What Makes an Exceptional Leader?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

On December 14, 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team made history as the first expedition to reach the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, on January 17, 1912, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole, with five exhausted men. None survived the brutal journey home.

Another noted British explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, never reached the South Pole. On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and 27 men sailed into the Southern Ocean with an ambitious goal: the first overland crossing of Antarctica. Forty-five days later, disaster struck. Ice closed around their ship, the Endurance, like a vise. For nearly two years, the members of the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition were stranded in the frozen sea. They endured hazards, hunger, isolation, bone-chilling cold, and prolonged darkness. Through it all, the explorers stayed committed to working together with cohesion and camaraderie. While failing to achieve the first overland crossing of Antarctica, Shackleton succeeded at bringing all 27 members of his expedition party safely home, after 634 days of unbelievable hardship, and winning their cooperation, commitment, respect, and admiration.

Some 100 years later, fascination with the race to the South Pole continues; and so do debates over which of the three Antarctic commanders was the best leader. To gain deeper insights into one of the most exciting and controversial chapters in the history of leadership under adversity, Dennis N.T. Perkins devoted a decade to research, including traveling to the Antarctic to study the trailblazing paths of these famed expeditions. As he shares in his book, Leading at the Edge (AMACOM 2012), the polar adventures of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen provide fundamental leadership lessons for any leader.

Perkins writes: “I am convinced that the safe return of Shackleton’s expedition can be attributed to much more than luck. I believe that the leadership strategies that enabled Shackleton’s crew to beat the odds can be found in a set of principles common to many other stories of survival.”

Perkins believes the underlying ingredients of triumph are expressed in 10 strategies:
1. Never lose sight of the ultimate goal, and focus energy on short-term objectives.
2. Set a personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors.
3. Instill optimism and self-confidence but stay grounded in reality.
4. Take care of yourself: Maintain your stamina and let go of guilt.
5. Reinforce the team message constantly: “We are one—we live or die together.”
6. Minimize status differences and insist on courtesy and mutual respect.
7. Master conflict—deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles.
8. Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.
9. Be willing to take the Big Risk.
10. Never give up—there’s always another move.

Using the diverse examples of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen, Perkins describes some additional key characteristics of exceptional leaders:

  • Effective leaders possess a clear strategic focus. With single-minded determination, Amundsen set his plans and priorities on winning the race to the South Pole, for the glory of standing there first. Scott lacked such focus. He assembled the best scientific minds and equipment available for an unprecedented research expedition, but he also aimed to claim the “reward of priority” for the British Empire. Striving for both goals, Scott failed doubly.
  • Successful leaders are open to new ideas. As a Norwegian, Amundsen began with an advantage over his British rivals: comfort with skiing.Yet, he continued to refine his skills, importing ideas from the Eskimos and developing an integrated set of competencies—skiing, dog-handling, clothing, and carefully-planned diet, pace, and rest—for polar travel. Scott and Shackleton, however, were surprisingly resistant to the use of novel methods. Ultimately, both relied on the slow, grueling technique of man hauling.
  • The best leaders draw on the collective wisdom of the team. As a leader, Scott believed it was his unique responsibility to analyze situations and draw conclusions. His decisions were closely held and sometimes revealed only at the last minute. Consequently, members of his expedition had only a limited understanding of the rationale behind their course of action. In sharp contrast to Scott, both Amundsen and Shackleton solicited ideas and opinions from their men. Through this process, Amundsen and Shackleton gave team members a sense of control and value, resulting in greater ownership and commitment.
  • Exceptional leaders forge strong bonds. Despite their differences in personality, the ebullient Shackleton and the understated Amundsen had strikingly similar approaches to leadership. Both were acutely sensitive to the emotions of their men and skilled at managing conflict. Both emphasized individual ability above rank or social status. And both participated in everyday expedition life, including menial chores. “These behaviors, both practical and symbolic, reinforced the message of unity,” Perkins observes. Although Scott’s doomed polar party stayed together until the very end, his detachment, emphasis on hierarchy, and unilateral decision-making style created barriers to team cohesion and damaged morale.
  • Leadership success is often relative and always personal. Flaws aside, Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott shared qualities—exceptional perseverance, determination, and courage—that are crucial for any leader. Was Shackleton a success or a failure as a leader? The answer, Perkins contends, depends on the yardstick used. Shackleton created a team that worked together against enormous odds to overcome staggering obstacles. He led his team to safety through extreme hardships and hazards. Still, his expedition did not achieve its goal: crossing Antarctica. “Shackleton can be seen as a success or a failure, or a little of both,” Perkins acknowledges. “I believe the more important question raised by Shackleton’s adventure is a much more personal one: How do you measure your own success as a leader?”

Perkins concludes: “The challenges that you face as a leader may not involve physical survival, but you will need to deal with the human reactions that are common to any stressful situation. By understanding the leadership practices that work in extreme situations—conditions in which normal or even above-average performance means failure and even death—you will increase your ability to lead and flourish in the face of adversity.”

Adapted fromLeading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, Second Edition, by Dennis N.T. Perkins, with Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian B. Murphy (AMACOM 2012). Used by permission of the publisher.