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12 steps to effective leadership

We can still learn leadership lessons from Ernest Shackleton, also known as the Boss, who led an expedition to the Antartic and saved lives in one of the harshest environments in the world. David Parmenter sets out the 12 steps that comprise the Ernest Shackleton leadership way.

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1 Manage the immediate crisis

  • Letting go of the past (abandonment) Great leaders know when to cut the losses, admit they made an error of judgement, and move on. It stops the past haunting the future.
  • The old dog for the hard road, every time The Boss respected the old dogs (senior team members). On all his perilous journeys where life and death were in the balance, he always had the old dogs in the advance party.
  • Be flexible in tactics The Boss was flexible, always thinking ahead. However, some decisions would have to be reversed on a daily basis as conditions changed.
  • Maintaining a sense of humour when all looks lost The Boss’s sense of humour was always to the fore. He was constantly looking for ways to maintain morale. 

2 Recruit your team with care

  • Invest time to recruit well The Boss chose his people carefully. He was always looking for character, competence and multi skills.
  • Pick your second in command with care Frank Wild was totally dedicated to acting on behalf of the Boss in his absence. He was, in many respects, a Shackleton clone. Wild left the planning to the Boss and focused on maintaining a happy and friendly nature no matter what prevailed.

3 Show an abundance of positive energy

  • The capacity to go-go-go with healthy vigour and an upbeat attitude Shackleton had an abundance of positive energy. He worked the hardest, slept the least, and led from the front. He was fitter than all the others on the team.
  • Never give up He was a believer in “there's always another move, you just have to find it”. When setbacks occurred, he had to remain outwardly optimistic, despite his own feelings, to prevent a growing despair among his men.
  • Young at heart and celebrate He was always looking for ways to amuse his team, such as holding plays, sing-a-longs, cards and football matches under the moonlight.

4 Communicate effectively

  • Avoid public fights The Boss said only positive words about crew members when expressing an opinion in public, knowing that one day he would need their support.
  • Informal one-to-one communication If a major change was about to be made, he would mention it in passing individually so when he publicly announced the change it was of no surprise. The bad news was never unexpected.
  • Walkabout every day Every night, no matter how many degrees below freezing it was, the Boss would visit each tent for a pep talk.
  • Link with key decision makers Shackleton knew that his dream of being the first to the South Pole could be achieved only through the support of the Royal Geographical Society and wealthy sponsors who needed to be inspired by the epic proportions of the enterprise.

5 Let psychology be your friend

  • Be a student of psychology He read widely and his understanding of psychology played a big part in saving the lives of this team.
  • Master self-regulation to minimise any emotional damage The Boss was the master of conflict resolution: he avoided emotional outbursts. He would only tell staff off in private.
  • Keep trouble close to you The Boss engaged the dissidents and avoided needless power struggles.

6 See and own the future

  • The future has to be owned by the leader The Boss could visualise things ahead and plan accordingly.
  • Bold in planning but careful in execution While the vision must be bold, every conservable risk was minimised to ensure a safe outcome.

7 Develop, engage and trust

  • Removing barriers of rank to build cohesion He devised rotas where all team members, including himself, were involved.
  • Motivate others The team was prepared to take on any task the Boss wanted as they knew he would be in the line with them.
  • Communicate the (organisation’s) critical success factors clearly to the team This will help enforce alignment.
  • Cross-train and rotate teams to develop staff All staff were required to master new skills, to act as back-up in case of injury.
  • Match tasks to the individual capabilities and personalities Shackleton went to great lengths to suit tasks to the individual.
  • Know your staff inside out He spent time with each member of his team to find out what made them tick, how he could best lead them, and how he could serve them.

8 Constantly innovate

  • The Boss always learned from prior experiences. He designed special clothing and a tent that could be erected in a blizzard quickly.

9 Embrace learning

  • From an early age, Shackleton looked for experience. The Boss trained himself to become an exceptional leader. He learned from prior mistakes.

10 Embody the values

  • Value people over results He valued results, but he valued life and people more. No goal, no target was worth the loss of life. He took no unnecessary risks.
  • Maintain humility While the Boss loved the limelight, he was very humble when communicating to his team, knowing that through humility greatness can be achieved.
  • Embed hostmanship He treated his crew as equals. Shackleton time and time again gave up comforts for his men.
  • Never comprise integrity The Boss set high values and when these were compromised, he was unforgiving.

11 Find and use a mentor

  • Shackleton realised the importance of mentorship.

12 Be a serving leader

  • He saw a leader as one who served rather than one who was served. He saw such service as a strength not a weakness in his leadership.

Further reading