The Shackleton Way: Leadership Under Stress


October 2001

The Shackleton Way: Leadership Under Stress

CIDMIconNewsletter Reviewed by Bill Hackos, Vice President, Comtech Services, Inc.

Most of you have heard by now of the incredible adventure of the Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. In January 1915, during their exploration of the Antarctic, his ship, Endurance, with 28 on board was trapped in the Antarctic sea ice. He and his crew remained on board for nine months while the Endurance drifted with the pack ice. In October 1915, the ice crushed and sank the ship, stranding the entire crew on the ice. The crew was able to remove supplies and lifeboats from the ship. They drifted on the pack ice for another five and a half months before the northerly drift and summer temperatures melted the ice beneath them. In April 1916, they were forced to take to the lifeboats. After a week of sailing the lifeboats in heavy seas, they landed on uninhabited Elephant Island. There was no hope of rescue because Elephant Island was far from the normal whaling routes. Shackleton took five of his crew and the largest lifeboat and sailed 800 miles in 17 days to the island of South Georgia, which had a whaling station. When they arrived, they were forced to land on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station and had to climb over a glaciated mountain range to reach the station. Once at the whaling station, Shackleton organized a rescue effort. In a few weeks, the entire crew was rescued.

The adventure itself is amazing. But what is even more amazing-no one in the crew was even seriously injured during the adventure, and many in the crew considered it the happiest time of their lives. Several volunteered for Shackleton’s next expedition. Upon his return to England, Shackleton authored South, a book about the expedition. More recently Alfred Lansing wrote, Endurance, an account of the expedition that has fueled a renewed interest in the adventure. Currently, a film about the expedition is being shown nationwide at IMAX theaters. In his own book, Shackleton describes how he managed his crew both before and after his ship’s misfortune.

Shackleton was very interested in leadership and management issues. Many people over the years have studied his techniques, and some have tried to emulate him. In their book on leadership, Shackleton’s Way, Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell provide an interesting mix of description of the adventure and discussion of the management and leadership techniques Shackleton used to save his crew.

Learning about Management from an Antarctic Explorer

Besides being an entertaining story, what can Shackleton’s adventure teach us as managers in information development about leadership and management? Unlike other Antarctic explorers, Shackleton did not come up through the military nor was he employed by any government. He came from the British merchant marine and funded his expeditions privately. He had to raise money for his expeditions, outfit himself, hire his staff, and make a profit, just like any modern high-tech entrepreneur. He suffered through the same problems that we face-hiring, firing, morale, management, and profitability. (Once he reached the Antarctic, retention was not a problem!)

Hiring the best people
Nearly 5,000 men applied for the 27 jobs available on the Endurance. Shackleton personally interviewed all of the applicants he felt were good possibilities. Although he obviously had to have people who had sailing and scientific skills, he wanted people who he felt had enthusiasm and optimism to carry them through the rigors of the expedition.

Personal interviews are a critical part of the hiring process, as many information-development managers would agree. The administration at the University of Denver decided in September 2001 that they would conduct personal interviews of all freshman applicants because they feared that relying only on test scores and grades eliminates many promising individuals. They believed that personal knowledge would improve the decision-making process.

Shackleton believed that personal trust was an essential part of assembling the best crew. He first hired a man he knew and trusted who would be second in command. He felt strongly that he needed at least one man whom he could trust and confide in. Because he had to demand absolute loyalty from all of his crew, he wanted to ensure that he hired men he could trust under any circumstances.

Technical skills were not foremost in Shackleton’s hiring. He was most interested in building a team, ensuring that the crew members could get along well under the most trying circumstances. He wasn’t even looking for special experience-he wanted people who were willing to learn anything they needed to learn to do the job.

Following Shackleton’s way, information-development managers might want to reconsider the practice of hiring based on a series of existing job skills. Rather than searching for someone who knows FrameMaker, find the person most willing and able to learn and make sure that they get the training they need.

Firing those who don’t fit
Because Shackleton got to know each member of his crew in a personal way, he was constantly evaluating each man’s work. He knew that his choices for the crew were not always correct. He was convinced that if one of the crew did not fit in he should be removed quickly. In fact, Shackleton fired some of his crew on the intermediate stops he made along the way to the Antarctic. He was always fair to all of his men, respecting those he fired as well as those who stayed. He provided passage back to England to those he fired during his stop in Buenos Aires.

The critical issue is not only the need to make decisions quickly about keeping people who aren’t working out, but also that managers need to know a lot about what their staff members are doing. We have interviewed managers in the past who maintain a laissez faire position. They believe it best to hire someone who has previous experience, but then they assume that person is producing good work without evaluating it directly. Managers will tell us that they are pleased with someone’s performance as long as they receive no complaints from the developers.

