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What High Performance Leadership Really Looks Like in the Workplace

Real leaders, wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

At the end of 1914, Ernest Shackleton led the first-ever attempt to cross Antarctica on foot.

That attempt was a failure.

Yet Shackleton is widely regarded as an exceptional leader and is often used as an example of what high-performance leadership really looks like in the workplace as regarded in the Harvard Gazette.

How Ernest Shackleton Helps Us Understand High-Performance Leadership

Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton set out on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition with the goal of being the first man to traverse the Antarctic continent. Aboard what would become his aptly-named ship, the Endurance, he and a crew of 27 men (and one stowaway) set sail for the South Pole. But along the way, the ship became trapped for ten months in ice floes, setting off a series of events that led to the destruction of his ship, and over two years of frozen deprivation, until August 2016, when the last of his crew was rescued, with no hands lost.

Shackleton failed at the original goal, but despite enormous hardships, danger, and extraordinary odds, he brought his men home alive long after the world had assumed they perished. What’s more, when Shackleton announced another attempt, several members of his original twenty-seven-man crew signed up to return.

Much has been said about the nature and personality of Ernest Shackleton, that allowed him to so clearly see and respond to both the demands of circumstance, and the needs and motivations of those around him, drawing forth from them their utmost efforts, their good humor, and better natures, and their united spirit in the face of challenges.

So how can you recognize a high-performance leader? What signs do you look for to find a leader who is capable of bringing out the best from their team and their procedures?

They Create a Plan A, a Plan B, and Are Always Flexible

At one point in the expedition, Shackleton and his crew traveled in three lifeboats searching for land, which they had not seen in 15 months. They were afloat for just over four weeks. 

In that time, Shackleton changed his plan no less than four times. These changes came about due to new information, every time the plan was adjusted to meet the goal. 

At no time did Shackleton get attached to a particular plan of action, no matter how much time he had spent devising it.

They Work to Build Unity, Commitment, and Emotional Bonds Within the Team

While Shackleton valued loyalty and hard work above all else, he did not expect these values to be upheld automatically, he actively worked to reinforce them daily.

The well-being of the men in his charge was always his top priority, even higher than the mission, since without them there was no mission.

He knew that without the team functioning fully, they would die.

He got to know each and every man personally, learning not only their motivations and their personal styles, but their strength, their flaws, and their needs. He made sure that every team member knew that they could come to him with any concern, large or small, personal or mission-related. He had an “open door” policy long before the phrase was coined.

They Develop a Clear, Shared Purpose

Shackleton’s recruitment efforts were very specific and differed depending on the applicant. He selected the men he would lead based on their clearly expressed desire to succeed in the mission he was proposing. They understood the purpose. 

They accepted the conditions. 

Every person involved, from the crew, the support staff, and those who assisted before the excursion began, understood and supported the mission’s ultimate goals.

They Both Model and Inspire Optimism

Shackleton believed in his mission and his team. His optimism was contagious. He raised money beyond the needs of his expedition primarily because the investors who spoke with him came to share in his unbridled optimism.

When morale was at its lowest, he encouraged music, games, antics, pranks, and other merriment. He was said to be a fair tenor, and he was said to have sung at least part of every hour he was awake.

They Make Tough Decisions and Stick by Them

As can be easily imagined, Shackleton made many difficult decisions. He was often faced with unpleasant or dangerous options. Many of the decisions he made would have been outrageously unpopular, had he not built relationships and loyalty among his crew. Each man accepted that their leader was looking out for them, that he had considered all options and made his best possible choice.

Every single man bet his life that “the Boss,” as Shackleton was known, was going to get them through their troubles.

Early examples of Shackleton’s leadership came during the historic Nimrod expedition in 1907-09 when his four-man party endured incredible hardship to march within 97 miles of the South Pole. 

While Shackleton had enough food to stagger to the Pole, he did not have enough to get back.

Exhausted, bitterly cold, and starving, he took the decision to turn back insight of his objective because he was not prepared to risk the lives of his three colleagues. When fame and glory beckoned, Shackleton put their safety first.

On returning home, his wife Emily asked Shackleton why he had turned back with the Pole insight, he simply said: “I thought you would prefer a live donkey to a dead lion.”

They Know that Teams Work Best When They are Cared For

Shackleton instinctively understood the importance of teamwork and union. All were treated equally and he took particular care of anyone struggling to cope. He made each person feel as though they were as important as the next and there were no favorites.

Scientists shared the same chores with sailors and sailors helped take scientific readings. When winter clothing was distributed, Shackleton ensured the crew were supplied before officers and during one horrendous boat journey he gave his mittens to a desperate colleague.

They Communicate Clearly, and Often

Shackleton held regular meetings, but unlike corporate meetings, they were always swift, methodical, and straight to the point.

Shackleton and his men were trapped in ice, after 15 months, the Endurance began to crack, and there was little choice but to abandon the ship and camp on the ice for nearly 150 days. According to the records, the crew stripped the ship of all possible goods and stores, set up tents and dog shelters, and cooked dinner, within fifteen hours of the moment the ice floes first breached the hull of the Endurance. The success of this remarkable feat was due to Shackleton overseeing the effort, directing his men clearly and completely.

Leaders are both born and made.

Whether you come by these gifts naturally or work hard to achieve them, these high-performance leadership skills must be nurtured, refined, and promoted, just as your team members should be.

  1. Adaptability

  2. Organizational Awareness

  3. Positive Outlook

  4. Empathy

  5. Conflict Management

  6. Inspirational Leadership

  7. Self-Awareness

  8. Relationship Management

Organizational cultures that thrive on challenges and are constantly improving are the result of careful attention on the part of leadership, whether the stakes are life or death, or quarterly reports.

High-performance leadership creates high-functioning teams, their members seeking performance excellence. Following Ernest Shackleton’s examples will help your leadership help your team to succeed.

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