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Hiring an outstanding team – leadership lessons from Ernest Shackleton

January 6, 2014

Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, died 90 years ago yesterday, January 5th 1924, aged just 47, preparing for his third journey to the South Pole on board Quest. His Furthest South expedition of 1909 aboard Nimrod saw him reach just 97 miles short of the Pole before turning back, setting a new record, and his most famous expedition, the Endurance 1914-1916, also ended in failure.

Despite the disappointments, Shackleton became famous for his leadership, notably on the Endurance, which saw him save the lives of all his fellow travellers after major problems – 26 men were stranded on an iceflow for 18 months.  I’ve previously written about Shackleton’s leadership qualities in this blog:

Lessons have been drawn from Shackleton’s leadership in planning and executing his expeditions, and how it can be applied to modern business thinking. On the Endurance expedition, it was his ability to assemble an outstanding crew that stands out. Shackleton was surrounded by a team of outstanding individuals, each of whom had a key role to play in the voyage.

So, lets look first at the key Endurance personnel, roles and responisbilities on the expedition, and then the recruitment strategy and process Shackleton implemented to form his team.

Deputy: Frank Wild Second in Command responsible for the day to day operations of the expedition plotting routes, actions and decisions on all aspects of the ship, including responsibility for the crew welfare.

Wild was a member of the Furthest South party during Shackleton’s 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition. An inconspicuous figure, yet there was something in his presence that inspired confidence, Wild was Shackleton’s indispensable second-in-command, and left in charge of the men on Elephant Island for the 18 months of isolation.

Wild never lost belief that they would be rescued by Shackleton and would not allow the other men to lose hope. Wild had a rare tact, wrote Shackleton and the happy knack of saying nothing and yet getting people to do things just as he requires them. Wild joined Shackleton for his final expedition aboard the Quest, being left in charge after Shackleton’s death. Wild died in poverty in South Africa in 1939.

Operations: Frank Worsley Captain of the Endurance and ultimately responsible for assessing the direction of the ship to the Pole. A native of New Zealand, Worsley ran away to sea at 16, apprenticing on a wool clipper, and went on to become an expert sailor with the Royal Naval Reserve in England

Worsley was a master navigator, and the success of the James Caird journey to South Georgia is largely due to his efforts when he navigated 800 miles of dangerous seas. Worsley died in 1943, aged 70 years, his ashes were scattered at sea.

Financial: Tom Crean Second Officer and responsible for the expedition’s budget. Born one of ten children in Country Kerry, Ireland. Crean was tall and tough as an oak. At 16 he joined the Royal Navy and joined Scott on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions.

For his courage during Shackleton’s 1909 South Polar journey, Crean was awarded the Albert Medal. Crean made the James Caird journey to South Georgia and joined Shackleton and Worsley in the crossing of the island. He returned to Ireland and opened a pub called the South Pole Inn, still there today. He died in 1938.

Creative: Frank Hurley was the Endurance photographer. An independent-minded Australian, Hurley ran away from home aged 13. On the expedition, he quickly gained a reputation for stopping at nothing to secure a memorable photograph.

His brilliant photographs of the Endurance expedition are largely what his reputation rests on today, but he was also a noted WWI photographer. His Paget process photographs of the war are among the only known colour images of the conflict. He remained active until his death aged 76 in 1962. One evening he came home complaining of feeling unwell. He sat in his chair, had a cup of tea, fell asleep and never woke up.

Special Resources: Charles Green was the Endurance cook. Food played an important role with special diets essential, but Shackleton also used the gathering of the crew at meal times as a key part of his leadership, creating a spirit of camaraderie.

Green joined the Endurance at Buenos Aires, replacing the ship’s original cook, who had been sacked. He cooked imperturbably aboard Endurance, on the ice floes, and on Elephant Island; it is recorded that he was busily cooking a final meal in the galley as the Endurance broke up around him.

When he finally returned to England in late 1916 found that his parents had cashed his life insurance policy and his girlfriend had married someone else! Green died in 1974, aged 86.

Communications: Lionel Greenstreet First Officer responsible for the official log of the journey and communicating with the crew. He had experience in the merchant service before joining the expedition on the spur of the moment, 24 hours before Endurance sailed, when her original First Officer elected to volunteer for war duty.

Greenstreet saved the log of the Endurance and carried it with him at all times until the subsequent rescue. During WWI he served as captain of a Royal Navy tugboat, and during WWII, served on rescue ships.  He died in 1979 at the age of 89 – he was the last survivor of the Endurance expedition.

Human Resources: Dr. Alexander Macklin was the doctor and brought many new ideas to the medical care and attention of the crew using new equipment and technology. In medical school he discovered Nansen’s Furthest North, which ignited in him the desire to become an explorer.  Macklin was chosen to make the crossing of Antarctica had the expedition succeeded.

