"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why Is Management So Difficult? The Case Of Ernest Shackleton, Captain of the Endurance, A Brilliant Manager

Management should not be that difficult, but it is.  Bad managers are far more common than good ones because they have been promoted for their technical skills and seniority not for their ability to inspire, coalesce, and motivate a team.

A good manager has to take malcontents, strivers, and real talent and mold them into a team which together is greater than the whole.

Ernest Shackleton, the captain of the Endurance, and financed by the British Government and private donations, undertook in 1914 what he called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.  There were two ships in the expedition, one being the Endurance, and each had a crew of 28 men.


            Red track indicates the path of the Endurance

Due to extreme and unexpected weather, the Endurance was locked in and then crushed by Antarctic ice. 



There was no trailing ship to help, and in 1914 no air support or even electronic communication.  Shackleton was on his own.



He and his men survived an Antarctic winter, then with a small crew undertook a sea voyage of over 800 nautical miles from Elephant Island – where he left most of his men - to South Georgia Island where there were known whaling stations. The dinghy landed on a coast on the other side of the island from the whaling stations, and since the prevailing currents were unfavorable, Shackleton and his crew had to climb a 10,000 ft. mountain to get to the other side.


              Leaving for South Georgia

He then sailed back over the same treacherous ocean to rejoin his men; and then returned to England with no loss of life.  All twenty-eight men arrived safely home.


The return of Shackleton from South Georgia

How did he do this?

Nancy Koehn, professor at Harvard Business School, and the author of a book on how Shackleton accomplished this remarkable achievement, writes (New York Times, 12.24.11): “Shackleton’s sense of responsibility and commitment came with a great suppleness of means. To get his men home safely, he led them across ice, sea and land with all the tools he could muster. This combination — credible commitment to a larger purpose and flexible, imaginative methods to achieve a goal – were the key elements to Shackleton’s management of his expedition”, and as Koehn points out, are the essential elements of good management today.  She adds five specific actions Shackleton took to chart a new course, and to maintain the morale and commitment of his crew:
1. He [was able to] to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival.
2. He feared the potential effects of idleness, ennui and dissidence among his men more than he did the ice and cold. He required that each man maintain his ordinary duties as closely as possible. Sailors swabbed decks; scientists collected specimens from the ice; others were assigned to hunt for seals and penguins when fresh meat, a protection against scurvy, ran low
3. He also kept a strict routine for meals and insisted that the men socialize after dinner, as a tonic for declining morale.
4. He kept his men’s focus on the future. The ship was gone; previous plans were irrelevant. Now his goal was to bring the team home safely, and he improvised, adapted and used every resource at hand to achieve it.
5. He knew that each day, his presence had huge impact on the men’s mind-sets. He managed his own emotional intelligence — to use a modern term — to keep his own courage and confidence high; when these flagged, he never let his men know.
His men had absolute, complete trust in him.  They followed orders willingly and correctly, and accepted the roles assigned to them.  Shackleton had to pick five men out of 28 to crew the small boat to sail to South Georgia.  He had to pick his crew carefully and well and base his selection on his appraisal of talent, strength, and character; and to nominate the right person to lead the group that remained behind.  He was correct in his judgment, for the morale back at Elephant Island remained high even without him, and his small boat crew performed bravely and well.

This story is important because Shackleton was not the head of a complex department of big company with hundreds of diverse employees, someone who had to master everything from interactive budgets to frivolous law suits to aggressive competitors, and legal challenges over contracts.  He was responsible for twenty-eight men, one small boat, and a meager inventory.  In other words his experience provides insights into the bare bones of management – the absolute essential elements of leadership.

Matt Williams was the manager of the Washington Nationals baseball team.  Despite having the best record in the American League, they fell quickly in the first round of the playoffs to the San Francisco Giants, a wildcard team.  The team which had been superlative in pitching, hitting, and fielding failed in the playoffs. Yet much of the blame rests on the shoulder of Williams, and a respected sports critic said it was because he was inflexible.  He forgot Shackleton’s Rule No. 1.

Williams said, “We’re going to stick to our game plan” by which he meant he was going to manage exactly as he had done during the highly successful regular season.  So he made the mistake of  pulling his best pitcher in the seventh inning, a player who had dominated the Giants.  Why? Because the 162-game season’s victories led to only one conclusion: Pitch count up + strong bullpen = reliever, closer, win. 

