Shackleton’s Way

Ernest Shackleton was portrait of what courage is and can be.  We are facing so many challenges in education and society that we need to invite courageous people into and retain them in leadership roles.  CAVEAT:  most of this was written in the male voice.  Let’s admit up front that we need men, women, and diversity at all levels to model for our young people.  As always, italicized phrases are direct quotes.

“Children need models more than critics”

French Proverb

“The Boss,” as his men called him, built success on a foundation of camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination, and – above all – optimism. With this foundation leaders can attract those with similar attributes and create learning cultures, in education and business, that have long-term implications.

The expedition was to the Antarctica on a ship named the Endurance.

Neal F. Lane said, “Those organizations –be they businesses, schools, colleges and universities, government agencies – that prepare themselves for the unexpected and help to build a sense of community will, in my opinion, become the leaders in the twenty-first century.  The same is true for each of us as individuals.” If leaders want security only, most organizations will not survive a status quo mentality as customers, society, and individuals continue to change.  To quote the Eagles song title, “Get Over It.”  I add, “get on with it.”

Prepare for the unexpected.  As Mary Catherine Bateson (1989) said in her book, “Life is Improvisation.” Richard Danzig: “Organizations are a kind of fossil record of what bothered their predecessors.”  “The issue is not whether they will encounter different types of crises; they will.  The issue is whether they will change fast enough to be prepared for those crises when they occur.”

As a former high school principal my daily life was improv.  It is not what happens to you that determines your skill level, it is how you respond to what happens to you that will provide learning. You can plan and then life happens. You never know who or what will walk through the door.  One of the best learnings I had was Improv Classes.  Yes, scared to death and I stepped into it.

Shackleton’s strategy is the antithesis of the old command-and-control models.  His brand of leadership instead values flexibility, teamwork, and individual triumph. “I am a curious mixture with something feminine in me as well as being a man. I hate to see a child suffer, or to be false in any way.”

Marshall Goldsmith’s Stakeholder Centered Coaching model suggests three things to be success:

  • Courage
  • Humility
  • Discipline

This book summary provides some examples about courage and why Marshall has identified it as a critical component.

In 1914-16 Shackleton led the expedition to Antarctica where the crew got trapped during the journey.  Shackleton’s leadership resulted in bringing the whole crew through this ordeal even though they ran out of food, supplies, and were exhausted.

Here are some of the lessons from that journey.

Developing Leadership Skills

  • Cultivate a sense of compassion and responsibility for others. You have a bigger impact on the lives of those under you than you can imagine.
  • Once you make a career decision, commit to stick through the tough learning period.
  • Do your part to help create an upbeat environment at work. A positive and cheerful workplace is important to productivity.
  • Broaden your cultural and social horizons beyond your usual experiences. Learning to see things from different perspectives will give you greater flexibility in problem solving
  • In a rapidly changing world, be willing to venture in new directions to seize new opportunities and learn new skills.
  • Find a way to turn setbacks and failures to your advantage.
  • Be bold in vision and careful in planning
  • Learn from past mistakes – yours and those made by others. Sometimes the best teachers are the bad bosses and the negative experiences.
  • Never insist on reaching a goal at any cost. It must be achieved at a reasonable expense, without undue hardship for your staff.
  • Don’t be drawn into public disputes with rivals. Rather, engage in respectful competition. You may need their cooperation some day.

Shackleton’s Way of Hiring and Organizing a Crew

  • Start with a solid core of workers you know from past jobs or who come recommended by trusted colleagues.
  • Your No. 2 is your most important hire. I suggest this may be in the support staff area. Find someone with the knowledge and skills you are not particularly good at.
  • Hire those who share your vision. Someone who clashes with your personality, or the corporate culture will hinder your work.
  • Be a creative, unconventional interviewer if you seek creative, unconventional people.
  • Surround yourself with cheerful, optimistic people. They will reward you with the loyalty and camaraderie vital for success.
  • Applicants hungriest for the job are apt to work hardest to keep it. Lencioni (2016) in ‘The Ideal Team Player suggests hiring those who are Smart, Humble, & Hungry.
  • To weed out potential slackers, choose who show a willingness to tackle any job.
  • Hire those with the talents and expertise you lack. Don’t feel threatened by them. They will help you stay on the cutting edge and bring distinction to your organization.
  • Spell out clearly to new employees the exact duties and requirements of their jobs, and how they will be compensated. Jathan Janove (2008) Star Profile has a great model
  • To help your staff do top-notch work, give them the best equipment you can afford. Working with outdated, unreliable tools creates an unnecessary burden.

How to develop a collaborative team which leverages strengths

He focused on the one thing that gave him the best chance at reaching his goals: unity.

Forging a United and Loyal Team

  • Take the time to observe before acting, especially if you are new to the scene. All changes should be aimed at improvements.
  • Always keep the door open to your staff members and be generous with information that affects them. Well-informed employees are better prepared to participate.
  • Establish order and routine on the job so all workers know where they stand
  • Break down traditional hierarchies and cliques. People can do a number of jobs, from the menial to the challenging.
  • Where possible, have employees work together on certain tasks. It builds trust and respect and even friendship. That includes you, the leader.
  • Lead by example. Chip in sometimes to help with the work you’re having others do.
  • Have regular gatherings to build esprit de corps.

Developing Individual Talent

  • Create an environment comfortable for professionals to want to spend time at work
  • Be generous with programs that promote the well-being of your staff. Healthy bodies and minds are more productive.
  • Make sure each employee has challenging and important work.
  • Match the person to the position
  • Give consistent feedback on performance. Most workers feel they don’t get nearly enough words of praise and encouragement.
  • Strive for work relationship that have a human as well as professional element. No matter how large your company, get to know as many employees as possible.
  • Public acknowledgment of a job well done will make an employee feel appreciated.
  • Be tolerant. Know each employee’s strengths and weaknesses and set reasonable expectations.

“You don’t learn when you’re in your comfort zone, when you’re sitting at the same desk every day, in the same place, doing the same thing, and everything is predictable.”

Luke O’Neill

“People who are properly led are motivated to do whatever is necessary to get the job done in the finest possible way and don’t need much instruction.”

Michael Dale

Leaving a Legacy

Leadership is more than just reaching a goal.  It is about spurring others to achieve big thing and giving them the tools and the confidence to continue achieving.


Bateson, M.  (1989).  Composing a life.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Goldsmith, Marshall. Stakeholder Centered Coaching.

Janove, Jathan. (2008).  The Star Profile.  Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black Publishing

Lencioni, Patrick. (2016). The Ideal Team Player.  Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley & Sons

Morrell, Margot and Capparell, Stephanie.  Shackleton’s Way.  (2001).  New York:

Penguin Putnam Inc.