OPINION: A good leader unites, brings out best in people in worst of times

Robert Labayen

Posted at Oct 31 2016 02:54 PM

This is said to be the greatest story of survival.

In December 1914, 28 men sailed toward Antartica in the South Pole. Soon, the frozen sea trapped and crushed their ship. For almost two years, the men endured hunger, thirst, freezing temperature and darkness. In times that the sun came out, it was unbearably hot. 

With weak bodies, they walked miles and miles on deep snow, pulling their heavy 30-foot life boats. They found an island which had nothing but rocks and more ice.

Drinking water was hard to find because any liquid froze so fast. When they ran out of stored food, they survived on unappetizing penguin and seal meat. They were even forced to shoot and eat the sled dogs they loved. 

Rescue would never come even if they waited there for eternity. So, six of them had to sail for weeks across waves 50-feet tall in search of civilization. They climbed a snow mountain for several days with almost no food, no water and no rest.

When the leader came back on a rescue ship, all 28 had survived!

This is the legendary story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew in their Imperial Trans Antartic Expedition.

In an event like that, the first casualties would be morale and esprit de corps. In his own book, Shackleton narrated “I knew how important it was to keep the men cheerful.” His concern was to uphold the men’s will to survive and their willingness to stick together working as a team. He encouraged them to have conversations with one another, to play games and sing songs.

According to a New York Times essay by Nancy F. Koehn, Shackleton “acted quickly to contain their opposition and negativity by trying to win them over and keeping close watch on them.” In fact, “He assigned potential trouble makers to his own tent.”

In the worst conditions, his men were at their best being cooks, hunters, navigators, meteorologists, oarsmen, friends, etc.

Shackleton earned their trust because he had the vision. He reassured them that in order to be rescued, he had to cross the angry ocean to reach the nearest island. He was always the optimistic, the consistent, the cheerful and the caring one. He is described as “ good natured” and “likeable” by markofaleader.com.

At times, he raised his voice, but his anger was righteous and his motivations were clear. He kept his composure. I have not seen a report about of him bullying, shaming, bad-mouthing or alienating his critics. 

If his talk was inconsistent and his values, questionable, he could have created a gang of angry and confused men divided into factions if not killing each other. He could have brought out the worst in them. 

Proof that he was a trusted leader, some of the men joined him in his return voyage. 

But the great leader made a mistake, too. He decided to proceed with the journey despite being warned that the sea could freeze. 

We can only pray that nobody leads us to dangerous waters.

“ Everything rises and falls on leadership. “ 
 - John Maxwell, leadership guru

( Fortunately, the ordeal of the Shackleton team was captured on film by crew member James Hurley. The original footage can be viewed on Youtube.

Sources for the article : 

- South : The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition by Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

- The Shackleton Expedition, markofaleader.com

- Leadership Lessons from the Shackleton Expedition, Nancy F. Koehn, nytimes.com

Wikipedia )


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About the Author:

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

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