Shackleton and the Antarctic: Leadership Lessons for today (Part 2)

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Written by Sarah Cook & Steve Macaulay on 21 March 2022 in Features
Features

In the second article examining Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 – 1916 expedition to Antarctica, Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay suggest ways to create a development programme based on his style of leadership

This is the second part of an article exploring, albeit briefly, Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, where he showed outstanding leadership in the most testing of conditions. The events of that expedition and its leadership will act as a learning vehicle for use in a leadership development programme.
 
The whole Shackleton story provides an engaging and involving description of leadership dilemmas. L&D professionals may well have plenty of ideas on using the Shackleton journey to explore options and ideas on leadership. 
 
This is just one suggestion on how to use the Shackleton journey in a leadership development context, which has been used successfully. This session lasts approximately half a day but can be expanded or contracted, depending on overall aims and availability of other material.
 
Overview
The programme is designed to get participants thinking about the skills involved in leadership, teamwork and handling a crisis.  A development programme is likely to highlight:
 
The importance of inspiration and setting an engaging vision
Building and practising resilience
What is needed to create a trusting environment
Being a role model and practising what you preach
Dealing with conflict and abiding by ground-rules.
 
The session is not looking to develop carbon copies of Ernest Shackleton. Rather, it recognises the unique contexts in which participants are operating and the important elements of leadership. The path that participants choose needs to fit each specific context.
There are many photos and individual accounts of the expedition to add colour and bring home to participants how much the explorers were in peril

Learning method
The programme uses mini case studies and discussions based on events from the expedition as it works through its timeline. This can be supplemented by leadership team exercises, many examples of which are widely available commercially.
 
We recommend that participants are split within the programme into small groups of 6-8 people, map out the journey’s decision points from a leader’s perspective and examine the leadership challenges at each point. This is followed by small group presentations, participant discussions followed by input on leadership styles and approaches, strengths and weaknesses. 
 
Resources
There are plenty of good quality resources available which can bring the challenges of the expedition to life and make learning about it enjoyable. There are many photos and individual accounts of the expedition to add colour and bring home to participants how much the explorers were in peril. In addition, there are a number of excellent dramatisations that can be used, either as a whole film, or preferably in smaller segments.
 
The expedition journey as a learning framework
We suggest splitting the expedition into stages on a timeline, for example:
 
1. Preparations of “Men, Money and Materials” and setting out
2. Getting trapped in the ice
3. Endurance sinks: what next?
4. Journey in lifeboats to reach help and safety
5. Shackleton and a smaller number of crew reach safety and rescue all the crew
6. Return home and back to reality.
 
At each stage, the programme facilitator will describe the situation Shackleton and his team faced. Participants then need to decide what factors need to be borne in mind to go forward including what in their view is the best course of action, looking at other options and deciding opportunities and threats in each case.
 
The facilitator needs to be available for discussion and questioning, and to have prepared additional resource material. It is suggested that learning material will help to flesh out the experience, for example:
 
Stage 1
Stages of team development, for example forming, storming, norming, performing (Tuckman).
Stage 2
Dealing with conflict, for example Thomas Kilmann conflict model.
Stage 3
Crisis management, for example scenario planning, best and worst case options. Managing emotions and morale.
Stage 4
Team roles, for example Belbin team roles.
Stage 5
Team communication.
Stage 6
Team disbands. Dealing with loss and isolation. The transition curve, new beginnings.

Action planning and next steps
At the end of the session participants will need to think carefully about their next steps and what they have learnt from the programme. This can be achieved in participant groups, combined with individual or paired working. Sometimes checklists can help focus thinking on areas of priority – see the example below.

Leadership checklist
Use the following checklist to assess how well you lead your team. What is in place or needs development?
 
The team has a common goal
We have established ground rules for the team
The team has the right mix of people
As a leader I make the most of the team attributes
As a leader I demonstrate flexibility in times of crisis
I trust my team members and encourage mutual support
I can mobilise resources when needed
I am optimistic in the face of setbacks
I show empathy towards the members of my team
I nurture team spirit

What do participants typically say?
If set up with planning and delivered energetically, participants on programmes such as those we have described frequently mention a range of valuable lessons, such as the importance of trust and being a visible role model; paying attention to morale and understanding each individual as well as being positive and maintaining team spirit. They also point to appreciating more the use of individual strengths and nipping conflict in the bud.
 
These are valuable learning points which this novel, positive and stimulating approach helps to engender.
 
Resources
Books
Lansing, A. (1959). The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Hodder & Stoughton, GB
Hurley, F. (2001) South With Endurance: Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917. Simon & Schuster
Shackleton, E (1919). South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, 1914-17. Heinemann
Morrell, M. Capparell, S. (2001). Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer. Viking Penguin
Film
Shackleton - The Greatest Survival Story of All Time (3-Disc Collector's Edition) – (2002) – DVD has limited availability
 
Steve Macaulay is an associate of Cranfield Executive Development & Sarah Cook is managing director of leadership development consultants the Stairway Consultancy

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