell Sea. The ship sank about 30 days later after the crew had taken most of the provisions and three life boats off the ship. The rest of the odyssey involves 7 months of camping on ice, rowing on the open seas in lifeboats, breaking the group up and eventually, hiking uncharted mountains without any gore-tex or ice picks to an eventual rescue of the entire group. Every frostbitten one.

This is what Shackleton taught me about leadership:

  1. Honest.  Shackleton was brutally honest with his expectations of the expedition (see quote above). Safe return doubtful. Only those who are up to the challenge are going to sign up. All leaders can learn from this. Don’t sell the job as something it isn’t. If the work is tedious, say it. If there is constant travel, be upfront. Be honest when you are bringing someone onto your team.
  2. Team.  Shackleton built a cohesive multi-national team of 28. He made an instant gut decision. He asked Reginald James if he could sing (he could and was chosen).  Two Surgeons, a tried and true Navigator, Photographer, Artist, Seaman, Cook and Carpenter. He fit the team together like a puzzle. Great leaders do. They don’t look for carbon copies of themselves–they look for complementary pieces. Have a diverse team of talent and character with traits that don’t resemble you.
  3. Decisive.  Shackleton made a decision and stuck to it. There was no waffling. When you decide to get off a breaking ice floe, you can’t turn back. He adjusted the goal several times from one island to another but he never waffled. The men knew that Shackleton could be counted on. When you lead, be decisive. Your folks are counting on you.
  4. Inclusive.  He was constantly seeking opposing viewpoints. He would listen to other’s viewpoints, whether it was which direction to go or how much food to dole out. In the end, he would make the decision, but everyone would be heard. When they were on the 7-day sail to Elephant Island, if one person was chilled, he ordered hot beverages for all. Inclusive leaders have their finger of the pulse of the group as a whole.
  5. Delegate.  Shackleton delegated clearly, definitely and with no regrets. He left Frank Wild in charge of 22 men on Elephant Island. Everyone knew Wild was in charge and Shackleton left him there with full confidence that Wild would succeed. He did. Delegate projects with full confidence in your team. Don’t waver or take it back. Delegate with clarity.
  6. Improvise.  Obviously they had to constantly improvise. Wood from the sinking ship was used for shoe bottoms, blubber from penguins to light the lamps, lashing three men together to slide down a mountain face like a toboggan. Shackleton and his men made do with what they had. Don’t wait for the next software upgrade or next year’s budget to move the project forward. Improvise with what you have now.
  7. Faith.  Shackleton had unfailing faith and optimism. He kept the more pessimistic and ornery folks in his tent, lest they infect the others. You cannot survive 21 months in the bleakness of the Antarctic with little more than the clothes on your back, a compass and a stove without optimism. Leadership is all about having undying faith that you can overcome any obstacle.

I have to say that as I read the book, I was stunned and impressed with the insurmountable obstacles that they did overcome and for Shackleton’s heroic, unfailing, inspiring leadership.

6 Surprising Truths to Leadership

Unless you were picked as captain of the kickball team in grade school, the ramp to leadership can seem daunting.  It can feel like there might be a Leadership Fairy out there sprinkling leadership dust on the chosen few who are deemed up to the standard.  Perhaps there is a minimum height requirement or a standard for fluency in astrophysics before someone is blessed with a smattering of leadership dust.  This is all just conjured up in your head.  This “I am not worthy enough to lead” thinking.yEWFnFQRqfmY9l9efJ6g_Snap01-web

Truth is there are all kinds of ways that you are already a leader in your life.  You just need to uncover it.   You don’t need to be a CEO to be a leader.  In fact, you don’t even need some impressive title at all to be a leader.  You just need to exhibit some leadership attributes in different areas – large or small – of your life.  The real secret is to acknowledge to yourself that you are a leader and to own it.

Here are 6 surprising truths to leadership:

