Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Five lessons in leadership from Mongolia to Antarctica (or, What I did on my summer vacation)

On a recent trip to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, my husband and I and a group of 25 other people participated in an Astronaut Leadership Experience Program through the International Space School Education Trust (www.isset.org).  I learned some important truths about myself on the trip, but it was a recommendation at the end our excursion that inspired me.   Hazel, a magistrate from Wales, introduced me to the book Shackelton’s Way:  Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morrell, Stephanie Capparell, and Alexandra Shackelton.  This book is a roadmap for effective leadership.

Many know that, against all odds, Shackelton didn’t lose a single crew member during the grueling Endurance expedition to Antarctica.  Shackelton’s Way tells the story of Shackelton’s leadership journey and how he embraced practical leadership principles that ultimately saved his crew.  Five of these principles resonate with me as I continue on my own leadership journey.  They are:

Lesson 1:  A leader knows that optimism is contagious and important to productivity and harmony.  Shackelton was an optimist and he insisted on optimism from his crew.  The authors observed, “Shackelton kept malcontents close to him to contain their effect and to try to win them over.”

Lesson 2:   A leader uses celebrations and good humor to unite his team and create loyalty.  Shackelton was intentional about celebrating holidays and honoring birthdays, and he believed in balancing work and fun.  One of his crew wrote, “it was a rule to hold a concert on Saturday nights and this rule was seldom broken.”  Shackelton’s efforts to unite his crew paid off during the most trying times of the expedition. 

Lesson 3:  A leader understands that all team members need challenging and meaningful work and that sharing the load, including the least desirable chores, breaks down social  and status barriers that create cliques.  A crew member wrote, “I must say that I think scrubbing the floors is not fair work for people who have been brought up in refinement... but it humbles one and knocks out of one any last remnants of false pride... and for this reason I do it voluntarily.”

Lesson 4:  A great leader is selfless.  “Shackelton always put the well-being of his crew first.  He always weighed the cost of a goal against the expense of reaching it.”  The authors’ observation contrasts Shackelton’s leadership style with that of Robert F. Scott --with whom Shackelton had served in an earlier, failed expedition.

Lesson 5:  An effective leader plans, plans, and plans but remains flexible.  The authors note, “Shackelton was bold in his plans, but cautious in their execution, paying close attention to detail.”  At one point in the expedition when the ship could not be saved, a crew member observed, “As always with him, what had happened had happened; it was in the past and he looked to the future...  Without emotion, melodrama or excitement he said, ‘Ship and stores have gone, so now we’ll go home.’”

Many leaders -- from CEO’s to entrepreneurs to the US Secretary of the Navy -- have successfully utilized Schackelton’s principles to lead their own organizations.  The next leg of my own leadership journey includes the GSCPA Leadership Academy.  Rest assured this “roadmap” will be among the tools in my arsenal as I move toward the goal of effective leadership.

Daria Cruzen, MBA, CPA; Manager, Audit Department