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  • Rudy Massimo

Ten Leadership Lessons from Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition

Although Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous expedition to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent was not successful, the Endurance Expedition became famous for what Shackleton and his crew of 27 men had to endure to survive for almost 500 days. It was extraordinary that he did not lose a single member of his crew during the ordeal. Ten leadership lessons from Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition are as relevant to today’s organization, as they were over 100 years ago.

1. Communication – Shackleton’s communication skills served him well before, during and after his expeditions. A great example is how he was able to articulate his vision and convince influential people to fund his expeditions. Regardless of the sector we work in, communication skills continue to be extremely important. In fact, it is properly the most important skill a leader requires to be effective.

2. Hiring the best people – We are all looking for enthusiastic people who have a combination of technical, a well as people skills to work on our teams. Shackleton spent a great deal of time and energy during the hiring process to make sure he got the best people, who not only had the expertise but shared his vision, passion and brought unique personality trait to building his team. Hiring a trusted and loyal Second in Command, regardless of the sector you work in is extremely important. They need to be able to step in when needed. Having a strong second in command can be helpful during times of crisis or for succession planning.

3. Provide ongoing professional development – Shackleton was a believer in providing each team member with ongoing training. His crew learned a variety of skills, even if it was not within their speciality or area of expertise. Scientist were taught sailing and navigation skills, while sailors learned how to conduct scientific experiments. He stressed the importance of continuous learning.

4. Fair Compensation - Shackleton provided his crew with the best compensation, training and equipment to do the job that he could afford. This practise is still relevant today.

5. Fire the people who don’t work out – There is nothing worse than keeping someone employed if they are not contributing or working as part of a team, especially if you work in a team environment. Ideally, you can try to find them a different seat on the bus, but if it is not working out it is important to move swiftly before it affects team performance. If you have to fire them, do it in a respectful and fair way. Shackleton had to fire a number of people during the initial part of the journey, but he always arranged to compensate them for their time and pay for their return voyage home.

6. Promote teamwork – Shackleton planned and organized teams for just about every project on the ship. He encouraged the full participation of every member of his crew. He always made sure to mix experienced crewmembers with less experienced members as a way of providing training. He also took part in all aspects of the ship’s operation as a way of connecting with his men. He was a team player. He broke down most of the hierarchy normally associated with sailing ships by having everyone help to do all the work on the ship. A particular rank did not exclude you from doing basic tasks on the ship. Again, this message is equally important today as it was in Shackleton’s time. A highly effective team has the potential to achieve outstanding results, but they most be willing to work in a cooperative and collaborative manner.

7. Lead by example – Leaders should lead by example. This applies to all sectors. Leader should not ask their employees to do something they would not do themselves. Shackleton led by example. He always had a positive attitude, even during very difficult times. It was another reason his crewmembers respected him.

8. Build a relationship with your employees – Leaders should find time to connect with their employees outside of work as a way of building team spirit. Take an interest in what employees do outside of work. Find out what they are passionate about outside of work. Shackleton took the time to get to know each of his men. He found time to interact with them. He also held celebrations for special occasions and birthdays.

9. Foster confidence in your employees - Provide constructive feedback on performance and offer suggestions for improvements. Never point out people’s weaknesses in front of others. Try to recognize good work and celebrate when teams reach goals. Showing support for your staff during difficult periods will also boost their confidence.

10. Maintain a positive attitude – Having a positive attitude, especially during difficult times is critical to an organization’s success. Shackleton never wasted time worrying about past mistakes. He maintained a positive attitude and moved on. This is so relevant because so many of us dwell on the past in business. Having a positive view of the future, even during tough times can make a huge difference with your employees, and to the success of your organization.

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1 Comment

Feb 16, 2021

On Duty: I recall that the Expedition was planning to leave England in late summer 1914. Knowing a quick war was coming, Sackelton felt the trip should be cancelled as men would soon be needed for the fight. But, after explaining this to the King, instead he followed the King's wish that the Expedition proceed as scheduled. Two years later, on returning to civilization, the first question was: Who Won the War? The sad answer of course was: No One, Yet.

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