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Book Review: Think you’re having a bad day? Try being Shackleton, the polar boss

Leading At The Edge: Leadership Lessons From The Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. (2nd Edition) By Dennis N.T. Perkins with Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian B. Murphy. Amacom. 288 pp. Leading At The Edge: Leadership Lessons From The Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. (2nd Edition) By Dennis N.T. Perkins with Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian B. Murphy. Amacom. 288 pp.

Was Sir Ernest Shackleton a success or a failure? 

On Dec. 5, 1914, Shackleton set out with a crew of 27 that soon turned into 28 once Blackborow, the stowaway, was discovered, to be the first explorers to cross Antarctica.

At least, that was the plan …
Buildup to a plan that changed big-time

The South Pole itself had already been reached in 1911 by Norwegian Roald Amundsen and then early in 1912 by the expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. That left traversing the Antarctic continent as one of the few polar adventures remaining to be conquered.

But Shackleton and his crew never even made it to the continent of Antarctica before their ship, Endurance, was frozen solid in ice 45 days after their voyage began. And 327 days after their voyage began, Endurance was crushed by shifting ice and sank.

With limited supplies and three life boats remaining, this story quickly turns into a race for survival. Due to Shackleton’s unbelievable ability to lead his men during a time of tremendous stress, all 28 crewmembers survived a grueling 634 days in the harshest weather conditions on the planet.

How was Shackleton able to keep his crew working as a team to insure the survival of all members of the crew? That is the question that Dennis N.T. Perkins, an Annapolis graduate and former Marine company commander, set out to answer in Leading At The Edge: Leadership Lesson From The Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition.
Ten strategies that turned failure to survival

Leading At The Edge identifies ten strategies Shackleton employed that can be helpful and applied by any banker faced with “leading at the edge” in today’s challenging banking environment.
Strategy 1: Never lose sight of the ultimate goal, and focus energy on short-term objectives.

Once Endurance sank, it was definite Shackleton would not be able to set foot on Antarctica and achieve his goal of being the first to traverse Antarctica.

However, Shackleton the man was not defeated. He simply shifted his long-term goal to the survival of all of his men. Yet, although survival became the long-term goal, Shackleton became hyper-focused on the scarce resources available and created critical short-term tasks for the men that created momentum and a sense they would survive.

As banks are faced with a rapidly changing regulatory, economic, and product environment, is it time to set a new long term goal and focus the existing energy on tasks that can have an immediate impact on the future of the bank as opposed to doing things the same way we always have?
Strategy 2: Set a personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors.

When Endurance sank, it left the expedition on a heavy ice pack in the Weddell Sea with only four months of food and three life boats. Linen tents, without floor, served as the men’s only protection from the grueling temperatures. When the men would sleep in the tents, their body heat would melt the ice below them and they would find themselves sleeping in ice-cold water.

If ever there were a helpless situation this would seem to fit the definition.

But right after the ship sank, in a very calm voice, Shackleton gave a speech, in which he told the men he felt confident. He told them that, if they persevered, worked hard, and provided loyal cooperation, they would reach home.

He instilled in his men his new vision for the expedition. He also convinced the men that the only way they could get back to safety was to mobilize and reach land over the ice pack. Each man was asked to limit his personal belongings to two pounds, to avoid exhaustion.

Once again, Shackleton presented a rousing speech. Much more, he showed action. To make his point he threw into the ice the gold coins he carried, a gold watch, and an heirloom gold cigarette case. The symbolism was to carry only the items necessary for survival.
Strategy 3: Instill optimism and self-confidence, but stay grounded in reality.

Shackleton was an eternal optimist. To help focus his men on getting home he would engage in discussions and plans for his next adventure, to explore Alaska.
As a leader in an extreme situation, his optimism was a powerful force that created energy and optimism in his men rather than fear and pessimism. His optimism became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The author believes optimism is one of the most important character traits of a leader who is leading an organization through difficult times. But what if you as a leader aren’t a natural born optimist such as Shackleton? The author provides several exercises you can use to assess your level of optimism and some exercises to help you increase your optimism. Before you can encourage others to obtain a goal you must first be optimistic that goal is obtainable. If you are pessimistic about the outcome this will be transparent to those who you are trying to lead. At the same time it is important to be optimistic it is also important to not let optimism take the form of denial.
Strategy 4: Take care of yourself: Maintain your stamina and let go of guilt.

In extreme situations it is very easy to feel if you work harder or longer it will make the situation better.

While it is important to devote all you can as a leader, it is also equally important to take care of yourself and those that work for you.

But Shackleton did a poor job of taking care of himself. Many times he would give up his own warm clothing to his men or take double shifts working so his men could rest. I think most of us find this balance one of the most difficult balances to establish as leaders of an organization. It is even more difficult when the organization is at “the edge.”