  1. It’s not all about the knowledge you have. Organizations make the error of promoting subject matter experts into leadership positions when all they really want to do is work on a project and hone their craft. Knowledge alone will not help you lead.  As a client told me yesterday, you need to know where to go to find the answer but you do not need to be Chief Answerer to be a good leader.  In fact, a manager (as opposed to a leader) who has all the answers in not likely to be a very good coach because they won’t encourage collaboration.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a lifelong learner but don’t let not knowing all the answers hold you back from being a leader. It’s about illuminating pathways not spouting facts.
  1. It’s not about the level in the organization where you sit. You can make any fancy title you want like “Assistant Director of Global Widget Development and Logistics.” That will not make you a leader.  You can have 40 direct reports and that won’t make you a leader.  It does make you a manager.  But a leader? I can’t tell you how many managers have worried about an org chart and where they are on it.  Moving a box on an org chart does not suddenly make you a leader.
  1. Ignite the eagerness in others. Leaders are catalysts.  They know the sweet spot to get others to buy in.  They can describe the vision so that everyone else “sees” it.  As Paul Vitale wrote, “By radiating positive energy, assessing and defining reality, outlining priorities, and incorporating alternative points of view, effective leaders compose unique designs that declare, ‘When nothing is certain, anything is possible.'” It might be being able to articulate your vision of a birthday party or a new spreadsheet.  Be able to ignite others.
  1. Share thoughts, feelings and rationale. This is a tenet of DDI’s Essentials of Leadership. This can be difficult for men in particular.  A leader who shares their feelings says, “I’m uncomfortable putting you on this project because there were several deadlines you missed last time.” On the other hand,  a manager will gloss over past failures and find an excuse not to put them on the project.  A leader is transparent.  There aren’t any secrets.  And they share both the positive and negative.  “You did so well on that last team, they’d like you to lead the next one.”  Whereas a manager is more top down and buttoned up.  Be a leader.  Don’t assume your team knows what’s going on.  Be sure to share.
  1. Leaders take care of themselves. They exercise, sleep, connect, read and keep a balance throughout the day. There might be an emergency that takes them off the path but because they take care of themselves physically, they can handle the crisis.  As Dave Ulrich said in an HBR interview, “Physical: take care of myself– nutrition, exercise, sleep. The psychologists say the best cure for depression is take care of your body.”  If you are living on Red Bull and Oreos, sleeping 5 hours a night and the only exercise you are getting is going to the fridge for a beer, you won’t a good leader.  Take care of yourself.
  1. Build a network of people. It can be isolating to be at the top of an organization or in a sensitive position like Human Resources. As Ulrich said, “I have a best friend at work. Build a network of people I can rely on, who care about me as a person, not just about me and my job.” Your organization or team may be too small to be able to feasibly develop friendships.  Then go outside.  Make sure you have social support.

Don’t wait for the fairy dust either.  Find that spot where you can serve others and start leading.  I remember leading hikes up a mountain at the ripe old age of fifteen.  I got at the front of the line and started leading.  Inside or outside of an organization, on a service project or leading your kids.  We all have leadership opportunities. Take them. Find your way to lead.

7 Characteristics of Leadership I Learned From Sir Ernest Shackleton.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success”. Sir Ernest Shackleton

I just read Alfred Lansing’s book, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.”  The book is about the voyage of the British ship “Endurance” in 1914 and, it’s leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  It is an amazing account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and how 28 men survived for 21 months after the ship was beset in the ice floes of Antarctica.  How does a man lead 27 men to safety in sub freezing temperatures, no digital equipment (not even a radio) and countless obstacles (including climbing for 36 hours over uncharted mountains without climbing gear); leadership and grit, that’s how. Sir Earnest Shackleton and Leadership

The ship was first beset in the ice floes for 9 months and then, the pressure of the ice pack slowly (but surely) crushed the boat, so the crew of 28 had to take to the ice pack on the Weddell Sea.  The ship sank about 30 days later after the crew had taken most of the provisions and three life boats off the ship.  The rest of the odyssey involves 7 months of camping on ice, rowing on the open seas in lifeboats, breaking the group up and eventually, hiking uncharted mountains without any gore tex or ice picks to an eventual rescue of the entire group (every frostbitten one). 

This is what Shackleton taught me about leadership.

1.  Honest.  Shackleton was brutally honest in the expectations of the expedition (see quote above).   Safe return doubtful.  Only those who are up to the challenge are going to sign up.  All leaders can learn from this.  Don’t sell the job as something it isn’t.  If the work is tedious, say it.  If there is constant travel, be upfront.  Be honest when you are bringing someone on to your team.

2.  Team.  Shackleton built a cohesive multi-national team of 28.  He made an instant gut decision.  He asked Reginald James if he could sing (he could and was chosen).  Two Surgeons, a tried and true Navigator, Photographer, Artist, Seaman, Cook and Carpenter. He fit the team together like a puzzle. Great leaders do.  They don’t look for carbon copies of themselves, they look for complementary pieces.  Have a diverse team of talent and character with traits that don’t resemble you.

3. Decisive.  Shackleton made a decision and stuck to it.  There was no waffling.   When you decide to get off a breaking ice floe, you can’t turn back.  He adjusted the goal several times from one island to another but he never waffled.  The men knew that Shackleton could be counted on.  When you lead, be decisive.  Your folks are counting on you.

4.  Inclusive.  He was constantly seeking opposing viewpoints.  He would listen to other’s viewpoints whether it was which direction to go or how much food to dole out.  In the end, he would make the decision, but everyone would be heard.  When they were on the 7 day sail to Elephant Island, if one person was chilled, he ordered  hot beverages for all.  Inclusive leaders have their finger of the pulse of the group as a whole.

