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What Makes an Exceptional Leader?

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 October 16, 2019

    How to Bounce Back Gracefully After Getting Fired

    How to Bounce Back Gracefully After Getting Fired

    Whether you saw it coming or not, getting fired is a real shock and its impact is daunting. What did you do wrong? What are you supposed to do next? When will you stop feeling so angry?

    But there are ways to deal with a layoff.

    The most important thing is to remain calm and see it as an opportunity to reflect, change and improve. This is a great time to consider what happened, look again at your needs and desires and start afresh on a stronger, more constructive basis.

    Let’s take a look at how you can bounce back gracefully after getting fired.

    1. Deal with the Shock of Getting Fired

    To lose your job is to lose your identity as a worker and as a person. Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress, states that 7 out of 10 of us define ourselves by our job titles, since work is where we spend the majority of our time and energy.

    Being laid off affronts your sense of self-worth—it implies that you simply are not good enough. It’s no wonder you feel confused and emotional.

    The first thing, then, is to take some time to digest what happened and deal with the overflow of sensations. People who quickly recover from the pain of a job loss tend to do two things very well:

    First, they accept their feelings of sadness, anger, fear and shame as a part of the natural healing process.

    Second, they do their complaining to a friend.

    Never call out your boss in the office or on social media. It’s a bad form to speak ill of the company you work for. Stay stylish, and your employer will speak better of you when you need a reference.

    2. Stay Away from the Drama Queens

    Mass layoffs are, unfortunately, very common. If this is your situation, then you may be surrounded by a lot of angry people, ruminating and lamenting their fate.

    “It’s not fair!” they say. “After everything we did for this company! We don’t deserve this!”

    You’ve lost your job and that’s tough. But please resist the urge to join in the negativity. Positivity is by far the most important attitude to apply right now. If staying upbeat means you have to limit your exposure to the Negative Nellies, then that’s what you have to do.

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    Remember, life is not harder for you than it is for other people on this planet. You live in a democracy, you have freedom of choice and you enjoy a certain material abundance.

    Stay positive and focus on what’s going well in your life and the exciting future opportunities available to you. Getting fired is only a temporary setback.

    Staying positing could be challenging in a difficult situation, so these tips can help:

    10 Questions To Ask Yourself To Stay Positive When Facing Difficulties

    3. Take a Break and Let the Dust Settle

    Instead of running straight into another job that may not be the right one either, take a short break to recover from the job loss. You need a week or two to de-stress and meditate on the next step.

    Be attentive to your need for self-care during this interlude. Everything goes so fast these days that we often do not stop to think or give ourselves the permission to do a little mourning.

    Getting fired is a big shock: you need time to refocus and take stock of the new reality. Do not make things harder for yourself!

    What you need is to pause a while and do some self reflection:

    How Self-Reflection Gives You a Happier and More Successful Life

    4. Be Anchored in the Present

    Since you no longer have a hold on the past, but have not yet designed your future, try to build yourself up with the present. What do we mean by that?

    We mean that right now is the only time you have any control over. Focus on that instead of losing yourself in memories or reliving the awful day you got fired over and over in your head.

    Get up at 7 a.m. each day, whatever happens. The body needs rhythm and habits. You will feel much more energized if you keep a consistent routine. Maintain a healthy lifestyle, revisit your budget, play sports, volunteer. Take care of the practical stuff like claiming unemployment. Enjoy the small pleasures of everyday life.

    When you’re busy, there’s no room for the inner critic to raise up and derail you. Keep active, and you will gain more of the precious energy you need so much to move forward.

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    Try these things to help you live in the moment:

    34 Ways To Live in the Moment And Grow in the Moment

    5. Understand the “Why”

    There are lots of reasons why people are fired. Sometimes the mistake is yours and it’s embarrassing to admit you backed yourself into this corner.

    Other times, it’s not your fault. Businesses change direction all the time—maybe yours is going through a major transition or merger and your job is disappearing.

    Either way, to give the situation some closure, you need to understand why you were dismissed. What slipped? What could you have done differently? Was your boss really out to get you or did you do something to put your job in jeopardy?

    Be honest with yourself. It’s not easy to admit that you might have dropped the ball but it’s the only way to turn the situation into a learning experience. Ask yourself:

    What skills do you need to improve?

    Is there training you can access, or learning you can do?

    In the end, did this job suit you that much? Were you happy there?

    Reflecting on these questions can help you put things into perspective. What lessons can you learn to avoid reproducing the same pattern in your next job?

    6. Find out If You Were the Right Fit

    Hiring decisions ultimately come down to personality. You can study for an interview all you like, but every candidate who is chosen for interview has the right credentials for the job.