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Wrong.  Williams did not understand that the playoffs are generically, fundamentally different from the regular season.  In a short five-game series, one loss is almost always tantamount to elimination.  Players react differently in the post season – emotions, intestinal fortitude, discipline, and all the other non-quantifiable factors of individual response are always factor, but are magnified in October.

Zimmerman, the A-game pitcher should have been left in; and a young reliever, despite his high performance in games in July and August, should never been allowed to even get close to the mound in the highest baseball pressure situation ever.


“Baseball has two totally different seasons”, said the critic.  “The regular season and the post-season, and never the twain shall meet”.

The manager of the Washington Redskins, another local team with talent and promise had become accustomed to losing, offered another sports analyst.  He reported that some members of the team were laughing and joking after a loss – the culture of a once-premier team had changed entirely.  For the Redskins to salvage the season, this culture would have to change.  It can be the center of a rebuilt morale, team cohesiveness, and a unified whole.

Image result for images washington redskins


Easier said than done, of course, and those who follow sports see this over and over again.  A leaderless team – even one with talent - easily has the wind taken out of its sails, and gives only lackluster, shameless performances on the field. It is not a coincidence that the teams that always come out on top are the ones with talented, observant, flexible, and disciplined coaches.

One of the best managers in the field of international development was a man with an 8th-grade education, who had worked in a European warehouse which stocked surplus commodities donated by the American Government after WWII.  He worked his way up in the organization until he became Director of the organization’s India operation – the largest within his company's network.

George T. coalesced a group of twenty-five intelligent, willful misfits into a team with an esprit de corps and team spirit that most CEOs of the Fortune 500 would envy.  He did it on the basis of loyalty, flexibility, and a canny understanding of individual ambitions and talents.  He stood behind ‘his boys’ no matter what we did. They could atone for their sins in good time, but there was nothing that would shake his support of them.  He listened to and helped resolve any and all personal problems.  He went to the mat with the Indian bureaucracy, risking programs and political support to defend an employee.

In return George only asked for the same loyalty and confidence. He ave each employee his head, but insisted only that each enterprise be in the interests of the company and ‘the children of India’.  As a result India became the laboratory for innovation and the model for corporate reform.

Once again, the operations were simple.  There were no complex budgets, diversified inventory, challenging internal and external legal or contractual issues.  George only had to manage twenty-five young American men and get them to accomplish the mission of the company.

One of the worst managers at the World Bank was a man who had been promoted up through the ranks because of seniority.  He had been a competent Project Officer, adept at designing, selling, and managing major Bank loans to Indonesia and Thailand.  He, however, not only had no management experience, but had no training or native ability when it came to understanding people and their motivations.  He managed obtusely and selfishly, and caused more damage to his division than any in the Bank.  He was soon demoted back to the ranks; but it took a long while to reestablish the morale and conviction that the division had before he arrived.

Image result for world bank logo

Real management, then, may not be something you can teach; although Lord knows, millions of dollars in tuition are spent every year on MBAs.  Much of what one learns at Harvard or Stanford is indeed worthwhile, and many graduates who have been successful entrepreneurs and corporate executives because of the technical skills they acquired.  But not all of them have become good managers.  Their staffs are often restive and unhappy, working hard for the wrong reasons.  Employees leave and eventually these managers are moved on.


A woman who ran the summer program at St. Marks School in Westchester County, New York was another excellent manager.  St. Marks was a school/home for potentially delinquent children from New York City, and resources were made available for young college students to be summer counselors.  Mrs. Dobbins took ten privileged white Ivy League students, integrated them with an all-black permanent school staff, and matched them with troublesome, psychologically damaged kids.

She managed all – staff, counselors, and students – with respect, understanding, compassion, and determination.  She had an unusual and uncanny ability to understand each and every one of them and to alloy them into a team, satisfy both children and staff, and end the summer with everyone happy but sad to see the summer staff go.

So management is simple – dead simple; but since people are complicated, the task of encouraging performance and satisfaction is as complex as you can get.  I am not sure whether the likes of Ernest Shackleton, George T., or Mrs. Dobbins are born leaders or whether they are simply canny observers and quick learners.  I suspect that it takes a person of integrity and intelligence to be a good manager and little more.

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