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What Makes an Exceptional Leader?

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What Makes an Exceptional Leader?


    (Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt adapted from the book Leading at The Edge, Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, Second Edition, by Dennis N.T. Perkins, Ph.D. Perkins is Chief Executive Officer of The Syncretics Group, a consult­ing firm dedicated to effective leadership in demanding environments. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he served as a Marine company commander and later a faculty member of the Yale School of Management. He has taken his passion for The Edge to Antarctica, where he retraced Shackleton’s journey, and now resides in Madison, Connecticut. For more information on the book, which Perkins worked on with Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian B. Murphy, visit http://www.syncreticsgroup.com and http://www.amacombooks.org)

    “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” — Sir Edmund Hillary

    On December 14, 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team made history as the first expedition to reach the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, on January 17, 1912, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole, with five exhausted men. None survived the brutal journey home. Another noted British explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, never reached the South Pole. While failing to achieve the first overland crossing of Antarctica, Shackleton succeeded at bringing all 27 members of his expedition party safely home, after 634 days of unbelievable hardship, and winning their cooperation, commitment, respect, and admiration.

    Some one hundred years later, fascination with the race to the South Pole continues. And so do debates over which of the three Antarctic commanders was the best leader. To gain deeper insights into one of the most exciting and controversial chapters in the history of leadership under adversity, Dennis N.T. Perkins devoted a decade to research, including traveling to the Antarctic to study the trailblazing paths of these famed expeditions. As he shares in his book, Leading at The Edge, Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, the polar adventures of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen provide fundamental leadership lessons for any leader — no matter what race must be run:

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    Effective leadership requires a clear strategic focus. With single-minded determination, Amundsen set his plans and priorities on winning the race to the South Pole, for the glory of standing there first. Scott lacked such focus. He assembled the best scientific minds and equipment available for an unprecedented research expedition. But he also aimed to claim the “reward of priority” for the British Empire. Striving for both goals, Scott failed doubly.

    Successful leaders are open to new ideas. As a Norwegian, Amundsen began with an advantage over his British rivals: comfort with skiing. Yet, he continued to refine his skills, importing ideas from the Eskimos and developing an integrated set of competencies — skiing, dog-handling, clothing, and carefully-planned diet, pace, and rest — for polar travel. Scott and Shackleton, however, were surprisingly resistant to the use of novel methods. Ultimately, both relied on the slow, grueling technique of man hauling.

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    Leaders need to draw on the collective wisdom of the team. As a leader, Scott believed it was his unique responsibility to analyze situations and draw conclusions. His decisions were closely held and sometimes revealed at the last minute. Consequently, members of his expedition had only a limited understanding of the rationale behind their course of action. In sharp contrast to Scott, both Amundsen and Shackleton solicited ideas and opinions from their men. Through this process, Amundsen and Shackleton gave team members a sense of control and value, resulting in greater ownership and commitment.

    The best leaders forge strong bonds. Despite their differences in personality, the ebullient Shackleton and the understated Amundsen had strikingly similar approaches to leadership. Both were acutely sensitive to the emotions of their men and skilled at managing conflict. Both emphasized individual ability above rank or social status. And both participated in everyday expedition life, including menial chores. “These behaviors, both practical and symbolic, reinforced the message of unity,” Perkins observes. Although Scott’s doomed polar party stayed together until the very end, his detachment, emphasis on hierarchy, and unilateral decision-making style created barriers to team cohesion and damaged morale.

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    Leadership success is often relative and always personal. Flaws aside, Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott shared qualities — exceptional perseverance, determination, and courage — that are crucial for any leader. Was Shackleton a success or a failure as a leader? The answer, Perkins contends, depends on the yardstick used. Shackleton created a team that worked together against enormous odds to overcome staggering obstacles, and divided their last rations, equally and willingly. He led his team to safety through extreme hardships and hazards. Still, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition did not achieve its goal: crossing Antarctica.

    “Shackleton can be seen as a success or a failure, or a little of both,” Perkins acknowledges. “I believe the more important question raised by Shackleton’s adventure is a much more personal one: How do you measure your own success as a leader?”

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    (Photo credit: Orchestra Concudctor Leading with Baton via Shutterstock)

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    Last Updated on November 15, 2021

    20 Ways to Describe Yourself in a Job Interview

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    20 Ways to Describe Yourself in a Job Interview

    “Please describe yourself in a few words”.

    It’s the job interview of your life and you need to come up with something fast. Mental pictures of words are mixing in your head and your tongue tastes like alphabet soup. You mutter words like “deterministic” or “innovativity” and you realize you’re drenched in sweat. You wish you had thought about this. You wish you had read this post before.

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      Image Credit: Career Employer

      Here are 20 sentences that you could use when you are asked to describe yourself. Choose the ones that describe you the best.

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      “I am someone who…”:

      1. “can adapt to any situation. I thrive in a fluctuating environment and I transform unexpected obstacles into stepping stones for achievements.”
      2. “consistently innovates to create value. I find opportunities where other people see none: I turn ideas into projects, and projects into serial success.”
      3. “has a very creative mind. I always have a unique perspective when approaching an issue due to my broad range of interests and hobbies. Creativity is the source of differentiation and therefore, at the root of competitive advantage.”
      4. “always has an eye on my target. I endeavour to deliver high-quality work on time, every time. Hiring me is the only real guarantee for results.”
      5. “knows this job inside and out. With many years of relevant experience, there is no question whether I will be efficient on the job. I can bring the best practices to the company.”
      6. “has a high level of motivation to work here. I have studied the entire company history and observed its business strategies. Since I am also a long-time customer, I took the opportunity to write this report with some suggestions for how to improve your services.”
      7. “has a pragmatic approach to things. I don’t waste time talking about theory or the latest buzz words of the bullshit bingo. Only one question matters to me: ‘Does it work or not?'”
      8. “takes work ethics very seriously. I do what I am paid for, and I do it well.”
      9. “can make decisions rapidly if needed. Everybody can make good decisions with sufficient time and information. The reality of our domain is different. Even with time pressure and high stakes, we need to move forward by taking charge and being decisive. I can do that.”
      10. “is considered to be ‘fun.’ I believe that we are way more productive when we are working with people with which we enjoy spending time. When the situation gets tough with a customer, a touch of humour can save the day.”
      11. “works as a real team-player. I bring the best out of the people I work with and I always do what I think is best for the company.”
      12. “is completely autonomous. I won’t need to be micromanaged. I won’t need to be trained. I understand high-level targets and I know how to achieve them.”
      13. “leads people. I can unite people around a vision and motivate a team to excellence. I expect no more from the others than what I expect from myself.”
      14. “understands the complexity of advanced project management. It’s not just pushing triangles on a GANTT chart; it’s about getting everyone to sit down together and to agree on the way forward. And that’s a lot more complicated than it sounds.”
      15. “is the absolute expert in the field. Ask anybody in the industry. My name is on their lips because I wrote THE book on the subject.”
      16. “communicates extensively. Good, bad or ugly, I believe that open communication is the most important factor to reach an efficient organization.”
      17. “works enthusiastically. I have enough motivation for myself and my department. I love what I do, and it’s contagious.”
      18. “has an eye for details because details matter the most. How many companies have failed because of just one tiny detail? Hire me and you’ll be sure I’ll find that detail.”
      19. “can see the big picture. Beginners waste time solving minor issues. I understand the purpose of our company, tackle the real subjects and the top management will eventually notice it.”
      20. “is not like anyone you know. I am the candidate you would not expect. You can hire a corporate clone, or you can hire someone who will bring something different to the company. That’s me. “

      Featured photo credit: Tim Gouw via unsplash.com

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