Ernest Shackleton: the greatest leader the world has known? - Emerge UK
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Ernest Shackleton: the greatest leader the world has known?

Ask people today who they think is a great leader and perhaps Steve Jobs may pop into their heads. After all, he steered his start-up concept towards earth-shattering success; Apple is the biggest company in the whole world.

Digging deeper, although Steve was, admittedly, a fantastically talented entrepreneur, he didn’t win everyone over on his way to the top. Jobs’ impossible demands and refusal to compromise his vision reportedly drove staff at Apple into the ground. Great man, yes, but great leader?

ShackletonheadContrast Jobs’ leadership approach to that of Ernest Shackleton on his infamous adventure to the Antarctic. Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, became trapped in the thick ice (it eventually sank). For months, Shackleton and his men lived on the ice but never stopped working together to find rescue. During the expedition not one crew member died, despite harrowing conditions and a series of unfortunate circumstances. This was down to Shackleton’s leadership, the compassion and camaraderie between him and his crew, and the tenacity and bravery they all demonstrated to reach safety.

So what was it about Shackleton’s leadership that was so significant?

For a start, he was upfront and honest about how the expedition would be before it even got underway. The advert he placed when hiring his crew 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.

He also believed in leading by example. He expected all crew to share chores and duties, regardless of rank or seniority; he didn’t ask anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. When straws were drawn for fur-lined sleeping bags, as there weren’t enough to go round, Shackleton pulled a short straw. Together with two senior crew members who had also drawn short straws, he spent the trip in a woollen sleeping bag. Fairness was at the forefront of his approach, which helped gain everyone’s support and loyalty.

Equality and individualism…and no favouritism

He focused on people’s attributes and recognised the individual. Despite having a severe ruckus with a senior member of his crew, when it came to choosing companions to accompany him on a rescue mission, Shackleton selected, amongst others, the individual with whom he’d had the huge fallout – because his skills were best suited to the needs of the trip.

Shackleton remained calm and composed even in the direst of circumstances. He also encouraged the crew to try every possible method of freeing Endurance from the ice, even though he believed any attempt was futile. His reasoning was that conflict would be avoided, because crew members wouldn’t then feel the need to question his actions, i.e. ”if we’d only tried ‘x’ or ‘y’, things would be different….

Vision, objectives and ‘everyone pitching in’

Shackleton had a long-term vision and ensured everyone played their particular part. He kept his crew busy, giving each crew member an objective and instruction on how this could be achieved. No one was left floundering or without a role to play.

To keep up the crew’s spirits as they faced such dire outcomes, Shackleton encouraged nightly sing-a-longs and similar social interaction, such as football and dog-sled races. This helped them to care for their shipmates. When they faced a new trauma, of moving from the ice where they’d lived for months, Shackleton rose earlier than anyone that morning. He warmed some milk and delivered it to every tent in the camp. This genuine affection, his selfless gestures and integrity rubbed off on his crew, who demonstrated the same behaviour towards each other. They were an incredibly tight-knit group, which undoubtedly contributed to their survival.

Never give up

Shackleton’s optimism kept the whole group going amid testing situations. The worse things got, the more collected he became. Many believe his navy background helped him to form his unique leadership approach. Certainly, the principles of obedience and central decision-making were prevalent in his command.

There’s no doubt that Shackleton’s resilience and ability to adapt to changing circumstances were crucial to the expedition and subsequent rescue. The crew suffered many setbacks during their adventure, but Shackleton’s endless hope and optimistic spirit meant none of them ever believed they’d be defeated by their situation.

Next week, we’ll look at how we can apply the fundamentals of Shackleton’s leadership in today’s workplace.

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

Image credit: Brianboulton at Wikipedia


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