Should we look to Shackleton rather than Machiavelli?

Positive mini-swirlMuch of my work is focused on supporting genuinely talented people become better leaders and I’m o-l-d enough to have read tomes on what it takes to be a good manager and effective leader; from the not-so-lofty books like the “One Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard (a sign of the times that there’s now a publication called the “10-Second Internet Manager”) to the works of Daniel Golman, to more radical writers like Goswami and Zohar. It’s easy to pick the author / book and to make up your own mind on what makes for a truly effective leader.

I still love to delve into my reference library but I have to admit that most of my learning nowadays comes from the interactions with my clients. Very often a simple framework comes in handy to weigh the balance between efficient management and effective leadership, for instance the Pareto Principle or the 80-20 Rule – the law of the vital few.

In my coaching relationships it sometimes gets applied in order to help coachees more consciously manage the split of their time between management and leadership (minimum of 80-20) as well as applying it more forensically to understanding which activities give rise to the best outcomes. Consider the 80-20 rule applied to your management activities, and then the 80-20 rule applied to leadership activities and behaviours. The rule predicts that 20% of your activities will deliver 80% of the coolest outcomes. The rest might result in hot air, box ticking, dis-enchantment or worse.

... s(he) who wears the crown?

… s(he) who wears the crown?

Back in the Dark Ages when I worked in local government admin, I came across an ex-Army Quartermaster who was an outstanding manager but a lousy leader of people. He lacked the ability to really connect or empathise with what was needed in a time of great change; regularly popping the buttons on his florid shirts tightly stretched across an ample tummy when he blew a gasket, became an irresistible challenge. Followership he had not.

We’d assume that more senior folks have long ago achieved ‘good manager’ status but it doesn’t always follow that they have a mastery of leadership (see my previous article, “It’s the people stupid: how connected are you to your team?”). And very rarely I come across someone who is piss poor on both counts and the mystery of their career ascendancy can sometimes be explained by their fantastic ‘technical’ or specialist knowledge.

History offers us many lessons in leadership styles. This month has seen the 100 anniversary since Earnest Shackelton’s epic journey across 800 miles of treacherous seas to South Georgia in a small craft with a handful of crew, in order to raise the alarm for the rest of his expedition trapped in the ice on Elephant Island. It is testament to his great courage, determination and endurance and those of his crew that no one perished.

I am also reminded of an early management and leadership book that in a daft way was a recommended read in business schools decades ago, Machiavelli’s political treatise, “The Prince”. Also, immersing myself in the BBC’s celebration of Shakespeare’s epic plays – especially the incredible Hollow Crown series 1 and 2, reminds me of the futility of over-weaning ambition, lack of any ethical principles that aren’t immediately self-serving, and a scant regard for human suffering in order to not only gain power, but to keep it. This is what makes Ernest Shackleton’s simple, rather modest style of leadership worth pondering.

In an interview on BBCRadio 4’s Today programme Shackleton’s grand daughter Alexandra said he was an unusual leader for his time in that he “… could do any job on an expedition, no matter how menial, he took great trouble to get to know his men and he encouraged them above all… that he expected them to be loyal to him so he’ll be loyal to them but he also expected them to be loyal to each other and to the expedition as a whole.”

... become a connected leader, enmeshed, engaged and empathetic (phew, a tall order)

… become a connected leader, enmeshed, engaged and empathetic (phew, a tall order)

Not only was Shackleton calm under fire and in a crisis, focused, planful, optimistic and a great judge of people, he was also connected in every way possible with the workings of his team and the desired outcomes of his expedition. Far from being Machiavellian or even ‘Shakespearean’ he was connected – perhaps a perfect example of being ‘efficient with things, and effective with people’ (Covey) – despite having a hugely challenging task.

Of course in today’s complex organisational life / span of control – especially with IT innovations and the ascendancy of all things digital and data-based, it’s a real challenge for leaders to show such command over detail and relationships. However, opportunities can regularly present themselves – as one of my senior coachees explained in a recent session: “Mucking in with the staff, helping sand balconies and clean toilets was the only way to get the job done in a real crisis.” Quite a contrast to the poor leader who bemoans their staff and is clueless about their operational challenges or emotional needs.

Soooooooo, next time you feel your leadership crown slipping try finding ways of reconnecting with your real purpose and the people around you: Getting real is preferable to getting on your high horse and risk falling from a great height like Richard III.

… or you could call me on 07760 270 392.

This entry was posted in Becoming an Authentic Leader, Communication, Critical Thinking Skills, Motivation and Employee Engagement, Personal & Professional Effectiveness, Positive thinking, Resilience, Taking control and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply