Ernest Shackleton

Leaders matter, most would agree, and organizational scholars have long tried to capture what good leadership entails. By one estimate, more than 200 definitions of leadership have been offered in the literature, and their only common denominator is that leaders have followers! Okay - I guess I am not a leader, unless the occasional readers of my essays here count.

Be that as it may, perhaps those who try to understand leadership should not approach it in terms of abstract definitions but simply in terms of really good examples of leadership and what they can teach us.

In this spirit, I sketch what I know about Sir Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer who attempted to be the first to lead a crew of men across the Antarctic. In November, 1915, their ship -- appropriately named Endurance -- sank, leaving the entire 27-man crew stranded on ice floes and small lifeboats. The mission was a failure in that these men did not cross Antarctica as intended. However, it was also an incredible success, because over a two-year period, Shackleton was able to keep all of his men alive and get them all home, prompting one of his men to describe Shackleton as "the greatest leader that ever came on God's earth, bar none."

Shackleton's story illustrates many important ideas about leading in trying -- indeed dangerous -- times. Here I focus on several details consistent with findings in positive psychology.

• He had unshakeable optimism, communicated by word and by deed, that he and his men would survive and be rescued.

• He shared hardships with his men, even when his position might have allowed him not to do so. For example, he assigned himself to a tent with the most cantankerous crew member, a fact not lost on anyone else (except perhaps his tent mate). After telling his men that they needed to leave behind personal articles to lighten their load, he took out the Bible personally given to him by Queen Alexandra and placed it on the snow. Then he walked away.

• Shackleton established a loose hierarchy among his men, which allowed them to draw strength not just from him but from one another. All of the men -- including the scientists who were part of the crew -- were expected to perform mundane chores.

• He was able to be both a friend and a leader of the members of his crew, who addressed him simply as Boss, a term conveying their affection and familiarity as well as acknowledging his authority.

• Shackleton also possessed ample social intelligence, understanding what made his crew members tick as individuals and tailoring his interactions accordingly. One crew member responded best to flattery, for example, and Shackleton flattered him. Another responded best when reminded of the legal agreement he had signed when becoming a crew member, and Shackleton underscored this agreement to him whenever necessary. In my own research with contemporary US Army officers, in which they were asked to describe the strengths of character which they used as leaders in dangerous contexts, social intelligence was among the most frequently mentioned.

• A final point, which I have not yet emphasized, is that Shackleton possessed incredible technical skills honed over decades of exploration which he was able to use in leading his crew and helping them to survive. He knew what he was doing, and his men knew this as well. As important as the psychosocial skills I have been discussing might be, leading in trying times is not just about charisma, optimism, and resilience. It is also about technical skills and practical experience. Otherwise, great football coaches would be great generals, or vice versa.

If any of you are leaders, you might take this example to heart.

References

Browning, B. W. (2007). Leadership in desperate times: An analysis of "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" through the lens of leadership theory. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 9, 183-198.

Lansing, A. (2002). Endurance: Shackleton's incredible voyage. New York: Carroll & Graf.