Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer celebrated for his exploration of the Antarctic. During the 1914-1917 expedition aboard the aptly-named Endurance, he lead his crew without loss of life through disasters which included their ship being trapped and crushed in ice, a journey across a frozen world and even a return to rescue stranded crew. How did he manage this? Perhaps he had the best equipment, or the best trained and best paid crew. Perhaps it was luck. Or was Shackleton simply a larger than life leader, a true hero?
According to lore, Shackleton assembled his team with the following advertisement in the newspaper:
“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.”
What type of men would be attracted to such a proposition? It is nearly the antithesis of everyday marketing copy which promises us us great things for little effort. Perhaps Shackleton was sounding a pessimistic tone so as not to waste his time with applicants who would negotiate for better terms. Perhaps he had a sense of humor. Or perhaps he was looking for hardened men, attracted by the prospect of “constant danger”, survivors who wished to sail headlong into death or glory.
By luck or by design, everyone on the expedition survived. If there are lessons to be learned from this for our day and in leading change, I think they are these:
1) The advertisement. The lean journey is far more rewarding in many ways, but too often lacking in honor and recognition. It is also long, sometimes cold and not free of dangers. Leaders need to have a clear and compelling purpose for embarking on such a journey. Leaders also need to speak the blunt and brutal truth when leading people through change and risk.
2) The crew. A lean journey requires that we first build a crew out of survivors, explorers and seasoned takers of intelligent risks. Like frost nipping at our fingers, we must brave the shrinking of the comfort zone during a lean journey. A core leadership team, sometimes called the guiding coalition, must be prepared to face up to adverse conditions along the way, ready to find creative solutions across untested territory.
3) The passengers. Unlike the Antarctic explorer’s vessel, there are many passengers on the ship of organizational change. Guiding a large organization through change requires that everyone is engaged in some way. There can be idle observers on the deck. And we must leave nobody behind on the journey.
We are all survivors. It is merely a question of “for how long and of what challenges?”