Small business, startup founders, and leadership. Mike | November 2nd, 2009

Thinking about leadership in crisis, I was remembering the story of one particular venture. The leader who put together this tiny company was a visionary, a learner, and an insatiably curious individual. The venture was not his first; he had already served as a founding member of one team which launched a successful enterprise; had started another successful enterprise himself; and had eventually gone on to found a third triumphant (though almost disastrous) venture three years later. I have been pondering the success of this last venture and considering why, against incredible, fierce odds it was (ultimately) successful.

Like many founders, this particular leader was driven by his own ideals, by his own curiosity, and by his own fiercely competitive nature. For this third startup, he raised almost $4 million from a small group of private investors and, along with a Government contract worth another $700,000, he was able to assemble a team of 27 motivated individuals from a widely diverse set of backgrounds. The Founder used unusual methods when interviewing and selecting his new employees: he believed that character and temperament were as important as experience, and he hired some team members based on their appearance and his first impression of them. He was also known to ask unusual questions when interviewing and one report even had him requesting that an applicant sing during his interview. The Founder also had an unusual approach to traditional job definitions and roles and was resistant to establishing typical organizational hierarchies; everyone on the team had to perform menial chores, regardless of their primary responsibilities.

Like many startups, once it was launched the venture quickly ran into some enormous challenges. Events completely outside of the team’s control unfolded, and it became virtually impossible to execute their plan and meet their schedule. The situation became progressively worse as their technology failed and they found themselves in a position that all such ventures fear: they were stuck, with very few options. The Founder’s instincts, leadership, and methodology were instrumental in the venture’s survival and serve to instruct many of us who are engaged in the world of startups. If we don’t wisely use our limited resources, our imaginations, and every ounce of our team’s collective ability it is sometimes simply not possible to find a path to success.

Two months into the venture, The Founder was forced to make a decision which put the entire operation at risk of failure. The technology which had been built specifically for their business stopped working, and The Founder determined that they had no choice but to abandon it and continue forward, improvising new solutions as they went. The venture had turned from one with huge ambitions, to one concerned with day-to-day survival. The story of how this team persevered is legendary, as were the efforts of The Founder to push the team to use their resources wisely, to re-gain and build momentum, and to maintain morale in the face of a most discouraging set of circumstances.

The venture I’m thinking of? The 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The Founder? Sir Ernest Shackleton.  The technology? The Endurance, a three-masted barquentine, which became stuck in the polar ice, and eventually crushed and sank on November 21, 1915. The story of Shackleton’s leadership, and the survival and eventual rescue of his crew has been told and re-told countless times. The story of the Endurance serves as an object lesson in leadership, in team-building, and in responsibility. Shackleton embodies the characteristics of great leadership and personal integrity.

After the ship was trapped, the Endurance crew spent months drifting with the ice flow, and eventually were forced to make a 5-day open-water crossing to reach land when their ice flow started to break apart. A camp was established on remote Elephant Island, and, from there, Shackleton and a crew of five set out in one of the lifeboats on a journey of roughly 800 miles, for South Georgia Island, where Stromness, a whaling station, had been established. The six men landed on the southern coast of South Georgia after 14 days at sea. Still ahead of them was another sea journey around the island to the whaling station on the north side, or a land crossing through its mountainous interior. Shackleton chose the latter, as his judgement was that the condition of their lifeboat and its crew had deteriorated to the point that he felt is was the only choice remaining. Three of the party remained with the boat, while Shackleton and the other two set off on a 36 hour trek across the island to safety, and 2 days later a whaler was sent to pick up the three who had remained with the lifeboat.

It took Shackleton another three months and four rescue attempts before he was able to return to Elephant Island to save the rest of his crew. Three times he was turned back by impenetrable ice pack but, finally, after convincing the Chilean government to loan him the Yelcho, a steam-powered tug, he was able to return to the Elephant Island camp and bring all of the crew back to safety.

What do today’s founders and business leaders have to learn from the story of this unlucky voyage? First an understanding that the problems we face are minor in comparison to the peril that Shackleton and his team faced. As we consider what some of the elements of great leadership are, there’s a quote from a member of the Endurance crew that sums up nicely what real leadership is – the leadership embodied by Shackleton: “I recalled the way in which he led his party across the ice floes after the Endurance had been lost; how, by his genius for leadership he had kept us all in health; how by the sheer force of his own personality he had kept our spirits up; and how, by his magnificent example, he had enabled us to win through when the dice of the elements were loaded most heavily against us…”

Frank Hurley was the expedition’s photographer and, while many of his plats were lost with the endurance, over 150 of his iconic images survived to document the harrowing voyage….

Hurley and Shackleton in camp (Shackleton is on the right)

Hurley and Shackleton in camp (Shackleton is on the right)

Endurance stuck in the ice floe

Last moments: the Endurance is crushed

The crew of the Endurance

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