Shackleton's leadership still shines
Early 20th century adventurer getting renewed interest from management community

What do the actions of an unsuccessful early 20th century Antarctic explorer have to do with business leadership? Plenty, says Martin L. Martens, a management professor at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business.

"Even though Ernest Shackleton lived decades before current management theories were developed, he had a good understanding about the complexities involved in leading people," said Martens. "You can take just about any leadership theory and apply it to (him) and his Endurance expedition."

Rogue, self-promoter, adventurer -Shackleton has long lingered in the shadows of two more prominent adventurers, Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, who reached the South Pole within a month of each other in late 1911.

But in recent years, Shackleton's 1914 expedition to cross the Antarctic, which failed when his ship the Endurance got mired in ice about 85 miles from their landing point at Vahsel Bay, is getting considerable attention from filmmakers, biographers, and - management professors.

Over 22 grueling months, Shackleton and his 27 men were stranded in and ice off the isolated continent, where they slowly watched their ship get crushed in the moving ice, and faced the grim prospect of slow, painful deaths.

Unwilling to give up, Shackleton alternately kicked, prodded, begged and coerced his men into action. First they sifted through the ship's wreckage and loaded the most useful remnants onto three lifeboats, which they attempted to drag to a whaling station 300 miles away. During this time the icecaps they navigated on alternately drifted, broke and then became re-stuck together.

Eventually, exhausted, frostbitten and at times near starvation, they finally reached land on a remote island at the tip of Antarctica. In a final roll of the dice, Shackleton and five men, loaded themselves into the remaining functional lifeboat, and together they set sail for South Georgia 800 miles away, through some of the most treacherous waters on the planet.

After a miraculously 16 day journey, and only three days rest, Shackelton, immediately began the return voyage to seek out the 22 crewmen he left behind, a process that would take several months, and many failed attempts. The most amazing part is that all 28 men survived.

According to Martens, Shackleton had many of the natural qualities that we look for in a leader. He was strong, good looking, physically healthy, and inspired confidence in those around him, and most important, he cared about his men. He early on had flare for self-publicity, and made judicious use of his fame to seek out investors and crew.

He also effortless demonstrated an effortless grasp of contingency leadership management - the ability to change leadership styles based on whether the situation at hand called for a task or people oriented focus.

For example, in the months before the ship was crushed, the crew was faced with the prospect of a year of inactivity while they waited for it to become unstuck during the summer thaw.

Shackleton knew that if the crew had nothing to do, trouble and griping would soon develop. So he kept the men constantly busy, and every night made sure there was entertainment of some sort, mostly plays and sketches the men would organize themselves.

But Shackleton was not just a feel good morale booster. He was also more than ready to take drastic measures to defend his leadership and keep his team pulling together. When one of the crew - the ship's carpenter - began trying to stir up a mutiny, Shackleton took him aside, and told him he would be shot if the attempts continued.

Martens' interest in Shackleton goes back to his days as a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, and as public interest has grown, so has the demand for his seminars and expertise. Last week he gave four lectures on Shackleton to Concordia students in just one day.

Two books on Shackleton's leadership have been released: Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition, by Dennis Perkins, and Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.

And in the next month the A&E channel will be broadcasting two shows about Shackelton, a two-part mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh, and a documentary on Biography.

But do we need to go back almost 100 years to find examples of leadership? Why doesn't Martens use a real life business example? "There are business leaders out there worth talking about, such as John Chambers of Cisco," said Martens. "But there aren't many that are that exemplary."

Shackelton, the two-part mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh will broadcast on April 7th at 8:00 p.m. and April 8th at 9:00 p.m. on A&E. A documentary about Shackleton will be broadcast on Biography on April 8th, at 8:00 p.m..

Martin Martens will be giving a presentation titled "Shackleton and Leadership," as part of the Concordia MBA Society, speaker series on Thursday May 30th at 8:00 a.m. For more information call 848-2708.

Photo caption: Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men spent 22 months trudging on icebergs off the cost of Antarctica after their ship got crushed. His leadership - which many in the business community are taking a new interest in -- is widely credited with keeping them alive.

Diekmeyer's E-mail address is peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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