Shackleton’s leadership approach: more relevant than ever in today’s workplace - Emerge UK
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Shackleton’s leadership approach: more relevant than ever in today’s workplace

ID-100200066Skills gaps, internal culture, continual staff shake-ups, and the pressure of an unstable economy, have brought huge challenges to organisations over recent years. Leadership, in such demanding circumstances, when all are at sea, is even more important than when everything is going swimmingly.

Talking about all at sea, and following last week’s post, Shackleton’s approach towards his men on his 1914 Antarctic expedition is still held aloft as a shining example of good leadership more than a century later.

So, how can Shackleton’s lessons help leaders in today’s workplace?

Feeling good?

Shackleton continually boosted his crew’s morale, which reduced conflict and encouraged cohesion. He knew that people who were happy and fulfilled were more likely to tackle challenges with optimism, and be co-operative in a team environment.

In 2015: Understand your team and develop your relationship with them; learn about each individual, rather than always seeing them as a unit. Find out what makes each one happy and what elements of their role they particularly enjoy (i.e. flexible working, feeling valued, problem-solving, etc.). Ensure they have the tools they need and as much resource as their work demands, so that they’re able to do their job well. Encourage them to achieve their goals, make them accountable/responsible for their progress, and recognise their successes. Understand their abilities, strengths and weaknesses; help them understand what they bring to the team, and how integral their role is.

I’m here!

Shackleton spent a lot of time with his crew; he didn’t lock himself away, only coming out for team talks. He directed his energy and attention towards his crew as individuals, and made sure he listened to their concerns and worries (of which, there were many, given the obstacles the expedition encountered). His relaxed manner and sense of equality made it easy for him to connect with everyone.

In 2015: Spending time with your team helps you to see their perspective, and how they deal with things on a daily basis. You’ll also be able to see where improvements can be made and will enjoy greater flexibility when it comes to solving any problem. People, then and now, will always feel they’re not valued if their concerns are ignored; get amongst your team and look at how things run from their side of the fence. Let your team see you take action when problems are identified and involve them, don’t keep them in the dark. Inspire your team to follow you, rather than forcing them to do so.

Have a good time

As we touched upon last week, Shackleton held sing-a-longs and other social activities to maintain morale. He knew that all work and no play was a breeding ground for resentment and problems. Despite their dire circumstances, Shackleton and his men never stopped believing that they’d endure.

In 2015: Sharing successes as well as problems helps teams bond and grow together. Recognise individuals’ special events and birthdays; encourage social interaction once the work has been done, and help make the workplace as comfortable as possible. You don’t have to have drunken pub runs or parties every weekend; include a little time at the end of the weekly team meeting for people to interact, or instigate team-building games – a sure-fire way to get your team thinking about things other than the daily grind. Encourage your team to feel responsible for their colleagues.

Optimism and realism, side by side

Shackleton never lost faith or showed any disappointment when the expedition ran into trouble for the first time; he showed the same resilience after every setback. His example saw his crew hold the same belief that everything would work out fine.

In 2015: Having an end vision to work towards is crucial for leader and team. Share your vision with your employees, and the steps needed to achieve it. If hiccups occur, don’t show disappointment or lose face; lead by example, and direct your energy towards finding a solution. Help your team to acknowledge why mistakes may have occurred, and what can be learned from the experience. End goals must be realistic and achievable, however; don’t make results difficult or impossible to attain. Be decisive, take charge, and show confidence that the outcome will be a good one.

Keep an eye on trouble

Shackleton kept his ‘troublemakers’ close to him; he didn’t hold them at arm’s length, and he made sure he knew what they were doing all the time – even assigning them to his own tent. His presence minimised the impact of their behaviour, and by engaging them in decision-making and other activities, he diluted their negative effect on others. Though he treated troublemakers with respect, he made it clear when they’d overstepped the mark and when their actions were intolerable.

In 2015: Identify your troublemakers and mirror Shackleton’s desire to keep them close. Isolation is ineffective; dissidents are more likely to change their behaviour if they feel involved, respected and engaged. Try and find the root of their volatility, and ways to minimise their negativity. Encourage them to offer a solution to the problems they foresee. Ensure they understand their responsibilities, as well as boundaries and the consequences of their actions, should their behaviour continue.

Shackleton’s approach undoubtedly saved lives. Fallout, suicide, despair and failure were very real threats to him and his crew. Though the effect of poor leadership in the workplace is not on the same plane, missed opportunities, low morale, meagre results, and a ‘them and us’ culture, are catalysts to serious problems within an organisation. Take a leaf out of Shackleton’s book: define your own expedition and get everyone aboard.

Career coaching and leadership/management coaching are just two of the services Emerge offer. For more information on these, or any other aspect of coaching, contact us on 01329 820580, or via

Thanks to bplanet at for use of the image.


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