Cold Comfort

Peter Drucker liked to say that leadership is a “foul-weather job.” (It’s even a chapter heading in his book Managing the Nonprofit Organization.) And the weather doesn’t get much fouler than in Antarctica.

Sunday’s New York Times featured an essay by Nancy Koehn, a historian and professor at Harvard Business School, on explorer Ernest Shackleton, who headed an expedition to the South Pole in 1914. Things went quite wrong: The ship being sailed got destroyed, and the men were all forced into lifeboats. Miraculously, however, Shackleton managed, after a two-year ordeal, to rescue everyone.

“Shackleton realized that he himself had to embody the new survival mission—not only in what he said and did, but also in his physical bearing and the energy he exuded,” Koehn wrote. “He knew that each day, his presence had huge impact on the men’s mind-sets.”

That subordinates look to their leaders as role models—for better or worse—is one of the simplest and most obvious truths of management. But many leaders, when the pressure goes up too much, forget it.

Generals can never hide, Drucker noted. “They are leaders by their very position,” he wrote in The Changing World of the Executive. “Their only choice is whether their example leads others to right action or to wrong action. Their only choice is between direction and misdirection, between leadership and misleadership. They thus have an ethical obligation to give the example of right behavior and to avoid giving the example of wrong behavior.”

Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton buoyed spirits by insisting on a regular routine—like swabbing the decks—and by exuding confidence. Maintaining his cool allowed Shackleton to keep his crew, for the most part, calm despite the dire circumstances. [EXPAND More]

In short, Shackleton never forgot that he was always in the spotlight. “As a leader, you are visible; incredibly visible,” Drucker wrote. “And you have expectations to fulfill.”

Have you ever pushed yourself beyond your ordinary limits in order to set a good example?[/EXPAND]