Lessons in leadership: learning from the past, and passing to the future
If you’re a business leader who also happens to be a parent with young children, as many happen to be, chances are there have been times when you’ve wondered which, out of all the leadership lessons you’ve learned during your career so far, are the ones you’d most want to pass onto your kids when it comes to building careers of their own. And once you’ve figured out what those lessons are, then there's of course the “how” when it comes to actually communicating them - in a way that encourages your offspring to imbibe, appreciate, and digest your hard-earned pearls of wisdom, instead of hitting the recycle button the following day along with the latest fast-fashion accessory or social media app.
Chirs Myers, an American author and entrepreneur, hit upon a creative and, frankly, touching way to go about doing just this: he wrote a letter to his seven-year-old son. Having done so, he then shared his epistle publicly online, realising it might also be helpful for anyone, age or experience aside, searching for authentic career advice in general. You can read Myers’ letter here. In it, he advises his young CEO-to-be that when it comes to business, contrary to popular myth, the good people may not always in fact win, be more “successful”, or make more money. But if you strive to be a good human being, own your mistakes, and make a habit of doing the right thing, true professional fulfilment and happiness, he assures, will follow.
Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of legendary Arctic explorer Earnest Shackleton (1874-1922). Best known for his failed 1914 attempt to become the first to cross the Antarctic on foot, Shackleton posthumously earned a reputation as one of the most prolific and revered leaders in British history. Although his expedition was unsuccessful, astoundingly he was able to bring back alive every single one of his 22 men after 3 years AWOL in the cold, having coolly stared death in the face countless times.
During his lifetime and for several decades thereafter, Shackleton’s arch-rival and probably more famous fellow-explorer Captain Robert Scott (1868-1912) was regarded as the more courageous, successful, and admirable of the two men. Scott went down in the history books as the first British explorer to reach the South Pole in 1912 - an undeniably incredible achievement, subsequently immortalised within the structures of over 30 monuments across Great Britain. Having reached the Pole, however, Scott and his entire team then perished on their return journey. Heralded at the time as a hero who exemplified British courage, resilience, and grit, evidence later came to light painting Scott as a short-tempered and intimidating bully, and a short-sighted and disorganised “bungler”. Hungry for fame and determined to win no-matter-what, he was also skilled, it is said, at hiding his shortcomings and mistakes with his rousing rhetoric. The tide of public opinion turned against him in the years to follow as a man who drove his team haphazardly to their deaths for the sake of vanity and selfish ambition (although the judgment passed by more recent critics is less harsh).
Shackleton had attempted the same journey to the South Pole a few years before Scott, in 1907. In sharp and telling contrast, however, he turned back painfully within reach of his goal (just one hundred miles from the Pole) out of concern for the lives and welfare of his men. Decisions he made on his subsequent, and likewise unsuccessful, expedition across the Antarctic - were similarly guided by a “true north” that prioritised the safety of his men before the temptation of glory, as was later discovered through his diary entries at the time. Accounts from the men who had accompanied Shackleton on his various attempts also evidence the affection, tenderness, and loyalty clearly felt for the leader whom they fondly referred to as “Boss”. While Shackleton was outshone and eclipsed by Scott during his lifetime, struggling financially while Scott’s family had significant wealth bestowed upon them by the nation for his contribution and valour, Shackleton received the recognition he was perhaps deservant of 80 years following his death. He ranked 11th in a 2002 BBC poll for "The 100 Greatest Britons”. Scott was in 54th place.
The latter years of Shackleton's life could hardly be described as "happy" or "fulfilled" (he developed a chronic drinking problem and died of a heart attack while preparing for another Antarctic expedition in 1922). However, the legacy he left behind to fuel the hearts, minds, and imaginations of generations after him – from budding explorers to start-up entrepreneurs – would surely also be inspiring fodder for Myers’ son, should he find himself chewing over his father's advice before embarking on adventures of his own in years to come.
So, if you’re looking for a side project over the summer months ahead, why not try writing a letter of your own. Whether you’re a Shackleton or a Scott, and whether you’re a parent or not, the exercise could well become a legacy of its own!