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Gerardo Castillo Ceballos, School of Education and Psychology. University of Navarra.
A model of leadership in extreme situations
We are experiencing an unexpected global pandemic, Covid-19, with many thousands of people infected and very difficult to control. A tragedy of such proportions requires a different kind of leadership. To identify it I propose a reference letter: that of the polar explorer and navigator Ernest Henry Shackleton, who led the Antarctic Expedition of 1914, creating a model of leadership in extreme conditions. His competencies are transversal, broad-spectrum, not specific to a profession or organizational environment.
The leadership of this Anglo-Irish adventurer was defined as follows: "For a scientific driver, give me Scott; for fast and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when one finds oneself at a desperate status , when there seems to be no salvation, one should get down on one's knees and ask God to send Shackleton".
In 1914, Shackleton decided to tackle the only great Antarctic challenge left: to cross the frozen continent on foot from end to end, passing through the South Pole, treading unknown territory, over a distance of 2,800 km.
To recruit the crew he published the following offer in The Times: "Men needed for perilous voyage. Low wages, extreme cold, months of complete darkness, constant danger, return unharmed doubtful. Honors and recognition in case of success." Surprisingly, five thousand people responded, of whom 28 were selected.
The ship Endurance would leave a group of expeditionaries at some point on the Weddell Sea coast, to start the journey from there on dog sleds, while another ship, the Aurora, would wait for them in the opposite Ross Sea.
On December 5, 1914, the ship left the Georgia Islands for the Weddell Sea. On January 19, 1915, when the Antarctic continent could be seen, the ship was trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea. Shackleton ordered the ship to be prepared to withstand the harsh southern winter. The ship's quarters were refurbished, converting it into a "ski station". Shackleton ensured that his men were always busy with a wide variety of tasks, for example, hunting and cutting up seals and penguins.
On October 27, 1915, the 28 passengers abandoned the ship before it sank. Shackleton set up a camp for his crew to survive for six months. Using his leadership skills, he established the guidelines that would keep his crew alive.
Aware that the expedition was in serious danger, Shackleton changed course, heading north to Elephant Island, where 22 crew members remained. The other six managed to reach South Georgia after a voyage through the most dangerous waters of the planet, in a small boat, in search of financial aid; this voyage in gigantic waves is considered one of the most impressive feats in the history of navigation.
In August 1916, a Chilean tugboat rescued the 22 expedition members who were waiting in anguish on Elephant Island. All would return to England safe and sound.
Shackleton knew how to renounce his initial dream by exchanging it for a less glorious one, to save his men. That is one of the most important and difficult behaviors of a leader.
How can it be understood that the 28 castaways of the expedition survived for two years the harsh conditions they had to endure? They had a leader who, in addition to knowing how to command, had moral authority and prestige, derived from leading by example. Whenever he demanded something new, he was the first to do it. For example, when he gave the order to throw all non-essential personal belongings into the sea, he went ahead of everyone else by divesting himself of several pieces of gold jewelry.
With this gesture, he also conveyed to them that mission statement was more valuable than the most precious of metals, so everyone had to give their best. He expressed it with this motto: "All or nothing". "All" was the award to survive and receive honors; "nothing" was to fail and starve or freeze to death.
Shackleton knew how to transmit confidence in the future of the expedition, which was reinforced by the fact that he made timely decisions at critical moments. He was also able to instill in his men an essential trait for living in extreme situations: adaptability. The castaways developed new behaviors in the face of the new challenges they faced every day.
The feat of the Endurance expedition continues to be studied in Entrepreneurship Schools as a model of leadership in times of great adversity.
In the epitaph on Shackleton's grave on an island in the Georgia archipelago, there is a phrase that expresses his character: "A man must fight to the end for what he most desires".