During WWI, Macklin served as a doctor during which he won the Military Cross for bravery in tending the wounded under fire.  Macklin joined Shackleton for the Quest expedition and was with Shackleton when he died; to him fell the terrible duty of performing a post-mortem on his friend. He died in 1967, 77 years old.

Staffing: Alfred Cheetham was Endurance Third Officer. Cheetham, born in Liverpool, was a long-time sailor, and had served aboard Morning, one of the vessels sent in relief of Scott’s 1902 expedition. After serving as Third Officer of the Nimrod, he served aboard Terra Nova during Scott’s fatal 1912 expedition.

A small, cheerful man, he was an integral part of the Endurance epic, keeping the sometimes troublesome trawler hands crew under control. After the Endurance expedition, Cheetham served in the Royal Navy, and was killed just weeks before the Armistice. Cheetham had been south of the Antarctic Circle more than any other man, spending nearly four man years there – still a record today.

So that was the outstanding crew, what about Shackleton’s recruitment strategy and process? Shackleton’s initial advertisement in The Times set the tone: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.

Life on polar expeditions isn’t for dreamers. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest place on earth, covered by a layer of ice three miles thick. The mean annual temperature is -70°Fahrenheit, what type of men wanted to go there? Shackleton was clear in his mind the sort of men he wanted for his crew:

The men selected must be qualified for their work to meet the special Polar conditions. They must be able to live in harmony for a long period of time, without outside communication. It must be remembered that men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality. Character and temperament are as important as ability. I have to balance my types, their science or seamanship weighs little against the sort of chaps they are.

Clear in his mind the sort of men he wanted, what were the key elements to his recruitment strategy?

Build your crew around a core of experienced men Recruit experienced workers to establish a professional environment, they will support younger staff when the going gets tough. Recognise the value of expertise, whatever the age of the individual, and balance your team’s experience and age profile, look for common qualities – detailed below.

Chose the best senior management team Surround yourself with the best people you can in senior positions, who share your views of leadership and with whom there is absolute mutual trust, respect and loyalty. Pick people who compliment your management style without being yes-men, and have talent for working with others. Loyalty, cheerfulness, strength and experience are key qualities for your leadership team. They will have more contact day-to-day with your staff than you, and whilst handling issues and providing advice to the staff, are also your eyes and ears.

Recruit people who share your vision and enthusiasm Shackleton made a mistake on his first polar journey by hiring individuals who didn’t fit the bold, risk-taking culture of exploration. For the Endurance he recruited a captain with bravado in spades, he was bold, a little eccentric – a mad-hat just right for the job.

Be different. Shackleton conducted unconventional interviews to unearth unique talent Shackleton sorted applications from candidates into three piles – mad, possible and hopeless. His interviews were freewheeling exchanges, brief but intense. How candidates answered were more important than the content of their replies, he was looking for subtle indications of their ability to be part of a team and their enthusiasm. Shackleton believed the touchstone for a man’s spirit was his personality, and his interviews went deeper than job experience and expertise, asking questions that revealed a candidate’s personality, values, and perspective on work and life.

Shackleton liked optimists, as they were the most likely team players. Shackleton wanted men who contributed to the esprit de corps with a passion for the journey ahead. He looked for positive people: loyalty comes easier to a cheerful person than to one who carries a heavy countenance. Of course real talent must accompany personality, but surround yourself with cheerful, optimistic people, they will reward you with the loyalty and camaraderie vital to inspire others to success, and also help you keep positive too.

Seek recruits who really want the job Shackleton needed hard, brave workers. He himself put all his heart and soul into his work and wanted men who would do the same. Those hungriest for the job usually proved their mettle. He weeded out the prima donnas – there were no passengers on his expeditions. At a certain point, action is what gets the job done, and action is determined by attitude to simply getting things done. Often the need is for common sense and some good old fashioned elbow grease.

Recruited for the expertise you lack Shackleton was not a scientist but that was the purpose of the journey, so he recruited people with superior education and expertise. He liked his key men to be tough, clever and inventive.Hire those with talents and expertise you lack, don’t feel threatened by them as they will help you stay on the cutting edge.

Shackleton made sure every man he hired knew exactly what was expected of him Shackleton took great pains to never mislead with false promises – as shown by The Times advert at the outset – he made it clear each man’s standing depended ultimately on their contribution to the team. Shackleton did this by constantly reinforcing a personal connection with all his crew individually. Spell out clearly to new employees the exact duties and requirements of the job, and how they will be rewarded. Many failed work relationships start with a lack of communication.

Ninety years on from his poignant death at the outset on his third attempt to cross the Antarctic on foot – a journey that was only successfully completed some forty years later by the British explorer Vivian Fuchs using motorised vehicles – Shackleton remains a visionary leader.

His approach to recruiting and leading people provides food for thought we can adopt and apply to business today, offering insightful guidance for hiring your own outstanding crew.

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