Leadership in Crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance 1.Was Ernest Shackleton a good leader? What were his personality traits and leadership styles? If he were living in modern times would he be a success as an entrepreneur or as a senior executive in a corporation? Why or why not? Ernest Shackleton was one of the greatest leaders of all time. His leadership and motivation were the driving forces behind the survival of his crew in their Antarctic journey. Shackleton displayed many personality traits of an excellent leader. When considering the big five, it is difficult to rank Shackleton, as it seems he displayed a strong possession of all five of these dimensions. However, I do believe his strongest dimension was surgency. He exhibited a level of determination and persistence in exploring the Antarctic regions that had never been seen before. Some believe his persistence to continue, even in grueling conditions, was considered borderline crazy. Coming in a close second, I believe he displayed a high level of conscientiousness.
His dependability and integrity were unmeasurable. During the men’s mission aboard the James Caird to South Georgia Island, in an attempt to send help to the remaining crew waiting on Elephant Island, Shackleton monitored them very closely. If at any point he felt one of his crewmen was close to death, he would order a serving of warm milk for all. I believe as captain of the crew, his ability to keep his men alive made him very dependable. Upon arrival to South Georgia Island, he wasted no time in obtaining another ship and departing for Elephant Island to rescue the remaining crew. When the ship proved too weak for the mission and Shackleton had to turn around, he did not get discouraged. He was able to secure another ship in only a few weeks after his first failed attempt. Again, he was forced to return unsuccessfully, after only a few days, due to ice damages sustained by the ship. Still, he did not give up. In fact, he did just the opposite.
He became extremely distressed and frantic about the situation. His shipmate, Worsley also noticed that he began show grey hair and wrinkles, and turned to drinking to handle his anxiety. During his third attempt, he was forced to retreat once again due to rough weather conditions. It wasn’t until his fourth attempt, four months after his original departure from Elephant Island, that he was able to return and rescue the remaining 22 men of his crew. This story speaks measures to Shackleton’s determination and dependability. I think it says a lot that all 22 men were still living when Shackleton finally made it back to the island. It seems they believed in him enough to hold on, even after a much longer period of time than they had anticipated. They never lost hope that Shackleton would come for them. Shackleton also possessed a strong level of agreeableness, adjustment, and openness. I believe Shackleton was in the middle of the spectrum between autocratic and democratic. In many ways his personality was more democratic. He encouraged and enforced a high level of participation from his entire crew.
On the other hand, due to the nature of the voyages Shackleton led, he was forced to be autocratic in other ways. He had to step up and make several very crucial decisions by himself, ultimately shaping the outcome of these voyages. He also had to tell his crew exactly what to do at times, with very clear direction, in order to stay alive. Supervision was very high at times as well. The difference between Shackleton’s supervision and that of a typical office manager was that Shackleton was supervising his crew’s physical and mental conditions, as opposed to their work in an office setting. In modern times Shackleton would definitely be successful as an entrepreneur vs. a senior executive of a corporation. He had a way of convincing people that his ideas and ventures were worth taking on and investing in. He was very innovative, had a strong desire for adventure, and was able to organize expeditions in a very effective way.
Dictionary.com defines an entrepreneur as, “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.” Initiative and risk were two things that Shackleton certainly did not lack. He possessed a very go-getter attitude and was more than happy to take on life-threatening risks. Shackleton raised money, got resources together, set tasks, and understood motivation. I believe these characteristics would be found in an entrepreneur much more than a corporate executive. I could not picture Shackleton cooped up in an office, following the rules of a large corporation.
2.What similarities do you see between Shackleton and other leaders you may have studied in this course or are familiar with? What were his strengths and weaknesses? I see striking similarities between Ernest Shackleton and Coach K. This could be partly because both were leaders of a team outside an office setting. I think an office setting often calls for a specific type of leader; whereas a basketball team or a crew of seamen would call for a different type of leadership. Both men were extremely likeable and personable. They both made a point to know each member of their group on a personal level and make each one feel like they were truly important. They also both possessed a high level of agreeableness and adjustment. Both men knew that their attitude would 100% dictate the attitude of the rest of the group. I think this characteristic is indicative of their high degree of emotional intelligence. You would never see Coach K or Ernest Shackleton have a breakdown in front of their crew during a tough time.
They simply would never do that because they knew the impact it would have on the others. Both men also allowed their teams a high level of autonomy whenever possible, but knew when it was necessary to be strict. Shackleton’s leadership style, while overall very effective, was not without flaws. I believe his ability to control and keep at ease a crew of seamen, even in the most extreme conditions was a huge strength. Some of his other strengths also include that he was motivating, set objectives, and was goal oriented. He was also very empathetic and resourceful. However, when reviewing the case you cannot ignore the fact that Shackleton simply did not succeed with his initial mission. He set out to cross Antarctica and did not ever meet that goal. Although the danger of the mission was evident to all before departure, Shackleton did lead his crew into very life-threatening conditions. Perhaps a weakness he exhibited was that he did not use enough caution in his decisions. Shackleton also possessed a level of confidence that could be viewed as arrogance.
