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Management Lessons from Shackleton July 6, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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I generally stay away from books that claim to divine deeper truths from the stories of historical figures. I suppose if you look hard enough, and you have a strong enough preconceived bias, you can find management lessons from Shakespeare or Jesus or Attila the Hun. I’m not saying there’s nothing of value in the past, and I’m one of the most devoted students of history I know, but I guess I prefer to discover insights on my own rather than be hit over the head.

I can’t remember why, but a few years ago I became fascinated with the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his doomed Antarctic expedition of 1914-16. I think it may have come to my attention after the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The story of the survival of the entire Shackleton team is an incredible example of perseverance under extreme conditions. Some compare their story to the Apollo 13 mission, the astronauts had a Mission Control on Earth that provided constant support. The Shackleton expedition was completely cut off from the rest of the world preoccupied with the beginning of the First World War, and most believed they were all lost.

I was looking for an authoritative history of the expedition, and I picked up Shackleton’s Way by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell. It’s a fascinating re-telling of the expedition’s story, with some biographical details on Shackleton’s early life and career, illustrating timeless leadership principles that were clearly not the norm in the early 20th century. Particularly interesting is the contrast between Shackelton’s style and that of the tragic Antarctic expedition leader Robert Scott, the latter representing conventional wisdom in the Royal Navy at the time.

While at HP I started a book club with members of the team, meeting weekly to discuss chapters from this story. The adventure alone is worth reading, but I also strongly recommend the management lessons summarized at the end of each chapter.



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