Strategic Leadership Skills from Ernest Shackleton (Antarctic Explorer)

Sir Ernest Shackleton exhibited many strategic leadership abilities which modern-day business leaders could learn from

by Rod Dunne on November 23, 2010

in Creative, Human Side

Ernest ShackletonIt is commonplace to define the strategic leadership skills necessary for leaders of enterprise by using examples from the great age of exploration from bygone years.

Here I”ll show how Sir Ernest Shackleton used marketing, innovation strategy and planning on his various attempts to reach the South Pole at the start of the 20th century.

This is not new ground as many business management degree programs  already sing the praise of Shackleton’s leadership skills.

1: Setting the goal

The fundamental element to Shackleton’s strategic leadership was the fact that he had a very well-defined goal or vision for as expeditions. His teams were expected to set up supplies in an effort to reach the South Pole but also do various scientific investigations of the entire polar region. All other plans and decisions had to be aligned to this ultimate goal.


In business terms, the goal of a company is set out within a vision statement/mission statement but is not always stringently referred to or followed by departments within the firm. This could be a failing of the communication strategy of the firm  so may require some careful analysis of how company goals are filtering down to all staff.

Strategic leadership training should put more focus on adhering to the goals and vision set out by the executive level of the firm as any project work, hiring decisions or outsourcing work which does not progress the firm towards these goals is essentially moving the firm away from its core objectives.

Such skills commonly used by highly effective managers should be paramount, especially when choosing candidates.

While these sort of skills may be taught on any project management diploma, they are sometimes left out of high-level business management courses where more focus is put on avoiding risk.

2: Knowing your market/environment

Shackleton had to sell the idea of a trip to the South Pole to the public at large and also the scientific community. To do this, he needed to market the trip as a daring expedition combining national pride and the pursuance of scientific knowledge of the geological nature of the South Pole.

In effect, all his funding for supplies, wages and other costs depend completely on effectively marketing the goal (he was one of the most famous motivational speakers of his time which greatly helped his venture funding endeavors).

The secondary external factor affecting the expedition was the polar environment itself which could throw up a variety of obstacles and unplanned dangers which Shackleton needed to mitigate for or plan his way around.

In business terms, the key to leadership skills is understanding the nature of your market using whatever analysis techniques you prefer (e.g. SWOT analysis, STEER analysis, etc).

All leaders should be acutely aware of the needs of their customers and the needs of the market, and know that the business development strategy and vision statement of the enterprise is pursuing this.

Strategic leadership development also needs to keep in mind the potential changes and dangers to the economic market, including competition. These risks and opportunities need to be factored into strategic planning and project change management plans.

3: Targeting the capabilities you need in order to excel

Shackleton also realized that strategic planning was only one element needed for strategic leadership skills. It is also essential to understand the people management and supplies you need in place in order for the projects to succeed as a group.

He put huge effort into hiring the right people that had the right skills, training individuals as best they could and making sure the supplies that they were bringing onto the ice were fully tested prior to setting off.

In business terms, hiring the right people with the right skills is an essential part of creative management and should be done in such a way to progress the companies own business objectives. Training should be provided where necessary to advance company goals and maintaining a staff with a broad range of skills also allows the firm some flexibility when deciding upon change strategies if the market demands it.

Use appraisals and positive performance review phrases to instill dedication to work and the focus on how effort will be rewarded (through promotions, etc.). Understanding the capabilities of all of your company technologies and tools is also essential part of strategic cost management when identifying where your strategic goals and often costs can be aligned.

To sum up Shackleton’s approach…

 Strategic leadership development within modern enterprises can learn a lot from the explorers of the past.

While the participants do not have the same life threatening risks as Shackleton’s teams, they should

  1. still attempt to clearly define and communicate their goals for the firm, 
  2. incorporate market analysis and establish planning horizons (to mitigate against problems and market changes) and
  3. realize that their hiring policy and team-building processes are fundamental elements of change/crisis management within the firm.

Related posts:

Colin Powells leadership skills list for highly effective managers
An introduction to the three pillars of innovation strategy
Analysis of the most profitable business ideas for small companies
A leadership style inventory of the various management approaches needed in business

Author Rod Dunne...

Blog owner and sole writer Rod DunneI am the owner and sole writer on Product-ivity.com. This is my personal blog detailing troubleshooting tips for small businesses. Posts are based upon 2 decades in consultancy & innovation management within startups/maturing companies.

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