I just finished reading Jeff Jarvis book What Would Google Do (WWGD) in anticipation of his visit to Toronto next Thursday.

 

He’ll be speaking about his new book Private PartsBefore I read WWGD I thought it was a book about leadership in the Web 2.0 age. I privately scoffed at the notion surely there are more inspiring leaders than Google that we can look up to and admire?

I realized my mistake about 20 pages in. It’s really more about understanding the changes brought about by the internet and how organizations and individuals can succeed in the new world order. Jarvis himself says,This book is about seeing the world as Google sees it, finding your own new worldview, and seeing differently.It’s a book about you.

So I was wrong about the book, and while I do recommend it I’m still pondering the concept of leadership and wondering where to find examples that truly inspire.

I admire Steve Jobs (and love my iPad and all things Apple), but it’s difficult to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about a guy who had to be forced to pay child support. I used to admire RIM, until they stumbled badly and now seem headed to be a has-been on the Canadian business scene. Stephen Harper? Silvio Berlusconi? It’s hard to find inspiring leaders from the political arena, unless it’s Nelson Mandela.

I do have some personal heroes, but it’s not a very long list: Peter the GreatSir Ernest Shackleton,Rick Hansen. Hansen is the Canadian who traveled around the world 25 years ago in a wheelchair to raise money for spinal cord injury research, rehabilitation and sport. Back in the late 1970s I used to watch him playing wheelchair basketball in the gym at the University of BC, although I was far too shy to speak to him. He was a pretty charismatic guy, even before his Man in Motion Tour.

Sir Ernest Shackleton is my ultimate hero. I first heard about him in 1979 when I attended the sailing program at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. The participants were placed into same sex watches named for famous sailors and nautical explorers then paired with a watch of the opposite sex. I don’t remember the name of the women’s watch I was in, but I do remember the name of the men’s watch: Shackleton (or Shacklefoot as we girls affectionately called them).

For those who don’t know Shackleton’s story he was an explorer who attempted to be the first to cross Antarctica in 1914. Although he was not successful in reaching his goal, the story of hisImperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is a truly inspiring tale of leadership and bravery. In fact, there are many lessons today’s business leaders can learn from the story of Shackleton and his crew. If you want to read more, check out Dennis Perkins book Leading at the Edge. In the meantime, here’s the Coles Notes version of Shackleton’s journey.

Forty-five days after launching the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition Shackleton’s ship, theEndurance, was trapped in ice. And what happened next is truly inspiring.

  • The crew tried unsuccessfully to free the ship from the ice and finally resigned themselves to wintering in the Antarctic. Shackleton kept spirits up by keeping the men busy. The crew moved to a warm area onboard they called the Ritz. They entertained one another with a hand-cranked phonograph and the musical talents of the ship’s geologist who played a banjo and a homemade violin. And if you’re thinking it was a pleasant party, it wasn’t. Winter storms raged outside while the ice pressure on the ship increased, the bilge pumps failed and water poured in.

 

  • By October, over a year after the expedition began, the Endurance was completely crushed by the ice. Shackleton abandoned his goal of crossing the continent and refocused on getting every single one of his men back to civilization. They headed for open water by marching across hundreds of miles of solid pack ice. Pulling lifeboats and sleds the men made their way, at times covering less than a mile a day. Realizing the futility of this attempt, they eventually made camp on a large ice floe and waited for it to drift closer to open water. Finally, in April 1916, they were able to launch the lifeboats and row to relative safety. It was so cold that as the waves broke over the lifeboats, the water instantly froze to their clothes.
  • Eventually the crew landed on Elephant Island, a tiny speck of land inhabited by penguins, seagulls and elephant seals. Shackleton and five other members of his crew took one of the lifeboats and crossed 800 miles of treacherous water to South Georgia. No GPS. No iPhone. No fancy cold weather gear (the men slept in reindeer skin sleeping bags)nothing except sheer bravery, determination and incredible navigation skills.

 

  • On South Georgia the men landed on the wrong side of the island. It took them three nights and three days to cross dangerous and uncharted glaciers to make it to the island’s whaling station. From there Shackleton made three different attempts to rescue the rest of the crew from Elephant Island. He finally succeeded when the pack ice miraculously opened on August 30, 1916 over 630 days after the expedition began. Everyone who started the expedition survived the ordeal. Not one man was lost.

 

Shackleton’s tale is an amazing story of leadership, teamwork, bravery and seamanship. As Sir Edmund Hillary (who was not only the first person to climb Mt. Everest but the first to successfully cross Antarctica) says, When disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

Who are your heroes? Is there someone you particularly admire in the world today? Is there a historical figure that inspires you?

Written by Shelley Pringle