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Stepping off the Map

The explorer and mountaineer George Mallory is reported to have used the phrase, ‘Gentlemen, we are stepping off the map’ when he first climbed to the higher reaches of Mount Everest in 1921 as part of an expedition to find a route to the top of the world.  Three years later he was to lose his life near the summit, where his body lay undiscovered for 75 years.  It is still not known whether he and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, reached the peak and died on the way down or whether it was an attempt that failed on the way up. 

When I first started making notes of ideas I found interesting in books, I did not always record their provenance, so what follows may have been highlighted by Malcolm Gladwell or Matthew Syed, or someone else, but the point is still relevant, I think. 

There is something in the British psyche that seems to draw us to heroic failure, which may be one reason why Captain Robert Scott is better known to many than Sir Ernest Shackleton.  When Shackleton advertised in the Times for men to join him in crossing Antarctica, he didn’t say, ‘Men needed for expedition.  Minimum five years’ experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’  Instead, he said, ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey.  Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful.  Honour and recognition in case of success.’  The only people who applied for the job were those who read it and thought it sounded great to them.  They loved insurmountable odds.  They were survivors.  Shackleton only hired people who believed what he believed.  Their ability to survive was almost guaranteed, which is one of the key reasons why no one died on his expedition to cross Antarctica when it all went wrong, in contrast to Scott’s failed bid to be the first to the South Pole, which was beaten by Roald Amundsen and ended so badly. 

A comparison between the Scott and Shackleton reveals a lot about how different styles of leadership can produce different outcomes.  Shackleton combined meaningful challenge with a concern for his followers, but for Scott the only goal that counted was finishing.  Scott was rigid and formal.  For him the prize was paramount, and his military training probably dictated that some loss of life was inevitable.  He was dour, bullying and controlling, while Shackleton was warm, humorous and egalitarian.  Scott tried to orchestrate every movement of his men; Shackleton gave his men responsibility and some measure of independence.  Scott was secretive and untrusting; Shackleton talked openly and frankly with the men about all aspects of the work.  Scott put his team at risk to achieve his goals; Shackleton valued his men’s lives above all else.   

From Shackleton’s style, we can list some important traits of leadership: cultivate a sense of compassion and responsibility for others; once you commit, stick through the tough learning period; do your part to help create an upbeat environment at work, which is important for productivity; broaden your cultural and social horizons, learning to see things from different perspectives; in a rapidly changing world, be willing to venture in new directions to seize new opportunities and learn new skills; find a way to turn setbacks and failures to your own advantage; be bold in vision and careful in planning; learn from past mistakes; never insist in reaching a goal at all cost; it must be achieved without undue hardship for your staff.  

They say that you should be the leader you would want to be led by, so although I would not go as far as to say Shackleton was any sort of hero of mine, I nevertheless find his approach both inspirational and reassuring.  Again, he is not a role model for me, but when he was the US president Ronald Reagan commented on how to be successful by saying that his approach was to surround himself with the best people he could find, delegate authority and not to interfere. 

There has been a lot written about the value those running our country at the moment place on behavioural science, the so-called ‘Nudge Unit’ that tries to encourage people rather than force them to change their attitudes.  Time will tell if this trust is well placed or not.  Among many funny stories and internet jokes doing the rounds, to help keep us from despair as we step off our own map, my favourite was told to me at lunch this week by a colleague.  Rather than asking people not to panic buy and then being surprised when they do, a shop in Scandinavia came up with a genuine economic solution to stopping unnecessary hoarding.  They offered one bottle of hand sanitiser for the equivalent of five pounds, with the option to buy a second for a combined price of a thousand and five pounds.  Funnily enough, everyone opted just to buy one.  Whoever it is, I’d be delighted to follow the leader of that particular organisation! 

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