When sh*t hits the fan can you depend on your people to pull the Business through?

Is history bunk?

I found myself writing a blog on this a while ago but stopped … and then I read that most executives still say that engagement and culture remain key priorities in 2016 (85% and 86% respectively, Deloitte: Global Human Capital Trends 2016). It got me thinking again.

Why, if these are such huge priorities, do we still find it so hard to do? And if history isn’t bunk (my assumption) is there anything we can learn from the past?

So, what’s the history bit, I hear you asking?

Well, it’s 100 years since Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. What should have been fully a disaster is a compelling story of great and inspiring leadership. And, I think what he did and how he did it is as relevant today as it has always been… a truly awesome story that helps us to better understand how to build a great culture and engage people.

happy-feet
Shackleton: even made penguins happy Image credit
(please note this is subject to dramatic licence)

Shackleton’s story has taught me quite a few personal lessons over the years and on this anniversary I would like to share a couple with you that have improved my leadership:

Be honest and work with integrity

Shackleton allegedly placed the ‘job’ advert below for the Antarctic Expedition.

Wanted
Men wanted for hazardous
journey, small wages, bitter cold…

Alas, although fun, it is likely to be a myth. Shackleton was brutally honest and never made promises he couldn’t keep (safe return doubtful!!). It echoes a time when “boats were made of wood and men steel” and let’s face it, only those up to the challenge (or mad) are going to commit to this.

Never sell the job as something it isn’t. If the work is laborious, say so; if there are financial constraints, be upfront; if the project requires some long hours, be straight. Making someone aware of expectations from the beginning is critical. If they still said ‘yes’, you know they are well up for it.

Shackleton is in the past but personal qualities and core values like being honest, acting with integrity and consistently are part of what makes a successful and engaging leader today.

Build teams and create unity

Shackleton was also convinced that team unity gave him the best chance of reaching his goals. He built a complementary and cohesive team who were different to himself and each other. Successful teams need to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle with individuals building up a bigger picture of diverse traits and skills. He made his team stronger by multi-skilling and rotating roles, partnering the crew on tasks to build relationships and trust.

What have I taken from this? Well, recruit people who share your vision and enthusiasm, move forward together, bring people close with a shared vision and common purpose, resolve complex issues together, focus on team effort and importantly draw on what each of us do well.

Shackleton
Shackleton crew ‘saved’ by team unity and fun
Source: Western Morning News

Be decisive

Shackleton was certainly decisive yet he would always involve and listen to his men’s viewpoints whether it was which direction to go, how to distribute food or which song to sing that night. Everyone had a voice, it was heard and made a difference.

I was struck by Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he reinvented the team’s goals. What had begun as a mission of exploration quickly became a mission of survival.

In our fast changing world this capacity is as vital now as it was then – leaders must often change course midstream – redefining purposes and plans, decide the next step and execute the plan. We need to be ready to seize new opportunities and learn new skills to do so.

Genuinely care about people

Shackleton promoted personal growth, well-being and emotional spirit. He would simultaneously develop skill levels while improving the esteem of individuals through recognition and acknowledgement. Essentially, he knew his people, their strengths and weaknesses and what made them tick. He demonstrated he cared deeply for them as people.

There was nothing he would ask others to do without doing it himself. He was no more or less important than the next man, just his role as a leader was different.

History isn’t bunk

Shackleton engaged everyone. His leadership was fundamental because it transformed a collection of talented individuals into a coordinated successful team. Most people think of leadership as a profession, but it’s really a psychological process – the process of influencing others to put aside their self-centred agenda and cooperate for the common good of a group. Shackleton’s crew were a smaller version of a company, but still as relevant today as then.


Annette Rowe at SurveylabAnnette has more than 25 years experience designing and delivering improvement strategies for service excellence.

Want to know more? Contact Annette here or connect on LinkedIn.