Ernest Shackleton: Life and Crisis Leadership Lessons from an Antarctic Explorer (Part 2).

WELCOME TO (PART 2) OF THREE-PART BLOG SERIES that looks at some unbelievable and incredible life and leadership lessons from one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.

In the first post (PART 1) I introduced you to an amazing leader, I have never known, and neither you have. He died exactly 100 years ago in 1922. His name is Ernest Shackleton.

In this post, I’ll continue to share some awesome life and leadership takeaways from the famous explorer- Ernest Shackleton.

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  1. Instill Optimism with a Dose of Reality.

“The quality I look for most is optimism: especially optimism in the face of reverses and apparent defeat. Optimism is true moral courage.” Ernest Shackleton.

I feel one of the most important of Shackleton’s leadership qualities to be inspired by is optimism.

Just imagine: For almost two years, the Endurance crew endured extreme icy temperatures, stress, hunger, fear, exhaustion, isolation, and frostbites. Average temperatures in the Antarctic range from – 90 degrees C during winters to -2 degrees C during summers. It is the windiest and coldest place on planet earth.

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How can anyone survive these harshest conditions and bleak scenarios for two years if not for wholesome optimism? It is said that Shackleton, for two long years never broke down and left hope. Despite the fact that the crew suffered setbacks and hardships beyond belief, it was his contagious optimism and endless hope that led to the miracle of the entire crew not only surviving but even keeping their spirits high till the end. He never allowed pessimism to take roots.

We normally think of optimism and courage as two separate entities, but look at the leadership of Shackleton and you’ll see how the two are interrelated. Having optimism in times of daunting failure is, in itself true courage.

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Anyone can be courageous during success, but only optimists can be courageous during failure. It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes courage to be wrong. It takes courage to be unlucky and still persist. It was so easy to give up or lose hope or blame others or become cynical, but it takes real courage of heart to keep the flame of hope burning.

Not only was Shackleton optimistic, but he even looked for it in his crew while he was screening them for the job. He knew that optimism was critical to his mission’s success.

Even as the entire crew watched their beloved ship ‘Endurance’ sink beneath the ice, the crew trusted Shackleton to the core and never lost hope.

“We were in a mess,” writes Physicist R.W.James, “and the Boss ( as they affectionately called Shackleton ) was the man who could get us out.

It is a measure of the hope and optimism his leadership generated in the worst of situations.

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Sir Raymond Priestley, the acclaimed scientist who served on Antarctic expeditions with both Scott and Shackleton, once wrote: “For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, Amundsen.” Wrote Raymond Priestly, an acclaimed scientist who had worked with Shackleton and Scott, “But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

What is the message for today’s leader: You may be surrounded by challenging circumstances, difficult conditions, and unprecedented scenarios, but true leadership is all about having undying faith and optimism that you can together overcome all odds?

Well, you may say that optimism and hope are not a strategy, and I agree. But tell me, without hope, what will you do with the strategy?

Isn’t it!

In times of great uncertainty and upheaval when economies are shutting down as countries and companies are fighting the economic and social impact of the ongoing global covid pandemic, it’s the quality of optimism that is the need of the hour.

If you want to be a real leader in times of crisis then become an optimistic leader. Ask yourself- are you harnessing the value of optimism in your organization.

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A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill.

  1. Honesty is the Best Policy.

From the very start of the mission, he was brutally honest and upfront about his expectations from the expedition. The adv that he placed (see above) was testimony to the fact. He very well knew that if he needs to build unflinching trust and loyalty among his men, he needs to be credibly honest.

But in the VUCA world of business, it is quite easy to forget the most important ethic: honesty. In almost every survey on most desirable leadership qualities, honesty always appears among the top 3 in the list. Honesty builds credibility, which in turn builds trust and loyalty.

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All leaders can learn from Shackleton: Be brutally honest when you’re hiring people onto your team. Sell the job as it is without sugar-coating. I know it’s very difficult, but believe me, if trust and loyalty are what you are seeking, then it’s the best bet.

