The Shackleton Sprit – how to lead our teams through change

One hundred years ago, in early 1916, Ernest Shackleton’s plans lay in tatters.

Having set off two years earlier to be the first to journey across the Antarctic, this Anglo-Irish explorer and his men had lost their ship to crushing ice.

They were stranded on an ice floe in the Weddell Sea facing a bleak and uncertain future.

Some people would be broken by such a disaster.  Shackleton had to cope with the certainty that his very public plans would never come about and face up to the challenge of keeping his men alive over 18 months in the most inhospitable environments in the world.  He led his team through the worst kind of change, the kind of change that is thrust upon you.  Either the change defeats you, or you master the change.

Jean Gamester from Semaphora often draws on Shackleton’s story when guiding people on how to lead their teams through change, here’s her advice:

Resetting the course

Shackleton’s key success was in accepting that his original goal, to journey across the Antarctic, was unattainable.  He then adapted his purpose to ensuring all of his men got back alive.  Others would have kept focussed on the original goal – this would, no doubt, have been admired by those who respect “never giving up”, but they would all have died.

The ability to accept and adapt is key when being faced with circumstances beyond our control.  That’s how we regain a measure of control for ourselves.  We have to be goal focussed to make change happen, but when we fail to see that the goal itself is no longer valid, that’s when we fail.

No One Left Behind

Each individual person has their own unique take on the change that is happening and their own unique journey through the stages of denial, anger, depression, acceptance and commitment.

Our role as leaders is to provide direction and nurture in equal measure.  Our people need to understand the reason for the change, put in the context of the purpose of the team.  They need to understand what the leader expects of them, expressed in ways that is useful to each individual – some people need lots of detail, some people will respond better to a high level vision and a nod in the right direction.  We need to listen with true compassion and empathy while at the same time showing a path for them to follow. 

Taking care of ourselves

We have to take care of ourselves if we are to take care of others.  Just as Shackleton had to come to terms with the change he had to adapt to, we all have to go through that process of acceptance.

These changes often have a bigger impact on us as leaders than it has on our teams.  We not only have to go through the change ourselves, with all the disruption those changes bring, we have then to stand in front of our teams and lead the way.

I have worked with some change leaders who feel guilty for taking time out to explore what the change means for them personally.  What I say to them is that they need to take care of themselves first, in whatever way works for them.  We have to invest in our own resilience.

100 years ago, Earnest Shackleton led his people to safety, against all the odds.  He inspired them through his acceptance of the need to change, his absolute commitment to his people and his ability, whatever the circumstances, to be resilient throughout.  The Shackleton Spirit – that’s what we need when leading our teams thorough change!