The story of Earnest Shackleton is one of the most heroic leadership stories in history. Shackleton led an expedition to the South Pole during the early 1900s. Shackleton and his men ran into more trouble than just about any other expedition of the time. However, what makes this story heroic is not the obstacles they faced, but how Shackleton’s leadership helped them overcome these obstacles. During their voyage the crew of the Endurance became locked in a flow of ice and was drifting in the arctic sea for months. Finally, Shackleton decided that the only way they would survive would be to find help themselves. He and a few of his men fashioned a life raft, left a large portion of his crew on the ice and sailed for a nearby Island. Before he left Shackleton promised his men that he would return for them. It took him over a year but he made good on his promise and came back to his crew and took them home. There are many great leadership lessons that can be learned from Shackleton, but I want to focus on the most poignant.
1) Shackleton recruited people of passion.
From the beginning he knew that he needed men of passion to have a remote chance of success. Shackleton’s recruitment efforts were unique to say the least; the job posting Shackleton published read “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.” (Source) The only people crazy enough to apply were passionate about exploration. We all have a passion; the most successful companies have harnessed that passion into a business endeavor. The key to retaining employees is to find the employees who are passionate about your company’s mission and purpose.
2. Shackleton had a “been there, done that” attitude.
His men knew he was competent and they knew they could go to him for anything they needed. I have worked for managers in the past who were not approachable at all and knew very little about the industry they were working in. It made me want to leave the company. Some leaders are so concerned with moving up the corporate ladder or making more money that they don’t stop and listen to ideas that are not their own. If leaders would focus more on what is right than who is right, I believe employee retention rates would skyrocket as employees would feel appreciated and valued. Having said this, leaders need to be both competent and approachable. Knowing more than your manager can be one of the most frustrating feelings.
3. Shackleton was a servant leader and his men knew and appreciated it.
From the get-go, Shackleton established that neither he nor his officers were superior to the rest of the crew. All crew members, regardless of rank, participated in regular chores aboard the Endurance. Shackleton also deeply cared for his crew. One of his crew members noted "Whenever Shackleton notices that a man seems extra cold and shivering, he immediately orders another hot drink served to all." Or perhaps I should mention the time when the limited sleeping bags were rationed out; seaman Bakewell wrote, "There was some crooked work in the drawing, as Sir Ernest, Mr. Wild, Captain Worsley, and some of the other officers all drew wool bags. The fine warm fur bags all went to the men under them.” (Source) I have found that the companies I have enjoyed working for the most are the ones whose leaders care and are “in the trenches” with me.
From my experience employees are longing for a leader who cares about them and knows how to lead. All too often it is the leadership that causes employees to leave a company. Companies who care about their employees can have some of the highest retention rates.