Korn Ferry

Great Leadership...Even in Failure

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

It was 103 years ago this month that Ernest Shackleton led the first-ever attempt to cross Antarctica on foot, and there’s no question that innumerable technical skills helped the team during what would become an almost two-year ordeal in the frigid waters and Antarctic ice. But key to their survival was Shackleton’s emotional intelligence, even though he had never heard of the concept. Though Shackleton failed at his expedition’s original goal, he succeeded in overcoming extraordinary odds to bring his men home alive long after the world thought they’d all perished. More than a century later, Shackleton is still revered as an exemplary leader.

How did Shackleton keep his team alive, motivated, and working together? If Shackleton were here now, I bet his team would rate him highly on many of the 12 competencies assessed by the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory.

Clearly, Shackleton had Empathy and understood the challenges faced by his crew. He deployed that knowledge in making decisions that would support the team’s morale. If you are trapped in the ice for months in the Antarctic dark, you must maintain and project a Positive Outlook, or your team is doomed. Shackleton shared in his optimism that with the right planning, everyone would survive and leave their icy landscape eventually. Adaptability should be Shackleton’s middle name. First, he adapted to the ship getting stuck in the sea ice and needing to hunt for food and find warmth. Then, when ice started crushing the ship, he helped his team adapt again, by making a long journey over the ice to open water, and finally to Elephant Island where they could be safe.

Shackleton had superb Organizational Awareness. He understood the dynamics of a group made up of upper-class university-educated scientists and working-class sailors, and found a way to help the whole team respect each other and work well together despite their differences. During the long, cold days on the ship, he organized opportunities for everyone to teach the others something at which they excelled. Then, when the team moved off the sinking ship and onto the ice, he constructed a fair system for deciding who got the warmer sleeping bags and who received less-than excellent bags, thereby making pre-expedition class structures irrelevant.

Conflict happens in all groups, especially those facing the extreme stresses experienced by Shackleton’s team. He used his Conflict Management skills to avoid problems among his team members. For instance, Shackleton recognized which team members were most likely to cause discord. So out of concern for his second-in-command and the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island when he sailed off seeking rescue, and to give the land-bound crew the best chance of survival, Shackleton took the potential trouble-makers with him on his epic 800-mile journey by small boat to South Georgia.

Throughout their ordeal, Shackleton used Inspirational Leadership to maintain focused vision and keep his team motivated and working hard together to keep everyone alive. Never was that ability to inspire more visible than the day five months after he sailed away that Shackleton’s beleaguered crew cheered as he arrived back to Elephant Island on a ship that could transport them all to safety.

The next time you’re faced with challenges with your team, draw on your emotional intelligence -- and ask yourself, “What would Shackleton do?”


  • Daniel Goleman

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute