Managing in a cold snap

When the threat of recession is looming, keep your head above water with tips from a polar explorer.

When the threat of recession is looming, keep your head above water with tips from a polar explorer.

Put yourself in the shoes of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in January 1915. His expedition to lead the first team across the Antarctic came to grief before it had even set foot on south polar land.

Shackleton's ship, Endeavour, was trapped in ice for 10 months before it finally sank. The crew and explorers had to take to the ice floes with three small boats, the dogs and the sleds.

Dragging the boats across the pack-ice proved to be impossible, so the team stayed put, living in tents without ground sheets and moving from floe to floe, until the warmer temperatures meant they could launch the boats. They arrived at bleak, deserted Elephant Island in April 1916.

From there, Shackleton took one of the boats with a crew of five, and set off to row to the whaling station on South Georgia across 800 miles of the worst seas in the world. Reaching South Georgia in May, he and two others walked for 36 hours across glaciers and mountains, roped together, in nothing more than the clothes they had worn for two years.

They made it to the whaling station, returned to collect his three crew and then, on the fourth attempt to reach Elephant Island, rescued the rest of his team.

Throughout the whole nightmare, in which the greatest fortitude and determination was shown, Shackleton did not lose a single member of the expedition.

How did he do it? And can his achievements help those faced with corporate leadership challenges when things look tough?

Roger Putt, of training company Leadership Unleashed, has made a study of Shackleton's leadership skills which, he says, are particularly apposite for corporate managers who need to display leadership under stress, fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Shackleton's biggest problem was that the original goals of the expedition had been removed, says Putt. The goal was no longer crossing Antarctica - it was getting home alive.

"Shackleton is a perfect role model for leadership when goals have been taken away and there is only uncertainty," says Putt.

"Shackleton focused on three things: closeness, structure and optimism," says Putt. "None is a priority - they all have to be kept in balance." Closeness, he says, was Shackleton's insistence not to put distance between himself and his men. Instead, he took immense pains to bond with his team.

Shackleton believed in - and practised - an 'equal status' approach to his team. He was a champion of 'we're all in this together', even going so far as to fix the lottery for sleeping bags which ensured that none of the officers got the superior quality bags.

Shackleton also focused on not letting friction build between team members.

"He had close personal relationships with all the members, and nipped any friction between them in the bud," says Putt.

The 27 team members were a mixed bunch of skills and social backgrounds - polar expeditions were very popular at the time, and 5,000 people had applied to join. Only three of the number proved problematical, such as the ship's carpenter who pointed out that since the ship had sunk he was no longer bound to follow orders.

Shackleton made a point of taking all three dissenters with him when he set off to reach South Georgia. If they had been left behind he feared their dissension would have endangered the remaining crew. He also made a point of implementing what Putt calls 'fractal leadership', making sure that his deputy left on Elephant Island had the same leadership style as he did.

The second critical success factor, says Putt, was Shackleton's emphasis on structure. Although they were in great and prolonged physical danger, he knew that panic would be disastrous and, to ward it off, he placed great emphasis on everyone behaving as normally as possible. All the routine tasks of maintenance, that would have to be done anyway, were rigorously performed, as well as organising 'light entertainment' concert parties and dog races.

"When there is uncertainty, routine helps make things more certain," reminds Putt.

The final factor was optimism. Shackleton realised that gung-ho optimism of the airy 'we'll all be fine!' variety was as unhelpful as the 'we're all going to die!' type of panic. Instead, says Putt, Shackleton was continually optimistic about the levels of control he could exert to contribute to their chances of survival.

Everything became a chance to look on the bright side. For example, says Putt, when they first abandoned ship, some wanted to walk to land across 400 miles of ice floes.

Shackleton agreed to give it a go, and then, after three days, when it proved impossible to traverse the pack-ice, he used the failure to confirm to all that staying put until they could launch the small boats was their best option, and all could feel good about that decision.

One attitude that Shackleon would not tolerate was pessimism. He knew that holding firm was essential to survival against great odds.

Adversity and Leadership
  • Don't lock yourself away - keep your team updated with your latest plans

  • Develop a 'we're in this together' mentality

  • Rotation of team members may discourage the development of factions

  • Keep an eye on dissenters

  • Ensure that routine tasks are still carried out with vigour

  • Panic gets you nowhere

  • Focused optimism is helpful, Gung-ho optimism is not

  • If you try something and it fails - face it optimistically, after all you have learnt something from it

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