  1. Use Celebrations as Morale Booster.

Stuck in the icy snow with nothing to do and miles away from civilization, it was but natural for his crew to get depressed and desperate. He very well knew that the only way to fight hopelessness and despair is to keep the morale and spirits high. He knew that the toughest fight for him would be to keep up the morale of his men.

Shackleton used games and celebrations as a tool to fight the loss of morale. After dinner, Shackleton made it mandatory for his team to spend time together. Party and card games were played, sing-a-song sessions were arranged, theatre and reading were encouraged and birthdays were celebrated.

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He kept a calendar to remind him of important holidays and would celebrate them with his men as if they were at home. knowing that food is a great morale booster, he would sometimes surprise his team with special treats

Even on the darkest days, he would regularly organize games and contests such as football and dog races on ice. These games apart from being popular helped his men stay in shape. Also, some fun activities too were held regularly.

One crew member wrote in his diary after a particular celebration that it was “one of the happiest days of my life.”

Also, during one celebration, the crew was attacked by a sea leopard, which was killed by a crew member rifle. In an interesting twist, when they cut him up, they found in the sea leopard’s stomach much-undigested fish. The fish served a grand meal for the entire crew.

Another amazing incident.

When Shackleton ordered his men to abandon the ship as it started to break up, he allowed each crew member to take off only 2 pounds worth of personal possessions as they set up the camp on the ice floe.

He made just one exception- Leonard Hussey’s 12-pound 5 string musical instrument called Banjo.

He knew the effect of music on morale and mood and told Hussey “It’s vital mental medicine, and we shall need it.” Later on, he credited Hussey and his banjo as a key tool in driving away symptoms of gloominess and depression.

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He would call these things as ‘Mental Medicine’ to keep the morale high and mindset right. This also kept the team camaraderie alive and maintained the cohesion of his team. Togetherness and camaraderie were key.

  1. Empathy- He put his People above Himself.

Throughout the ordeal, his leadership was all about the welfare of his people. Everything he did during those two years was with just one goal: to save his teams life and get them back home safely.

He treated everyone in his team equally and fairly. He would personally take care of anyone struggling to cope. An animated example was when one of his men became tired and fatigued, he ordered hot chocolate milk prepared for everyone to uplift their mood.

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He would often approach each and every member of his team and would talk to them in one-on-one conversations about their personal interests, family, food, habits, etc to understand them emotionally. He made each member feel that they were important and told his people that there were no favorites.

For empathy, a key requirement is to be a good listener. Shackleton would listen to them and encourage an open-door policy. Whenever he made an important decision, he would listen to their viewpoints for better understanding and give them a sense of inclusion.

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On one occasion when the crew had to abandon the ship and shift to camps, he got up early the next morning and prepared milk and tea for everyone and served them in every tent. It was all about the well-being of his people- nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps his greatest leadership trait was that he put the welfare of his men above everything else.

When the winter clothing was being distributed, he ensured the crew was supplied before him. His genuine care and selfless gestures touched his people emotionally. He always thought of the well-being and needs of his men first and was always ready to sacrifice his own comfort for others. Though a leader he acted like a father to his men. This helped him gain everyone’s trust and loyalty. Remember empathic and inclusive leaders always have a finger on the pulse of the team.

Now tell me, would you not like to be a leader like him or to be led by a leader like him. Who would not?

“Shackleton’s first thought was for the men under him.” Writes First Officer Lionel Greenstreet “He didn’t care if he went without a shirt on his back so long as the men, he was leading had sufficient clothing.”

Emulating the caring and selfless behavior of their leader, often crew members too performed acts of caring and concern for each other.

In “PART 3”, I’ll keep revealing and sharing some mind-boggling and amazing life and leadership lessons from one of the greatest leaders- Ernest Shackleton.

So, keep connected and keep reading.

Click Here for Part 1.

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