Leadership Lessons from the Cold

Just coming back from two days at Pepperdine University in Malibu with Harvard Professor Nancy Koehn on leadership. I have a fresh and renewed perspective on how to reach ever more ambitious goals.

Nancy Koehn provided her insights through three very interesting and inspiring case studies: Rosewood Hotels & Resorts (Branding to Increase Customer Profitability and Lifetime Value), Bono and U2 (The Business of Becoming Rock Icons) and one that particularly struck me:

Leadership in Crisis (Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance)
This is the story of Shackleton and his crew who embarked in 1915 on their vessel Endurance to reach the coast of Antartica. Their goal was to march across the Antartica, an extremely ambitious plan that had never been carried out before and that promised fame and wealth if successful. Due to the extreme weather conditions however, the Endurance got stuck and became a wooden island in a sea of ice just before reaching shore.

Shackleton’s plan to march across the white continent soon turned into a plan of survival for his crew and himself. It took almost 18 months of unbelievable undertakings under Shackleton’s remarkable leadership before he and all of his 22 men were rescued from the eternal ice.

Better than any textbook this story provides incredible insights into what true leadership means and is able to achieve. Here are 3 take-aways from my perspective:

Know what the real issue and goal is and remain flexible:
Initially Shackleton was hoping to be able to liberate the vessel from the ice and to sail the crew into rescue. After several months the boat got crushed by the ice and sunk, and with it this plan. Shackleton immediately adjusted his vision and plan knowing that walking now was the only option and wrote in his diary: “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground…I pray to God I can manage to get the whole party to civilization.”

In our constantly changing world with seizmic business, social, technological and political shifts seizing the landscape, understanding the changes and staying flexible is key to success. Your goal may not change but the plan how to get there might require more frequent and radical adjustments.

Know your team and focus on your people:
Shackleton recruited his team for the expedition based on attitude and mindset more so than just skills. It was more important to him that the 22 men would fit with each other, trust and respect each other and collaborate under extreme conditions and pressure. Skills could be improved and perfected along the journey. During the 18 months of incredible challenges and pressure in the ice he constantly monitored the pulse of the team, anxieties or issues of individual team members and made ongoing adjustments and improvements to keep the team united and focused. He knew that only the team could master the challenge of survival and that it was his biggest asset. Leadership starts with the insight that a team is stronger than the sum of its individual members. Leaders are amplifiers that bring out the best in their people and team.

Leadership is a lonely business
Shackleton led by example and always put his men before himself. After being rescued the Third Mate Greensheet explained: “His first thought was for the men under him. He didn’t care if he went without a shirt on his back so long as the men he was leading had sufficient clothing. He was a wonderful man that way; you felt that the party mattered more than anything else.”

Another crew member said: ” Sir Ernest was ever on the watch, and as I took refuge in one of the tents from the stabbing wind, the last sight I had that night was of a sombre figure pacing slowly up and down in the dark. I could not fail to admire the calm poise that distinguished his anxiety, as he pondered on the next move. What was the best thing to do? How should he shape his tactics in the next round of the fight with death? I realized the loneliness and penalty of leadership.” Leadership is a lonely business and requires passion, dedication and care for your people. Leaders are a lighthouse in the rough sea where sailors gain orientation, trust and belief.


  • Eric Martin says:

    These are excellent summary points, Marcus, and it’s surprising how much an expeditionary tale from 100 years ago has to tell us about modern business leadership. The second point that you mention above refers to how Shackleton selected his crew, and that process also struck me as instructive when reading the case. These days, when someone says of a colleague, “I want him/her in my boat,” they’re typically referring to the same kind of complementary and collaborative characteristics that Shackleton sought (rather than hard skills).

  • Sumith P. Kumar says:

    Great narrative to illustrate leadership qualities. These are timeless. If I may, I’d like to add one more which might be implied in your post but merits a call out — its the ability to be decisive no matter how tough the circumstances. Leaders who try to please everybody end up pleasing nobody. Shackelton had vision, conviction and I suppose secured the safety of his crew by being decisive through the 18 month ordeal.

  • Marcus says:

    I agree with your comment entirely Sumith. Leadership is ultimately about taking a clear position and giving direction. And it is often the tough decisions, like in the case of Shackelton, that distinguish true leadership.

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