To be a survivor, think far beyond the bottom line

By Carlo Wolff, Globe Correspondent
Boston Sunday Globe
March 25, 2001

The lesson at the core of Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell’s eloquent and instructive “Shackleton’s Way” is this: Good managers know that morale, cohesiveness, and continuity are at least as critical to an organization as the bottom line.

It’s not always what you achieve, it’s how you achieve it, suggest the authors of these variations on the theme of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the greathearted British explorer whose inspiration kept his men not only alive but in generally high spirits under the most extreme conditions.

Subtitled “Leadership Lessons From the Great Antarctic Explorer,” the book recounts the trials and tribulations Shackleton and his crews encountered on his probes into the Antarctic in the early teens of the 20th century.

Even though its target market is leaders and managers, “Shackleton’s Way” has much broader appeal and application. By interspersing their narrative of Shackleton’s adventures with bullet-pointed summaries and follow-ups from contemporaries who have found his example singularly salutary, Morrell and Capparell have crafted a kind of business parable.

“He embodied the attributes of the best business leaders: those who have adapted to an accelerating revolution in the workplace,” they write.

“The principles of democracy that changed the map of the world in the late twentieth century have finally trickled down to the workplace. Hierarchies are being flattened and formalities abandoned. Even the highest-ranking bosses are rejecting many of the perks and trappings of the privileged taskmaster. They want success, but they also want to make a contribution to their fields and to their communities.”

Morrell and Capparell draw intelligent parallels between Shackleton’s time and ours.
“The advances made by explorers and scientists stirred the same kind of heady excitement felt at the dawn of the twenty-first century with the expansion of technology and the move into cyberspace,” they write.

And similar growing pains, perhaps; already, James J. Cramer, founder of financial news service Web site TheStreet.com, has gone through more than one series of ups and downs. He takes heart from Shackleton’s optimism, making it a tenet of his own management style.

Without optimism, Shackleton and his men wouldn’t have made it out of Antarctica, where their ship, Endurance, was stranded for nearly two years. They did, however; Shackleton even survived a trip back to rescue some crew members who hadn’t made it out in the first attempt.

Morrell and Capparell do not heroize Shackleton, who was neither a stickler for financial detail nor a particularly attentive family man. But they credit him with idealism, practicality, flexibility, endurance, and faith – and for the kind of quirkiness that distinguishes the truly unusual leader: Two days after the Endurance set sail for the South Pole, stowaway Perce Blackborow, a friend of a crewman, appeared.
“I think he liked the idea,” ship artist George Marston said of Shackleton’s reaction. Apparently, Shackleton figured someone with the guts to stow away might be an asset. Blackborow ultimately became a permanent crew member.

Carlo Wolffnis a freelance writer based in Cleveland.