The greatest Briton: Ernest Shackleton

If the BBC can do it, so can Personnel Today. We want to know which Briton
you rate as the greatest people manager and leader of all time. Personnel Today
has invited 10 leading figures in the field of management to nominate
individuals they believe are the best, and then convince you they are right. To
vote, visit the voting form where you will also find summaries of all 10
nominees.
The voting closes on Tuesday 4th March 2003.

This week’s nominee is:

Ernest Shackleton

By Ruth Spellman, chief executive of Investors in People

On paper, Ernest Shackleton’s credentials may not seem to measure up to
those of a great leader or inspiration to others – he led three ambitious polar
missions, all of which were aborted before they reached their end goal. And
yet, Shackleton’s expeditions demonstrate an inspirational leadership model.

He defied geographical boundaries that had never before been crossed, yet he
led every single member of his party back to safety through extreme obstacles
and environmental conditions. At home, Shackleton generated great enthusiasm
among the British public for his expeditions, raising today’s equivalent of
£10m – a particularly amazing achievement coming as it did in the wake of
Robert F Scott’s mission, when people could have questioned the value of a
second expedition to the Pole. In terms of recruiting teams for his
expeditions, he was also a success: in one instance, 5,000 people applied for
just 56 positions on his team.

Shackleton, like most great leaders, always recognised the importance of his
team. As he himself said: "The personnel of an expedition of the character
I proposed is a factor on which success depends to a very large extent."

To choose the members of his various expeditions, Shackleton drew on
insights gained during his seafaring career. He based his selections on who he
could trust to work both with and without him, as his missions often required
him to split his team to explore different directions or look after injured
crew. He also understood the importance of giving every team member a degree of
responsibility. For Shackleton, this helped establish a unit that could still
function should any of its party falter.

Leadership in the early 20th century was typically very hierarchical. But
Shackleton stands out in stark contrast as a leader who never expected his men
to do anything that he was not prepared to do himself.

He did his share of menial tasks – when the team wintered on the Antarctic,
for example, they had a rota for night watch, which included everyone except
the cook and the team member with frostbite. And knowing his crews looked to
him for answers, Shackleton told it how it was – honestly, briefly. This is a
crucial lesson to those leaders who favour ‘corporate speak’ or occasional
messages from ‘on high’.

And what difference did this make? Clearly, Shackleton was a leader who not
only understood, but shared the high and low points with his teams. When things
went well, they all celebrated. When spirits were low, Shackleton rallied the
men with football or ice hockey games.

For me, any part of Shackleton’s adventures is inspirational. I have always
found him to be the best example to follow because he offers a tangible role
model that is based not on modern management theory, but on real-life
experience. He exemplifies the model of optimism, and his example has driven my
own enthusiasm throughout my career. I had to regularly draw on my own reserves
of optimism when I worked at the NSPCC, where regular exposure to heartbreaking
stories made it hard to stay positive.

His optimism was particularly evident on a trip to the South Pole, when a
series of life-threatening problems plagued the expedition, ranging from
injuries and running out of food, to horrific weather conditions and having to
kill their accompanying ponies. Yet Shackleton is reported to have told his
men: "Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all."

I have to agree – difficulties are just things to overcome, but this can
only happen with the right team and the right leader. Through Shackleton’s
example, I realise the importance of building teams and of recognising the
different strengths of each individual on board.

When colleagues and acquaintances tell me about their leadership
experiences, the predominant feeling that comes across is one of loneliness.
Shackleton teaches us that this needn’t be the case if strong bonds are
established with the team.

Leadership needs to be intellectual and emotional, and while this can
sometimes seem unnatural in the work environment, consider instead the example
of Shackleton and his men enjoying an impromptu Christmas Day celebration with
plum pudding, medical brandy and crème de menthe after 58 days of hiking.

Did Shackleton change the world? He didn’t aspire to change the world; his
ambitions were personal aspirations that he shared with many – demonstrating
qualities of leadership that are unparalleled in the modern environment.

However, the manager who follows Shackleton’s example can create confidence
in his or her team. Everything we do is a voyage of discovery, and in our fresh
challenges, we need to choose, lead and inspire teams like Shackleton.

Shackleton’s CV

15 February 1874 Ernest H Shackleton
is born in County Kildare, Ireland

1898 At age 24, qualifies to command any British vessel

1899 Volunteers for the National Antarctic Expedition and is
accepted, only to fall ill and be sent home

1907 Leads a team of 18 in a bid to reach the South Pole,
stopping just 97 miles short

1914 Unsuccessfully attempts to cross the Pole from sea to sea,
but charters new land when forced to seek help for his iced-in ship

1921 Attempts to reach the North Pole

January 1922 Shackleton dies of heart failure aboard the Quest

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