The path of leadership – a road less travelled

I recently read Shackleton’s Way – Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morrel and Stephanie Capparell. Of course, the inevitable question of what makes the difference when it comes to leadership was at the top of my mind on finishing.

Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second in command on the epic two-year survival quest, gives us some clues when he says, “I have served with Scott, Shackleton, and Mawson, and have met Nansen, Amundsen, Peary, Cook, and other explorers, and in my considered opinion, for all the best points of leadership, coolness in the face of danger, resource under difficulties, quickness in decisions, never-failing optimism, and the faculty of instilling the same into others, remarkable genius for organisation, consideration for those under him, and obliteration of self, the palm must be given to Shackleton, a hero and a gentleman in very truth”.

With an overabundance of leadership literature available on the shelves and even more so at the click of a mouse, it seems incredible that more can still be said on the subject of leadership! Strikingly different from much of the other writings though is the pragmatism of the leadership phenomenon in the true-life events described in Shackleton’s Way.

Joel Barker, a well-known leadership guru said that “A leader is someone you choose to follow to a place where you wouldn’t go by yourself.” This aptly describes what Shackleton did, of course. He faced many of the same challenges encountered by managers today: bringing a diverse group together to work towards a common goal; handling the constant pessimist; inspiring the perpetual worrier; keeping the disgruntled from poisoning the atmosphere; battling boredom and fatigue; bringing order and success to a chaotic environment; working with limited resources. And he did – he brought all 27 of his crew members safely home after a nearly two-year long ordeal in the Antarctic.

So how did Shackleton manage this unprecedented feat? What made him so special? Shackleton’s Way is rich in practical pointers against which any organisational leader could measure him- or herself, and from which to draw to develop their own leadership skills. You could consider the following pointers taken from Shackleton’s Way for developing your own leadership skills:

  • Cultivate a sense of compassion and responsibility for others. You have a bigger impact on the lives of your ‘crew’ than you may imagine.
  • Do your part to help create an optimistic climate at work. A positive and cheerful workplace enhances productivity.
  • Broaden your cultural and social horizons beyond your usual experiences. Learning to see things from different perspectives creates greater flexibility in problem solving.
  • In a rapidly changing world, be willing to venture down new paths to pursue new opportunities and learn new skills.
  • Be bold in vision and careful in planning. Dare to try something new, but be meticulous enough in your proposal to give your ideas a good chance of succeeding.
  • Learn from past mistakes – yours and others’. Sometimes the best teachers are the bad bosses and the negative experiences.
  • Never insist on reaching a goal at any cost. It must be achieved at a reasonable expense, and without undue hardship for your team.
  • Don’t be drawn into public disputes with rivals. Rather, engage in respectful competition. You may need their cooperation someday.

Remember, leadership development is a lifelong process and does not stop once one has achieved an MBA or reached a certain age. One must work at it daily and consistently. The goal is not to be ranked high on the ‘popularity index’, but to choose to make meaning in one’s life and to help to make the world a better place.

Dr Cobus Oosthuizen (BCom, MBA, PhD) is the Dean of the Faculty of Management and Leadership at South Africa’s Milpark Business School.