    The final decision comes down to personality. Who does the recruiter like the best? Who is a better fit for the company culture? That’s the person who strikes it lucky.

    Firing decisions are based on personality, too. Slacking off, insubordination and playing fast and loose with the company rules—these are the official reasons why people are getting fired.

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    But all of these reasons boil down to one thing: personality. Specifically, they signal a personality clash between an employee and a manager, or an employee’s fit with the company’s culture.

    Here’s an example:

    Suppose you were fired for “not being a team player.” Some people, namely introverts, lose energy when they are surrounded by other people and gain energy when they are on their own. Forcing an introvert to continuously work on a busy, noisy team without any solitary rest periods means the job is a mission impossible. This employee will never perform at her best.

    Or how about the time the Kansas City Star newspaper fired Walt Disney for a perceived lack of imagination? Talk about a clash of personalities![1]

    Getting fired can be a signal to turn inward and do some self-reflection so you can better understand your personality and how it might fit in with corporate culture.

    In particular, personality assessments based on Isabel Briggs Myers’ sixteen personality types can help you to understand your own work style and how you can find a job and workplace that better match who you truly are.

    In many cases, it is totally liberating to realize that all the crap you had to deal with was just down to a clash of work styles and not something you did wrong!

    7. Rediscover Your Strengths and Talents

    A personality test can also give you clear insights into your strengths, weaknesses, motivations and work potential. Do you have leadership abilities? How do you communicate and manage conflict? What benefits do you add to an organization?

    Identifying your working style should be your top priority right now, otherwise you risk accepting a new position that has all the same problems as before. The last thing you want is to reproduce the same old dramas the next time around.

    When you become aware of your potential, you will have the confidence to search and find the type of work you love.

    For example, getting fired from your banking job may have knocked you sideways. But you have some stellar home decorating skills, and a personality test shows that you are curious, flexible, rational and resilient—all the traits of successful entrepreneurs. Maybe this dismissal is an opportunity to launch the business you’ve always dreamed of but never dared to admit to yourself?

    By considering all your special skills and talents, you increase your chances of finding a job you would really enjoy, and not just the one you can do.

    8. Get the Word Out

    At this point, you should be ready to take action and move forward with your job search. Let’s not sugarcoat the situation: getting a new job is tough. It helps to have a clear idea of the direction you want to go in, a list of all your crossover skills and a freshly polished resume.

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    Look around for inspiration. Talk to recruiters in your sector to establish what they consider to be your most valuable skills. Use all the resources at your disposal: job search agencies, headhunters, work coaches, careers websites and so on. These resources can help you match your qualifications to the job requirements and ensure you have the right keywords on your resume.

    Don’t hold back on marshaling your networks. Put friends and family to work to pop up leads, and don’t be afraid to ask for referrals. Sometimes the simple act of getting the word out to the people who know you is the surest way to find work fast.

    9. Anticipate Questions and Know How to Answer Them

    Even if it wasn’t your fault, getting fired can hurt you if you don’t know how to explain why you were let go. You have to be honest here and tell recruiters the truth. Even if a would-be employer does not specifically ask why you left your previous job, it is better to clarify the situation upfront before it comes out in your references.

    The best approach is to take your share of responsibility and show that you want to go forward and that you understand the lesson.

    For example, suppose you got fired for asking the difficult questions that no one wanted to answer and your candidness set people on edge. Acknowledge that some people perceive your communication style as abrupt and explain how you’re taking steps to increase your diplomacy skills.

    A recruiter can be seduced by someone who knows how to evolve and who shows a great energy for personal development.

    10. Adapt and Persist

    Throughout this journey, you inevitably will go through moments of self-doubt and disappointment. There are undulations in every road, and these are the normal steps for regaining self-confidence after getting fired.

    Stay tough! Don’t conclude that your future is hopeless just because the dream job doesn’t land straightaway. You open a positive path when you maintain focus. Have the confidence to know that the perfect job for you is out there.

    Remember, you are not alone. Many people walked this road and they would urge you to keep the momentum. Stay open-minded and go where the opportunities take you: it will bring you closer to the job you really want.

    Coming Out on Top

    While getting fired isn’t the ideal situation, it isn’t the end of the world either. Even if feels like a doozy right now, you will get through it and emerge happier on the other side.

    Be clear on what you want, have courage and believe in yourself. In the end, you may decide that getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to you. It can be the catalyst for a powerful, career-fulfilling change.

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    Featured photo credit: Jesus Kiteque via unsplash.com

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