There were times when Shackleton was so fatigued he misguided his men.

Fortunately for Shackleton he had a trusted advisor in Frank Worley, his second in command. Shackleton would listen to his advice to take a break when he pushed too far. It is always good to have those trusted advisors around us who will tell us when we need to take a break for our own health. As leaders it is not always easy to accept their advice. However, in critical situations it is easy to carry a heavy burden of guilt for mistakes that may have brought your organization to that point. It is important to learn from the mistakes but let go of the burden of guilt.

Guilt can be a debilitating fear that keeps you from moving forward toward the end goal.
Strategy 5: Reinforce the team message constantly: “We are one--we live or die together.”

One of the most remarkable points Shackleton was able to engrain in his men was the fact the group was one to live together or die together.

The odds were very bad. History provided example after example of how the crews of previous expeditions had died, because when the situation turned critical it became every man for himself.

Shackleton knew keeping the team as one was the only way the men would survive because he had studied the accounts of previous expeditions that had failed, in which the men perished.

Constant communication is the key to keeping the team unified. During the Vietnam War, the American prisoners of war held in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison in North Vietnam were thought to be too isolated--a deliberate attempt by captors to fragment the group. However, the POWs formed a method of tapping to communicate. Even though the prisoners had never seen each other, they formed deep bonds that helped them survive their ordeal.
Strategy 6: Minimize status differences and insist on courtesy and mutual respect.

There were many different levels of education and social status among the Shackleton expedition, but each man was valued for the expertise he brought to the group. Shackleton emphasized that each skill was an important part of the whole team.

Even in the most extreme circumstances, Shackleton reminded the men that common courtesy was to be used at all times. This wasn’t something he only expected of his men. He began with himself.

As a leader the way team members treat each other is often a reflection of how they are treated by the team leader. Courtesy and respect start at the top.
Strategy 7: Master conflict--deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles.

As a bank CEO, I find that conflict is the most difficult situation for me to identify. I think many times conflicts are hidden from the leader.

Indeed, Shackleton told his closest advisors to watch for any conflict among the men so he could ease tensions before they got out of hand.

Yet, the men would chide each other if one forgot to close a tent flap or if they spilled food. It appeared the author found small conflicts as a positive release of tension in stressful situations, but suggested it be addressed immediately if friendly banter escalated into aggression. As a leader it is important to address conflict among the team quickly before it causes damage and division.
Strategy 8: Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.

Under the circumstances it wouldn’t seem as if the Antarctica explorers would have anything to celebrate or to laugh about, but they celebrated all of the holidays and then made up some more to celebrate.

This kept the team from being depressed and drew the men closer. Shackleton also found reasons to laugh--often at his own expense. He took his work seriously but not himself.

Do you find reasons to celebrate at your organization?  Do you allow fun at your workplace? 

Celebrations and having fun are an essential part of team building.
Strategy 9: Be willing to take the big risk.

Banking deals with risk every day, but taking the big risk isn’t something that is considered sound banking practice. Many investment banks took too big of a risk and that led to the financial crisis of 2008.

The kind of risk Shackleton took was necessary. It involved dividing up his men to take a small crew of six in one of the lifeboats to get help to rescue the other men left behind. There really was no other choice. If the six hadn’t sailed for help, they would have all perished because there wasn’t enough food to last the winter and chances of them being rescued were bleak.

In this example taking the big risk is more about having the courage to do what obviously needs to be done to save the team.
Strategy 10: Never give up--there’s always another move.

Creativity and innovation are often forgotten when an organization is at “the edge.” 

Yet at such times creativity and innovation are needed the very most.

Decisions under pressure are challenging, but great leaders find opportunities within problems to come up with innovative solutions. Shackleton’s ability to persevere and find solutions to daunting problems over and over is remarkable. His optimistic attitude and formidable determination to bring home all of his men alive made Shackleton a great leader.

Learning from a successful “failure”

Leading at the Edge not only tells the remarkable story of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, but provides examples of how strong leadership can successfully impact a company, whether the company is trying to reach new performance levels or is struggling for survival.

I enjoyed reading this book, although at times the author’s point could be a bit confusing. Nonetheless there are many leadership lessons to be learned from Shackleton’s amazing adventure.

There may be doubts as to whether or not Shackleton was a success as an explorer, but there can be no doubt he was a tremendous success as a leader.
If you'd like to review books for our online book column, or have recently read a book that you found helpful that we haven't already reviewed, please e-mail [email protected]

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Tagged under Books for Bankers,

Jane Haskin

Jane Haskin is president & CEO, First Bethany Bank, Okla. Haskin, is a member of the Banking Exchange Editorial Advisory Board and a former member of ABA's Community Bankers Council. She is a frequent reviewer for

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