How I Hire: In Search Of The Sir Ernest Shackleton Gene

Who is Sir Ernest Shackleton and why do I look for his qualities in any candidate I hire?

Sir Ernest Shackleton was a world famous Anglo-Irish explorer who in 1914 set out on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition with the daunting goal of being the first man to cross the Antarctic. Setting sail for the South Pole, he was forced to lead his 27 men through a myriad of difficulties, disappointments and ultimately a near disaster when his ship and his team became ensconced in rapidly moving pack ice before his crew could get ashore. In other words, his mission failed – publically and painfully.

During the course of his nearly two years of insurmountable challenges and missed goals, he drew upon a powerful attitude that compelled him to lead his entire crew, against all odds, to a safe landing. He achieved legendary recognition for his resilient and optimistic management, turning a failed mission into a resounding example of leadership success.

Shackleton himself wrote after his doomed journey, “I have marveled often at the thin line that divides success from failure.”

Anyone who has faced the trials and tribulations of leadership recognizes that the line separating failure from success is razor thin. Every journey to success is often met with a puncture or two. Leaders like Shackleton who manage those inevitable speed bumps and failures and can maintain the powerful culture of the organization by owning their mistakes rather than hunting for culprits, who find solutions rather than excuses, whose lens is focused on preserving the enterprise and maintaining momentum during the crisis regardless if the ship is perceived to be sinking, are the individuals that I want joining or leading any of my business enterprises. I look for that Shackleton trait.

When I consider a candidate, how a leader intellectually, emotionally and operationally handles failures is an attitude that is much more important to glean than merely his or her aptitude. Resiliency, perseverance, optimism, creativity and flexibility are the qualities that are paramount over successes, past titles, and pretty resumes. Finding these characteristics gives me the confidence that this leader will likely exponentially grow and support the organization in sustaining its competitive advantage.

How do you discover this in a candidate? Listen!

I want to hear that they’re willing to share their stories around failures. Failures are inevitable – nobody bats a thousand. Does the candidate demonstrate a proclivity towards risk where the greatest opportunity horizon lies? Or, is he or she more comfortable as the incumbent, preserving the status quo – which is a sure-fire recipe for failure?

In the face of a real challenge, will this applicant foster collaboration and coordination, rather than just compromise? Will the individual demonstrate his or her ability to turn adversaries into allies both internal and external? Will this person be able to knowledge-share the intellectual capital gained from those failures to propel future success and demonstrate his proclivity for a “we” culture rather than a “me” culture? The candidate who shares stories of how he or she preserved and protected the organization when the chips were down, refusing to hear “no,” will likely hear a “yes” from me!

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