Book review: The icy calm of a great leader

By Hamish Mcrae
The Independent – London
March 8, 2001

Shackleton’s Way

by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell

(Nicholas Brealey books)

MOST BUSINESS books shy away from the issue of leadership, except those written (or ghost-written) by business leaders. Instead, they theorise about the changing nature of management or peddle a set of “What-to-do- to-be-a-success” rules. But three years ago an American journalist wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal about the career of the Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton as a fine example of supreme leadership.

The journalist, Stephanie Capparell, drew on the research of a financial executive, Margot Morrell, who had spent a decade and a half studying Shackleton – and as a result of the stir, the two co- authored a book about him, looking at his techniques of leadership and analysing them for business readers. Shackleton’s Way came out in the US in January and is published by Nicholas Brealey in the UK.

Ernest Shackleton is still well-remembered, but inevitably less so than his fellow Antarctic explorers: Robert Scott, who was beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen and died on the return, or Amundsen himself. In a sense he failed at just about everything he attempted. He failed to reach the Pole in 1909, though his “Furthest South”, 97 miles short, made him a national hero and earned him a knighthood. His plan, starting in 1914, to cross the continent from one side to another failed (Amundsen and Scott had reached the pole in 1911/12), and he did not even reach the Antarctic mainland. He died from a heart attack on his final expedition in 1922.

But his 1914 expedition turned out to be one of the greatest adventure stories in the history of human endeavour, a triumph against all odds. To tell it quickly, his ship, Endurance, got stuck in the ice just short of landfall. The team spent several months on board before the ice crushed it.

They then set up camp on the ice floes, salvaging what stores they could, including three lifeboats, before the ship sank. Months later, the ice broke up enough to sail the three boats to Elephant Island, a tiny uninhabited crop of rocks. It was land and there were seals for food, but no one knew they were there. Two of the boats were upended and turned into makeshift huts, while Shackleton and five crew sailed 800 miles in the third through a hurricane to South Georgia, where there was a whaling station.

They landed on the opposite side of the island and Shackleton led the two strongest of his team on a 30-hour trek across mountains and glaciers to get help. He then organised a rescue, first of the rest of his South Georgia team, then of the members of the expedition on Elephant Island. Every member of the Endurance crew survived – and eight of them signed on to the 1922 expedition.

Morrell and Capparell have taken the story of Shackleton’s career and drawn a string of lessons about the nature of leadership. For example, they note that leadership seems to be a learned skill, for Shackleton got better at it. They note how he picked people, hiring a No Two who complemented his skills, and choosing optimistic and cheerful people.

They look at how he blended a team, breaking down hierarchies and leading by example. They look at how he got the best out of each individual, giving feedback on performance. They look at his methods of crisis management, of which there were ample examples. And so on.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is that several of Shackleton’s techniques were counter-intuitive. He kept the difficult members of the team in his tent so they would not damage the morale of others; he served tea in bed to the ship’s cry-baby. So the book is more than an adventure story. It identifies Shackleton’s techniques and translates them into practical lessons for business people. There are interviews with business leaders who have used Shackleton’s ideas of leadership to shape their own management style.

Of course, leading a team of 27 men to the Antarctic is different from the challenges most executives face. But as businesses become more fragmented, and managing individual human capital becomes more important, Shackleton’s way of managing is more useful to present- day managers than it was to managers a generation ago.

Photo Caption: Ernest Shackleton: Triumphed against all the odds