Shackleton’s Way by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell (Nicholas Brealey, £9.99, 2001)
(This is part of a regular series reviewing books outside of the realm of education, and looking at the impact they could have in a learning environment.)
Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer
This has to be one of the most powerful, emotive and yet grounded books on Leadership I think I have ever read. The story of Sir Ernest Shackleton is both fascinating and inspirational, and I would urge you, if you haven’t already, to order this book, then come back and read the rest of the review.
Good. now that you have done that, I can explain how the book is written. The story is divided into linear sections, each sharing (using several accounts) the different parts of Shackleton’s adventure, from recruitment, to disaster, to salvation. Each section is carefully written, with clear pointers to his outstanding leadership. At the end of each chapter, the leadership lessons learnt are listed, bullet form.
Aside from the book being a very exciting read, the way that the authors have highlighted leadership qualities is this book’s best feature. It is concrete and understandable, and relates in a way that perhaps other books on leadership can’t.
While we can’t expect to relate everyday school life to the two year expedition and rescue mission Shackleton lead, his story has so many aspects that we can relate to (difficult staff, staving boredom, adjusting plans quickly and with confidence), this book will be inspirational to all who read it.
The Management Angle
The one thing a leader has are, by definition, followers. The simplest message any manager or leader can take from this book is that you need to give staff confidence to follow you. They should be so confident in your vision and understanding, they are willing to follow you through the darkest days, the biggest obstacles, the most treacherous routes. But how is this done? Surely the burden of responsibility is too much to manage this? That, sadly is your lot. To lead with strength, to lead with passion, means to represent your vision and direction as something you have complete conviction in. If this is not the case, your followers will have doubts, and challenge your vision. That is not to suggest that you can’t take advice, be guided or even ask for help, but this needs to be done with thought and care.
The Teacher Angle
The model of leadership in a classroom can frequently be misinterpreted and incredibly wrong. It is invariably an older person, standing at the front, telling others what to do next. The model of leadership Shackleton offers puts this on its head. He dealt with old and young, he listened as much as he spoke, and he entrusted his crew to advice him as to the best path for his direction of the voyage. In class, we use children ad hoc as leaders, but it is for almost intangible things, errands and lining up. This gives each person an experience of leadership, but only in a very diluted version. What if you asked a group of children to lead the learning on an area of a topic? If you feel that this would be too hard for them, then the essential elements which are missing are exactly those skills you need to develop in the pupils in order to help them to succeed. Sometimes putting children out of their depth does exactly the same thing for the teacher. Take your lessons out of the shallow water and see what happens.
The Pupil Angle
A powerful aspect of Shackleton’s story is that each crew member was vital, and each had something to contribute to the crew as a whole – even the most difficult member. Shackleton used two very clever systems to engender a spirit of togetherness and a level playing field – rotational pairs and cross-skills. He devised schedules which ensured that you almost always worked with someone different for every shift, creating a stronger bond among all than divisive pairings. He also made each half of the crew (sailing/scientist) learn the other halves skills, so scientists would take turns on the ship’s wheel, and sailors would test samples for chemicals. Both these things are possible in a classroom, and both are brilliant at finding hidden talents, breaking down factions, and adding an element which is both intangible and also hard to identify – empathy.
“There was nothing petty in his own nature. The one thing he demanded was cheerfulness from us all; and was he received from every man serving under him was absolute loyalty.” L. Hussey, meteorologist, Endurance
Who do you look up to in your life? What do you really admire about them? Have you ever asked them how they do what they do so well? What is stopping you?