Concern for team members’ well being
Shackleton demonstrated a sincere concern for each man in his crew. He would strike up a conversation with each man nearly every day and find out about his fears, concerns, and well being. He personally helped men when they became ill. In one case, he kept a man with a bad back in his own bed in his own cabin for weeks while he slept uncomfortably on a chair. Everyone in the crew was aware of Shackleton’s concern for their welfare.

By knowing about an individual’s work and the quality of his performance, he was able to make adjustments. He found one individual who was hoarding supplies, caching his own personal supply to the detriment of the crew. Shackleton put this man in charge of supplies. His hoarding ability then became an asset rather than a liability.

Developing staff member skills
Shackleton was very concerned that his men were always productively occupied during the long voyage south. The men were placed on teams with both experienced and inexperienced individuals so that all of the crew could learn from the experienced. He assigned seaman tasks to his scientific crew and taught his seaman how to make scientific observations. He was involved in every aspect of the voyage, working right along with his crew. Each of the crew felt that he took a personal interest in them.

An aloof management style is increasingly inappropriate as we try to gain efficiencies in every part of our process. In following Shackleton’s way, managers need to be involved with team members, assisting and learning at every step. Even if someone is an expert in a complicated area or has a unique skill, managers must take an interest even if they cannot be experts themselves. It is especially important to know what the experts are doing and how they are making decisions. Technical experts often make decisions that may not be the most efficient or effective to the business and need guidance from those that are paid to understand the bigger picture and promote the company’s goals.

Focusing on teamwork
In our research into content management and the need for new processes to support a single-source strategy, we find that collaboration has become increasingly important. The old style of technical communication in which people work alone on their own books no longer meets the demands of cost-effective operation. In changing the style of the information-development workforce, we might be well served to follow Shackleton.

Shackleton dispensed with most of the hierarchy that was normally present on sailing ships. All of the crew received the same rations, ate together, played together, and did skilled and menial tasks together. He demonstrated to his men that all of their jobs were important to the success of the expedition.

He organized teams for every project and carefully selected who would take part. He mixed people’s skills in staffing a project, thereby training the weaker people. He ensured that people had many opportunities to work on a variety of projects. People were not stuck for years with the same jobs.

Preventing cliques
He was concerned about the destructive nature of cliques that naturally develop and took action to prevent their development. He planned all kinds of activities that included the entire crew, from eating gourmet food together, to intense birthday parties, celebration of all holidays, skits, and practical jokes. These events broke the monotony of being stranded for over a year.

Eliminating negativism
When he found that one of the men was exerting a negative influence on others, he made a special effort to befriend that individual. Typically, the man was so impressed by the personal interest that he became a loyal supporter. Shackleton moved jobs and teams around to help anyone who was having trouble adjusting to a situation.

Commitment to the leader
Shackleton worked hard to gain the commitment of everyone in the crew. The men’s journals are full of statements testifying to their loyalty. The men adored Shackleton both before and after the destruction of the ship. They trusted that he would get them home safely. He was equally committed to the well being of every man in the crew and was very conservative in taking risks with his men. Each time an accident occurred, he would personally find the cause and make sure that it didn’t happen again. Promoting optimism

Shackleton hired crew members based on their optimism. He himself showed his optimism to the men during the entire adventure. He kept all of his men informed about every problem involving them, informed them of their options, and detailed a plan for future action. He considered every setback a new challenge.

Moving Leadership to a New Age

The age of individual exploration is over. We might compare Shackleton’s story with the near disaster of Apollo 13. But Apollo 13 was a heavily funded government effort with constant communication with Houston. The crewmen followed the direction of the leadership on the ground.

However, entrepreneurs and managers in the modern high-tech world are managing efforts in an environment that seems to change as fast as the Antarctic weather. We often need to produce our company’s technical publications with very limited resources. Not so different from the Endurance after all.

In today’s economic environment, we cannot continue wasteful management practices. Gone are the days when we had enough money to permit “hands off” management. Gone are the days when we could tolerate the inefficiencies of our unmanaged staff members. We need to emulate Shackleton’s leadership style by hiring carefully, quickly removing the weak producers, being aware of what our staff is doing, taking a personal interest in their needs, personally developing them as competent and optimistic professionals, and most of all, demanding loyalty.

Shackleton’s crew members believed him to be the best leader that they had ever worked for. Following Shackleton’s way might lead to the same result. What if your staff told others in your organization, “She is the best manager I’ve ever worked for, and I have complete confidence in her direction”?