This overconfidence led him to make decisions that might not have been smart or safe. He put his men in dangerous situations when he should have waited. His level of persistence and overzealousness to his mission ultimately caused his death. Another weakness was his lack of initial training of men. He didn’t necessarily pick the best sailor, just one seeking adventure that had a positive attitude. I think he could have been more selective in picking his crew and should have spent more time training them on what to expect before setting out. Not only did his crew need more training, but Shackleton also lacked crucial knowledge that could have helped in his expedition.
For example, earlier explorers relied greatly on skis and sled dogs and Shackleton had very little expertise in either of these resources. However, some of these weaknesses could also be argued. Although Shackleton did not succeed in his initial mission, he did make it further than anyone else ever had and was able to return all of his men home alive. To some, this could be viewed as a success.
3.Identify and discuss the main lessons from the Endurance case study with respect to (1) team development and (2) leadership in a crisis. Upon the overwhelming response to Shackleton’s public announcement looking for crew members, the captain was forced to cut down a pool of over 5,000 applicants to just a few dozen select men. In putting together this team, Shackleton had to be very careful to choose men with certain personalities that would not only get along with each other but be able to handle the extreme conditions the journey would present. Initially, he divided the candidates into three categories of “mad,” “hopeless,” and “possible.”
He then narrowed down the “possible” candidates even further, relying significantly on his instincts in his final selection. For a team to be effective, there are a few crucial elements that must be present. Some of these characteristics that are particularly relevant to Shackleton’s crew include: shared goals and objectives, a diversified team mix, clearly defined roles and responsibilities, positive interpersonal relationships, and strong top management support. Considering Shackleton’s mission was clearly extremely dangerous and life-threatening, it was not hard to determine that applicants were committed to the goal and shared the same objective of crossing the Antarctic and making history. A diversified team mix was also very important in this journey.
The ship required specific jobs such as navigators, engineers, surgeons, a geologist, a meteorologist, a physicist, a biologist, and a photographer, to name a few. Everyone had a very clearly defined role and purpose for being included on the team. Shackleton also knew the importance of interpersonal relationships in developing an effective team. He made a point to ask each man individually how they were doing and engage in a one on one conversation with him as often as possible. During their campout referred to as “Patience Camp,” Shackleton made it a priority to divide his time at night between every tent, visiting with all the men. He felt it was imperative to maintain a good relationship with the whole crew. More important than all else, Shackleton looked for optimism when selecting his crew. With the type of mission at hand, attitude was everything. He looked for men with a cheerful disposition and a sense of humor. This very dangerous mission also called for a leader able to handle and overcome crises. Lussier and Achua define a crisis as “a low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution, as well as by a belief that decisions must be made swiftly.”
In the Antarctic mission, I believe the definition of crisis would vary slightly in that it would have a higher probability of occurring and with a more obvious cause. Given that crises seemed inevitable in this journey, it was of the utmost importance that Shackleton stand strong in his leadership role during trying times. I have always loved the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I think this describes Shackleton great. It was through his excellent leadership that he was able to keep his crew alive when they were near death. It seems it is in our human nature to look for leadership and for someone to take control in a crisis. Shackleton was just the man for that job.
4.What in your view are the benefits and drawbacks of using historical case stories such as this one for developing leadership on MBA and executive training programs? I consider historical case stories to be an excellent learning tool for MBA and executive training programs. Mark Twain put it best when he said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” No two sets of circumstances are ever going to be identical, however patterns of behavior and similar events are bound to reoccur. It is very important that we study significant events in history so that we can learn from them and improve moving forward. As we study these events, we are able to learn about human nature.
We have learned that human’s will instinctively respond to a particular situation or stimuli in a similar manner in almost every case. That being said, an individual’s personality traits and behaviors will ultimately influence the outcome of a particular event. For example, in the case of Shackleton’s voyage a positive attitude was absolutely imperative to the men’s survival. Had any of the crew possessed a generally negative outlook, they likely would have perished in the journey. A drawback to using historical case stories is that times are always changing. Some might argue that to study a case about world exploration in the early 1900’s is simply not relevant to today’s times. The world is a very different place today than it was a hundred years ago. Man has evolved greatly and in turn, displays different behaviors and perceptions. Today’s economic and global issues are much different than they were in those days. The fact that no two situations will ever be exactly the same again could also be considered a drawback in studying very specific historical cases. However, overall I still believe historical case stories are an extremely beneficial tool and will provide great insight to human nature, attitudes, perceptions, and great leadership.