Fearless Leading

Leadership lessons from Sir Ernest Shackleton.

February 24, 2014

Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was a fearless leader.

Shackleton’s adventures were many, but perhaps his most celebrated accomplishment was the recovery of the mishap-laden mission of the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in which he sought to be the first to cross the Antarctic.

The trek began in December, 1914. Shackleton’s 27-men crew met its first challenge as the ice-locked Endurance drifted for 10 months; eventually it was crushed in the freezing waters.

The stranded adventurers camped on the ice for five months.

Finally, open waters allowed departure via three lifeboats. The group found uninhabited Elephant Island; sadly, distance from shipping routes dashed hopes for rescue.

Shackleton and five others set out for help in their 22-foot lifeboat, surviving a 17-day long, 800-mile sail through treacherous seas to a whaling station on South Georgia Island.

Unfortunately, the group landed on the side of the island opposite the station. Weary Shackleton and two others crossed 26 miles of mountains and glaciers for help.

Finally, in August, 1916—21 months after departure, Shackleton himself saved the men on Elephant Island, beating incredible odds and demonstrating optimism, courage, patience, dedication and unwavering fortitude.

Research findings this week illustrate various considerations for effective leadership. Consider them and Shackleton’s expedition: What leadership elements might you incorporate with great effect?

‘Leadership is action, not position.’—Donald H. McGannon, broadcasting executive

“The days of the CEO playing the role of the hero are over… [for] the executive who used the ‘command and control’ style of leadership… A new style of leadership is needed,” says an interesting article in CEO Forum Group.

Here are the traits of tomorrow’s “ambidextrous leader:”

  • Empowerment, not egos as the new leader becomes an enabler.
  • Collaboration rather than control.
  • The realization that soft skills are as important as technical skills.
  • Emotional intelligence and resilience is important in challenging times.

With this knowledge of leadership in transition, you will be able to incorporate “6 Ways to Empower Your Employees with Transformational Leadership.”  “Only rare, transformational leaders are able to prevent employees from being excessively reliant on their bosses, cultivating instead a staff that feels empowered and self-guided,” notes the article.

Some ways to empower your staff:

  • Provide teamwork feedback with helpful praise and criticism.
  • Foster the executive mentality with transparency, regular meetings, communication of the big picture.
  • Offer challenges and chances so employees reach their full potential.
  • Respect boundaries and verify staffers are comfortable with new projects.

·         Offer flexibility in marketing, content creation, and other areas of work.

Transformative leaders take new approaches. Read about how two managers challenge the expected. First, in “Why I Hired an Executive with a Mental Illness” a hiring manager notes “some 60% to 80% of people with mental illness are unemployed… but a large part of the problem that we have in hiring people who have some mental disorder is that we lack the sophisticated vocabulary to talk and act regarding these illnesses.”

This reality, in combination with the secrecy that can surround mental illness, makes collaboration difficult.

However, “sometimes it’s the person with the mental illness who can provide the cohesion, the humanity, or the breakthrough idea that separates your organization from all the rest… It’s this diversity that is so crucial to good decision-making, and which gives an organization the competitive edge.”

A second challenged stereotype in hiring is noted by one who explains “Why I Hire the Unemployed.” “The conventional wisdom is that it’s better to hire someone who’s in a job than someone who’s not.”

The reason for this notion is that those who are unemployed lack talent or ability. The author defies such thought with three ways hiring the unemployed can be beneficial:

  • A new perspective is brought by those who are enthusiastic and ready to work.
  • Recruiter lists may miss someone who is unemployed yet highly qualified.
  • “Independent professionals are often the most desirable hires” as they bring varied experiences.

‘The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.’—Tony Blair

How does your leadership style rate? See “The 5 Absolute Worst Kinds of Bosses” as noted at Time. Here, “one in five employees have had their careers hurt by a boss” because “bad bosses lead to bad performance.”

A few personality types that are particularly troublesome include:

  • The “crooked politician,” who fools others with his/her charisma;
  • The bully, who has perhaps also honed his social skills “to figure out who and how they need to coerce to get ahead on the job;”
  • Anxiety-filled micromanagers;
  • Workaholics; and
  • “The BFF” who takes a friendly relationship and turns it into one without respect for boundaries.

We might debate whether Shackleton’s adventure was successful. He and his crew did not meet the objective they set out to achieve.

However, in the face of adversity and when presented with many circumstances outside his control, Shackleton enlisted survival skills, strategic planning ability, delegated responsibility, and was able to defy the remarkable odds against him.

Fearless leadership led to incredible results. Not a man on his crew was lost.

Be not afraid to challenge existing managerial practices to transform your leadership style!





  Lora Bray is a research librarian at CUNA.