One wouldn’t think a failed Antarctic exploration nearly 100 years ago would have any lessons to teach today’s emerging leaders, much less a city in North Central Florida on the verge of celebrating four decades of leadership development, but it does. The story of Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated expedition to South Georgia, a mountainous and barren island at end of the earth, is one rife with lessons for leaders in an ever-changing, unpredictable and seemingly unstable economy.
I first learned of Shackleton in my studies last year at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, in a course on collaborative governance. Apparently, studying long-dead oceanic explorers is the norm at Harvard, where the business school years prior had adopted the Shackleton story as mandatory reading in a course called “Leadership in Crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance.” Shackleton was, in many ways, a disaster waiting to happen. The year was 1914, on the eve of World War I. Determined to set records, Shackleton set out to Antarctica on his ship, the Endurance (ironically named as fate would have it). He recruited 27 men with little-to-no exploration experience at sea, let alone on a heroic voyage that no one before them could complete. Once at sea, Shackleton ignored whalers’ warnings that South Georgia was surrounded in pack ice, a dangerous scenario that almost ensured a ship would be paralyzed and sink. Just as he had been warned, his ship was eventually suspended in ice, frozen solid near South Georgia and 10 months later, sank. Living on the ice with only his men, Shackleton would witness perhaps the most egregious effect of his poor judgment and shoddy preparation when dozens of untrained sled dogs imported from Canada were shot because his crew didn’t know how to use them.
It would take 21 months — nearly two years — and many failed rescue attempts across a treacherous landscape for Shackleton to rescue his remaining men and return home to Great Britain, but they did and all survived. So, you might be thinking much as I was when I first heard the tragic tale of Shackleton and his men, what in the world is Harvard doing teaching this to future leaders? Well, plenty, as it turns out. Shackleton demonstrated key attributes in leadership, ranging from flexibility to entrepreneurship to social intelligence — and most importantly, the ability to change course when necessary. Sounds like he might have something to teach today’s leaders after all.
Our economy has been through an ice storm recently that appears to now be showing signs of thawing — the first signs of an early spring, according to futurist Rebecca Ryan, who recently addressed Gainesville community leaders on building an innovation economy. The question of how we respond to this change is a question of leadership, she said. As Leadership Gainesville celebrates 40 years next year, we are reminded that leaders help chart a clear course when uncertainty and fear sometimes fog the way. Approximately 40 emerging leaders have already been selected for next year’s class. They come from all over, with different experiences and views. Let’s hope they all have a little bit of Shackleton in them to help get us through the rough patches ahead.
Deborah Bowie, IOM, is Vice President of Chamber Development at the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. She is responsible for managing the Chamber’s divisions on membership, marketing, communication, special events and Leadership Gainesville.
Leadership Gainesville (LG) is the nation’s fourth-oldest leadership program and the oldest in the state of Florida. The year-long community leadership program designed to identify, educate and develop leadership skills. Each year approximately 40 individuals are selected to participate in the program following completion of a competitive application process. For more information, contact the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce at 352-334-7105 or Deborah Bowie at Deborah@gainesvillechamber.com.