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Closeness, Optimism and Structure: Lessons from Shackleton for these threatening times

Leaders saving lives

Sir Ernest Shackleton has been called ‘The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none’ for saving the lives of the twenty-seven men stranded with him on an Antarctic ice floe for almost two years. That was more than 100 years ago. His highly practical teachings are as relevant today as they were then. Perhaps even more especially now as we face an unprecedented brush with death (Covid 19) experiencing ongoing lockdown and facing a highly unpredictable future for all of our key stakeholders. 

How do we best lead in such complex dangerous times?  Perhaps, by leaning into some of Shackleton’s core principles, as outlined below. 

1       Closeness

Self-doubt about the goal or direction needed for a team or organization can be accompanied by the distancing of a leader from his/her people. This may be because:

·      The leader does not want to expose his/her weakness,

·      Time alone is needed in order to think,

·      The concerns of other people are not a priority-the situation is bad enough already!

·      Or he/she does not want their authority challenged.

Shackleton recognised each of these concerns but resisted the temptation to distance himself. Something that can become an easy default position for leaders today, in isolation. Instead he did the opposite, he became closer to his people by

·      Stripping away any hierarchical differences in the group

·      Creating regular informal sessions for the group to bond more closely together

·      Ensuring that each member of the crew spent time privately with him

·      Regularly taking people to one side to listen to concerns and ideas, and

·      Nipping problems in the bud before they escalated

He recognised the importance of the crew sticking together as one, in order to survive these months of uncertainly. Morale had to be high, and that was his responsibility. 

2       Optimism

Without doubt the chances of Shackleton achieving his original aims (reaching the South Pole) were lowering with each passing week. As the ship embedded in the ice, mere survival became the goal. Under such circumstances a weak leader may understandably give up and relinquish optimism. The self-fulfilling prophecy then playing out the prediction.

Other leaders can be prone to displaying exaggerated levels of optimism. When conditions look ominous or disastrous, they will assert that everything remains positive. This can be merely naïve enthusiasm, but the temptation is to promise outcomes which are

·      Too far ahead to engage people whose interests are (increasingly as they become more anxious) shorter term

·      Outside the control of the person making the promise

Shackleton maintained a balance throughout his crisis. Once committed to returning people home (their changed purpose now), he focussed only on short term objectives-often no further than the next hour or day-which he and his crew could control. He could do this because he knew the time frame of his colleague’s concerns; the result of achieving the intimacy discussed at 1 above.

His ability to model the way forward, in terms of how his people thought and felt, is one of his greatest attributes of leadership. He knew that he had to maintain optimism and would plan small rewards, meals, rests, and reviews in order to anticipate their emotional needs. While his air of optimism might have caused him considerable internal anguish, he concentrated only on actions which would achieve short terms successes, thereby building confidence and commitment

3       Structure

When a leader’s goal or direction becomes uncertain, there is a temptation to avoid the responsibilities of taking the helm. The reasons may include:

·      A reluctance to structure activities in the context of a clouded personal strategy

·      A fear of wasting resources in the short-term

·      A dread of appearing foolish later on

Shackleton knew that without structure, his crew would have more opportunities to lose faith in his leadership. Reduced to pessimism, they would eventually descend into madness during the months ahead of waiting and boredom. His answer was to provide rituals and activities, not only to occupy his men but to prepare them for forthcoming new strategies. For example:

·      Disciplined mealtimes and strict watches

·      Preparing boats and creating dog teams

·      Making tools and equipment; repairing tents and clothing

·      Hunting for food and maintaining informal entertainment

Shackleton avoided the problem of over-structuring by emphasising the informal rituals of play and entertainment and ensuring free time for all. Through this he took the time to anticipate and plan, in the knowledge that the creation of an able and disciplined crew could be prepared for any outcome.

Relevance for us as leaders today

Do you tend to rely on one of the three principles above at a cost to the other two?   

·      Preferring closeness while limiting optimism and structure, so we all go down as one?

·      Preferring optimism and limiting closeness and structure, so staying aloof from your people? or

·      Preferring structure and limiting closeness and optimism, staying disciplined but ignoring the concerns and reality of your team. 

Shackleton maintained a balance between all three principles and that is the essence of his success. Once his goal became clear and his personal focus returned, he had the foundations in place to surmount also impossible odds; a crew that was close optimistic and structured. He was heralded by his team as being “the greatest leader on Earth.”

What can you do this week?

Looking at his principles and actions above, what is one thing, even if small, that you could do to better lead your team during these unprecedented times?