5. Delegate.   Shackleton delegated clearly, definitely and with no regrets.  He left Frank Wild in charge of 22 men on Elephant Island.  Everyone knew Wild was in charge and Shackleton left him there with full confidence that Wild would succeed.  He did.  Delegate projects with full confidence in your team.  Don’t waver or take it back.  Delegate with clarity.

6. Improvise.  Obviously they had to constantly improvise.  Wood from the sinking ship was used for shoe bottoms, blubber from penguins to light the lamps, lashing three men together to slide down a mountain face like a toboggan.  Shackleton and his men made do with what they had.  Don’t wait for the next software upgrade or next year’s budget to move the project forward.  Improvise with what you have now.

7. Faith.  Shackleton had unfailing faith and optimism.  He kept the more pessimistic and ornery folks in his tent, lest they infect the others.  You cannot survive 21 months in the bleakness of the Antarctic with little more than the clothes on your back, a compass and a stove without optimism.  Leadership is all about having undying faith that you can overcome any obstacle.

I have to say that as I read the book, I was stunned, and impressed with the insurmountable obstacles that they did overcome and for Shackleton’s heroic, unfailing, inspiring leadership.

Gotcha Management

This is the first cousin to the Tyrant and leads to pointing fingers and silo building.  It’s the story of the boss who pulls the rug out from under her team to point out all their flaws. It’s when the status quo is suddenly way too low and she’s going to make sure you are shown the error of your ways.  It’s kind of like, if suddenly cops actually started pulling you over for driving 60 miles an hour in a 55 speed zone.  You’re saying to yourself, “Really?  It’s only 5 miles over the speed limit.  I’ve been driving like this for 30 years and now you’re going to start issuing tickets?” Gotcha Management

The Gotcha boss feels emboldened because they have “such high standards”.  She feels like she’s really calling the shots and making folks tow-the-line.  In the meantime, her team is living in fear and not producing.  They are constantly struggling to CYA and quickly pointing the finger at the rest of the team members so that everyone else ends up low person on the totem pole.  All the other bosses start building up their silos so that the fingers don’t start getting pointed in their direction.  Ah yes.  There is safety with a thick, high wall between departments.

So what do you do if you are unfortunate enough to report to such a boss?  Here are some tips:

1. Open.  Keep open communication.  If your boss is always busy and won’t make time for you, send an email.  Subject line: Can we meet for ten minutes on the following?  In the body of the email: list the bullet points of what you’d like to discuss.  This gives your boss a heads up as to what the discussion is about.  They get to prepare (if they need to) and don’t feel blindsided when you finally get the meeting.  If your boss isn’t defensive, the communication will be more effective.  Keep communication channels open.

2. Solution Focus.  Don’t dwell on the details and drama.  When you bring an issue to your boss, bring the solution with you.   It’s best to bring three options.  Three?  Well, the first option is easy, the status quo.  Option one is to keep on doing what we are doing: “Let’s keep the budget sequence the same and live with some being turned in late”.  Option two is your desired outcome: “Let’s move up the deadline by two weeks and I’ll be responsible for following up with late comers”.  Option three can be a stretch or your best case scenario but you’re not sure the boss will go for it: “Let’s schedule a meeting one week before the deadline to go over everyone’s budget which will reinforce completing it on time”.  When there are three solutions, your boss won’t feel like it’s an ultimatum and will feel more in control.  Focus on the solutions.

3.  Sword.  You might need to fall on the sword.   Take responsibility for your part in the mess. “Boss, I didn’t follow up on those budget reports the way I should have.  It’s my fault that 50% missed the deadline.”  This might ensure that the rest of the team isn’t blind-sided and it should built authenticity if not trust with your boss.  I’m not saying that there isn’t a slice of the boss population out there that might abuse this but, if that’s the case; it might be time to update your resume.  In the meantime, fall on the sword.

4. Optimism.  Stay optimistic.  Focus on what is working.  It might be that we aren’t losing as much money as we did last year or that sales are flat but we aren’t losing ground.  It might be that you’ve retained your customer base or that your employee turnover rate is holding steady.  Find some nugget of good and emphasize the positive. As I have pointed out in previous posts, staying positive is the best for your brain and build better, stronger pathways to solutions.  Be optimistic.

5. Spine.  You’re gonna need a backbone.  Don’t cave if it’s something you believe in.  Explain the rationale in your thinking to your Gotcha boss.  If she can’t point out some flaws in your thinking, then remain steadfast.  Sometimes you just need to go with your gut and stand up for what you believe in.  If the boss doesn’t back you, work on your Linkedin profile and plan your escape.  Have a backbone.

These tips can help those of you who need a strategy to improve your relationship with your boss.  Some strategies won’t work.  Many years ago I worked for a boss who didn’t have my back and I was put in a precarious ethical situation with the corporate office.  I planned my escape and got out.  All the advice in the world isn’t going to fix an unethical situation.  Some Gotcha bosses can be turned around if you give it a try.