Leadership In Extreme Situations

“If you’re a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you’ve got to keep going.” Sir Earnest Shackleton

Some say leaders are born. Others say they are molded. Throughout history, leaders have forged new paths for others to follow.

In 1914, Sir Earnest Shackleton lead 27 men for almost two years to a harrowing fight for their lives after the wreck of their Antarctic vessel: The Endurance let them stranded on an ice floe 12 hundred miles from a civilization with no means of communication and no hope of rescue. The temperatures were so low the men could hear the ice freeze. They subsisted on a diet of penguins, seals and ultimately dogs.

When the ice began to break up, Shackleton set out to save them all on a heroic eight-hundred mile trip across the frigid South Atlantic – in little more than a rowboat. Unlike most of the polar expeditions, every man survived – not only in good health, but also in good spirits – all due to the leadership skills of Shackleton.

Shackleton exemplifies the riveting examples of the tremendous difference strong leadership and teamwork can make under conditions of adversity, uncertainty and change. During those tough and cold months, he held his crew together, inspired them and motivated them. He made sure they understood their objective and what role each must play to attain their goal.

Over and over during their voyage, the Endurance party faced what seemed to be fatal situations; yet each time, they beat the odds and survived. While some of their success was likely due to luck or providence, Shackleton’s leadership is widely credited with making the essential difference. What lessons can be drawn from such a display of leadership?

Put your people first. In 1907, Shackleton led an attempt to be the first to the South Pole. He and his men trekked across hundreds of miles of the Antarctic continent to within 97 miles of the Pole. He knew that being the first to reach the Pole would have brought him everlasting fame and glory. But Shackleton and his men were weakening, and he knew that a final push to the Pole would put their lives in grave danger. He turned back. As strong as his desire to lead expeditions was, his sense of responsibility for his men was stronger.

Read Also  How To Break Silos Within An Organisation?

Be flexible in tactics. Although the fundamental goal of survival remained paramount, Shackleton wisely remained flexible in the tactics he chose to achieve that goal. Such environments demand a high degree of flexibility to adapt to changes beyond one’s control. Once Shackleton realized that the Endurance was trapped in the ice, he resolved – and, despite his bitter disappointment, communicated matter-of-factly to his men – that their goal had changed from crossing Antarctica to wintering over on the ice.

Choose your people carefully — for character, not just competence. Shackleton knew how well the rigors of Antarctic exploration would test the spirit of his men. In selecting the expedition’s members, he looked for technical qualifications, but he placed even greater emphasis on a positive attitude and a lighthearted, even whimsical nature.  He recognized the value of having loyal, strong leaders and other men on which he knew he could rely.

Sustain optimism in the face of adversity. Although everyone understands the importance of optimism, Shackleton recognized that being optimistic was most important when it was most difficult. When setbacks occurred, he had to remain outwardly optimistic, despite his own feelings, to prevent a growing despair among his men. He knew that such despair could, in the face of adversity, lead to dissension, mutiny, or simply giving up. Day after day, to counter the morale-sapping effect of the miserable cold, wetness, fatigue, hunger, and boredom of their life on the ice, he summoned the strength to remain optimistic – despite suffering the same conditions himself.

Strive for equal treatment. Shackleton realized that, while it was essential that his authority and leadership not be questioned, he should not receive favorable treatment. He dutifully took his turn performing the most menial of chores. When the men took to the ice and drew for sleeping bags, Shackleton somehow ensured that he and the other senior officers drew wool bags, while the more junior men got the warmer fur bags.

Read Also  The Blind Man’s Tower : A Game Of Situational Awareness

Lead by example. Shackleton knew that actions persuaded more strongly than words. When he and his men were forced onto the ice by the destruction of their ship and faced the prospect of making their way over hundreds of miles of rough ice to land, Shackleton knew that they would need to travel as lightly as possible to survive. After calling the men together and explaining the situation, he pulled his gold coins out of his pockets and tossed them into the snow. He then took a Bible given him by the Queen of England, tore out two pages to keep, laid the Bible in the snow, and walked away.

What kind of team leader have you been? Does the story of Shackleton inspire you to do something differently for your team? All of us – we learn from greatness. Do share your thoughts with us!

P.S: The complete video is of > 30 minutes and too big to load here. Incase you want it, drop me a mail at siddharth@focusu.com. We will be happy to share!

Share it on

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin