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Leadership in Practice: Sir Ernest Shackleton

By Dr. Maureen S. Andrade, HCI Research Associate

One of my favorite real-life examples of leadership is the story of British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The story goes that in 1914, he put an ad in the paper to form a crew for his trans-Antarctic expeditions. It 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.

That sounds completely intriguing to me – it was a different world back then. A very brave and adventurous world!

Shackleton selected 27 men out of 5,000 applicants who responded to his advertisement. Shortly after leaving the whaling station on South Georgia island, their ship, the Endeavor, got stuck in ice; they waited for the spring thaw, hoping the ship would be freed, and hunted seals and penguins to supplement their food supply. Shackleton focused on sustaining morale by involving the men in games and activities, encouraging them to care for each other, and being open and transparent. His motto was “strength lies in unity.” He conveyed this in his actions and example. His goal changed from being the first to cross the Antarctic to “save every life.”

After 10 months of waiting, the ice started shifting and began to crush the ship. The men had to abandon the ship and camp on the ice. The ship was smashed to pieces and sunk. There was no chance of rescue. The crew made several failed attempts to cross the ice to a supply station. Finally, since the ice they were camped on was breaking up, they embarked to the open sea in three lifeboats and made it to Elephant Island but were low on supplies. Their lives were in danger.

Shackleton took a few men and made an 800-mile journey across the sea to South Georgia. If their navigation calculations were off by even half of a degree, he and his small crew would miss the island entirely. They landed on the island but were 22 miles from the whaling station; to reach the station, they had to trek across dangerous mountain terrain filled with crevices and steep ascents, a journey no one had previously taken. Shackleton made it to the station where he immediately made plans to rescue his men; 128 days after he had left them on Elephant Island, he returned. As the ship approached, Shackleton called out, “Are you all well?” The reply was, “All safe, all well!” Shackleton had met his goal to save every life.

An analysis of the details of the story, which we don’t have time for in this podcast, reveals a number of elements of different leadership theories or categories of theories.

Great man/trait – leadership is inherent, and some people are born to lead. This theory focuses on an individual’s qualities and characteristics—personal, social, physical, intellectual. [Demonstrated honesty; exhibited optimism; understood others’ emotions and needs, which today we call emotional intelligence]

Behavioral – assumes that people can be trained to be leaders and that leaders need to have the “right” behaviors. The theory focuses on people-oriented and task-oriented behaviors. [determined and executed a vision; created a positive atmosphere; kept up morale; established clear routines and tasks; treated people equally; prioritized others’ needs and well-being; understood others’ emotions and needs]

Contingency – assumes there is no best way to organize or lead an organization or make decisions. The best course of action depends on the situation and the effectiveness of leadership in certain conditions. [used caution in pursuing his goal; demonstrated realism; showed resiliency; possessed technical ability to lead an expedition; showed flexibility]

Transactional – focuses on supervision and management, rewards, and punishments. Leaders maintain rules and procedures. Employee roles are clear. [delegated effectively; established clear routines and tasks]

Transformational – leaders motivate and inspire, have high ethical and moral standards, focus on helping others achieve their potential, and inspire positive change. [determined and executed a vision; prioritized others’ needs and well-being; focused on teamwork and unity; served others; used participative decision making; inspired confidence and loyalty; kept up morale]

Shackleton led three expeditions to the Antarctic. In spite of his admirable leadership skills, however, he did not reach his goal, which was to be the first person to cross the subcontinent of Antarctica. He did, however, achieve much more. He saved the lives of every one of his crew members (even though his advertisement said, “safe return doubtful”). And he earned their respect. That is quite rare these days. When crossing the Antarctica became impossible, he changed his goal to saving the lives of his crew.

One takeaway from this case, among many, illustrates that although we can gain insights into specific theories or categories, leaders don’t necessarily fit into a category or adopt a particular style. They lead—they know what to do and how to do it and they put others’ needs before their own.

Oh, there is a new movie coming out about Shackleton in 2021, so be sure to watch for it.

This blog post is based on Dr. Andrade’s book, Organizational Behavior In Practice. Publishing rights to this content are owned by Great River Learning.



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