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Tag Archives: management

Not exactly about economics, but this review was interesting to me because I remember reading Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage when I was a boy.

This is more about management, and how some historical examples can give today’s managers examples to adapt to in difficult times.

But another polar explorer — Ernest Shackleton — faced harsh conditions in a way that speaks more directly to our time. The Shackleton expedition, from 1914 to 1916, is a compelling story of leadership when disaster strikes again and again.

Consider just a handful of recent events: the financial crisis of 2008; the gulf oil spill of 2010; and the Japanese nuclear disaster, the debt-ceiling debacle and euro crisis this year. Constant turbulence seems to be the new normal, and effective leadership is crucial in containing it.

Real leaders, wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Shackleton exemplified this kind of leadership for almost two years on the ice. What can we learn from his actions?

As some talented research assistants and I worked on the study, I was struck by Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival.

This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.

I am not sure Shackleton’s problems are really so realistic for modern managers, but the point of the article turns out to be about dealing with change and new problems, relevant for anyone.

Through the routines, order and interaction, Shackleton managed the collective fear that threatened to take hold when the trip didn’t go as planned.  He knew that in this environment, without traditional benchmarks and supports, his greatest enemies were high levels of anxiety and disengagement, as well as a slow-burning pessimism.

Days became weeks, and weeks became months, and still the ice held the ship. By June 1915 — the thick of winter in the Southern Hemisphere — the ship’s timbers were weakening under the pressure created by the ice, and in October water started pouring into the Endurance.

Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon the sinking ship and make camp on a nearby ice floe. The next morning, he announced a new goal: “Ship and stores have gone — so now we’ll go home.”

A day later, in the privacy of his diary, he was more candid about the gauntlet in front of him. “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground,” he wrote. “I pray God, I can manage to get the whole party to civilization.”

Which he did manage to do.

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