The Harvard Business School (HBS) Advanced Management Programme that I am participating in has introduced me to many leaders. Of all these leaders, one stood out – Ernest Shackleton and the saga of his 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. To understand Shackleton, it is important to first consider the notice for crewmen, which he placed in a London newspaper. It reportedly read:
“MEN WANTED: FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS.”
Who would answer such a notice? According to Shackleton’s friend Hugh Robert Mill, the notice elicited responses from 5 000 applicants.
Shackleton divided the candidates into the categories “Mad,” “Hopeless,” and “Possible.” He met briefly with those in the “Possible” category and relied largely on his instinct for judging character in evaluating them. Shackleton looked for qualities he associated with optimism, a personal trait he felt was essential for men undertaking a potentially dangerous and difficult mission. From the 5 000 applicants, 28 men gained the respect of Shackleton – and a berth on the Endurance.
Humans are always drawn to stories of others overcoming the greatest of odds to achieve spellbinding success. Stories such as these offer us hope. We search within them for that secret sauce or magic formula that we could use in our own lives. Unfortunately, there is no such magic formula. All that there is, are answers to questions we ask about such stories. It is these answers that are most useful to draw lessons from. In the HBS Shackleton case we searched for answers to these questions:
- What is it that enables leaders and teams to overcome conditions of extreme adversity?
- What enables people to work together to overcome insurmountable obstacles?
- What are the specific things that a leader can do to create a cohesive team that can beat the odds?
- What are the specific things that followers can do to create a cohesive team that can beat the odds?
Nearly 100 years ago, Shackleton and his crew of 28 explorers were stranded in Antarctica when their ship, the Endurance, became frozen in solid pack ice. Working with picks, saws, and shovels, the expedition made two attempts to break free. They failed both times. Eventually, the crew abandoned the ship after the keel – a strip of wood on the exterior used to reduce rocking, gave in to the pressure from the ice and tore away, letting gallons of water in. The expedition ultimately spent almost two years stranded on an iceberg settlement, facing starvation, extreme temperatures, and complete isolation. Yet, with little hope of rescue, members of the expedition remained cohesive and in relatively good spirits during their 634 day ordeal.
Dear reader, I know you might be wondering what this story; set in 1913-1915 has to do with life in the 21st Century? This is a timeless story of personal and team leadership. Leaders in the 21st century face unprecedented challenges – turbulence, ambiguity, and uncertainty. I believe that the leadership strategies that enabled Shackleton’s crew to triumph can be used by leaders in any organization facing today’s challenges. Some of the ideas, simple yet profound that worked for Shackleton and his team are:
- Overcome fear and anxiety
- Draw on the power of personal strength
- Stay optimistic, yet grounded in reality
- Constantly reinforce the message of team unity
- Deal effectively with conflict and dissent
Above all, stories of triumph against odds show us that dealing with adversity builds resilience and adaptability. Furthermore, even if Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance’s adversity make our adversity “a walk in the park”, any adversity awakens us to the treasures of health, family and friends that we sometimes take for granted.
Although Europe was fixated on the horrors of World War I, the story of the Endurance crew’s survival was astonishing enough to attract popular attention, generate newspaper headlines and the inevitable question “What role did luck play in their survival?” According to Shackleton, “Luck clearly played a role in our survival. But we gave luck a chance.”