Tuesday, February 26, 2013

7 Management Lessons from Shackleton


Shackleton's ship Endurance (source of image)

Imagine being stranded on ice for 19 months in the world's harshest climate, often without light for months on end.

Imagine being cut off from the outside world without any forms of communication. No smartphones, tablets, laptops, telephones or faxes. Heck, not even a telegraph machine or carrier pigeon!

Imagine helming a crew of 27 tired and demoralised men, all of whom depend on you for survival.

What would you do in that life threatening situation?

If you were Ernest Shackleton, the world famous Antarctic explorer, you would know a thing or two about keeping your men - and yourself - alive amidst such turmoil.

Born on 15 February 1874 in Ireland, Ernest Shackleton made his third trip to the Antarctic on board the ship "Endurance". Together with a crew of 27 men, his aim was to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. Unfortunately, the ill-fated ship was trapped in ice and sank 10 months later in 1915.

Abandoning the ship, Shackleton and his crew set off in three small boats on April 1916 to reach Elephant Island. A few crew members trekked for months on end to seek help. Miraculously, all members of the ship were rescued in August 1916.

Sharing her views on Shackleton in a recent HBR Ideacast, Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn shared invaluable insights from the "Endurance" expedition. Journey with me as I distill these perspectives into seven management lessons.

1) Mission Focused

Shackleton's original mission was a grand one promising fame, glory and scientific achievement. When his ship was stuck in ice 150 miles offshore, he changed his mission to one focused on getting everybody home in one piece. This new focus drove Shackleton's actions throughout the freezing cold months in the Antarctic, keeping the man and his team alive.

2) Improvisation

Like an accomplished jazz musician, Shackleton knew the value of improvisation. Although he was devastated when the ship finally sank, he did not raise the white flag. Instead, he pursued a new course of action when he disembarked with three life boats and did what was needed to improve their chances of being rescued.

3) Emotional and Social Intelligence

Under conditions of extreme hardship, it is critical for one's emotional fortitude to be robust. Shackleton knew this fact. At times, he huddled close to his men as "one of the boys". At others, he kept a distance in order to maintain his command.

To maintain the energy levels of his men, he gathered them every night in the ship (and later on the ice) with one of the men's banjo. This helped ensure that there would be times of camaraderie and fun, relieving the stress, exhaustion and fear of their precarious situation.

4) Persistence and Perseverance

Emulating his ship's name "Endurance", Shackleton never gave up come hell, high water or freezing ice. In those days (we're talking about 1915 and 1916), it took almost five months to get all the men safe once he reached civilisation. Going back to pick up the remaining men was an arduous chore, but he never gave up.

This spirit of resilience is exemplified by Winston Churchill's quote during World War II:

"...we will fight on the beaches, we will fight with pitchforks, we will not surrender."

5) Managing Vital Details

While keeping his gaze firmly fixed on his mission of survival, Shackleton knew that the devil was in the nitty gritty details. Two examples of his were worth noting:

- Duty Roster  Shackleton worked every single day on the duty roster. He determined who did what, when, and where, shifting people around when needed. This went on despite the adverse weather circumstances or low morale which plagued the group.

- Food  Shackleton focused on the need to feed and water his men throughout the ordeal. This occurred even though supplies were diminishing. To raise spirits, celebrations were held during festive occasions, often with fresh penguin meat supplemented by dried foodstuffs from the ship.

6) Sharing Information

In an adverse situation, Shackleton understood that it was vital to keep information flowing to his crew. His regular sharing kept everybody apprised of the situation on a day to day basis. Such communication practices are probably more vital than ever in today's hyper-connected environment.

7) Learning from Mistakes

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Shackleton learned from his mistakes. Some of the grave errors he made resulted in rescue efforts taking a lot longer than they should.

However, he did not mope and groan over his mistakes. Instead, he changed course quickly and focused his energies on the new path needed. This continual learning and adapting process kept the man and his crew alive in the world's most hostile environment.


Sir Ernest Shackleton (courtesy of Shackleton Centenary)

It has been almost a century since the events in the "Endurance" took place. However, the lessons arising from that saga of human spirit and survival are probably as relevant in today's tumultuous business climate as they were 100 years ago.

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