Four ways to cultivate leadership presence

By Greg Dardis / Guest Column

When Ernest Shackleton set out to be the first to cross Antarctica, hundreds of men applied to join the famous British explorer. It was late 1913 – a period now known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration – and Shackleton’s voyage offered the prospect of enduring glory.

Some men had more experience with polar exploration than others, but Shackleton hired for attitude, knowing he could train for skill, explains Nancy Koehn in her fascinating new book “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Coura­geous Leadership in Turbulent Times.”

He divided the candidates into three catego­ries: “mad,” “hopeless” and “possible,” Koehn writes. “He met face-to-face with those in the possible category, searching for cheerfulness, a sense of humor and other qualities he associated with optimism, a personal trait he deemed es­sential for men on a daring, dangerous mission.”

One applicant recalled that Shackleton asked if he had good teeth and also if he could sing: “Oh, I don’t mean any [opera singer Enrico] Caruso stuff, but I suppose you can shout a bit with the boys?”

Every effective leader must keep up morale. In Shackleton’s case, he knew their very survival depended upon his ability to do so. It became his full-time job when disaster struck in late Jan­uary of 1915, and the 28 men aboard the Endur­ance became trapped in pack ice.

The ship eventually sunk, leaving the men stranded some 80 miles from land. They would not set foot on land for 16 long months, stuck in what one sailor described as a “white intermina­ble prison” – shifting sheets of ice as far as the eye could see.

Shackleton’s unmistakable leadership pres­ence must have felt like an anchor to the strand­ed sailors. Here are four takeaways for today’s business leaders:

Look like a leader. Dressed in his Burberry coat and finnesko boots lined with reindeer fur, Shackleton was prepared for the bitter cold. He looked the part.

Project confidence. Privately, Shackleton ex­pressed alarm, writing in his diary, “I pray God, I can manage to get the whole party to civiliza­tion.” But outwardly he remained poised, calm­ly announcing their new goal. “Ship and stores have gone,” he told them the morning the En­durance sank, “so now we’ll go home.”

Have fun together. Shackleton visited every tent after dinner to recite poetry or play cards. “He regarded socialization as a vital safeguard against doubt, despair and moral collapse,” Koehn writes. He also led sing-alongs to buoy the men’s spirits. He arranged for an Antarctic Derby – dogsled races that had the men wager­ing their cigarettes and chocolate. He also or­dered the crew to cut one another’s hair – and he stepped up for the first shearing. Hilarity ensued.

One day Shackleton entertained the men by waltzing across the pack ice. “That is Sir Ernest all over,” a sailor wrote. “He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front. His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves. In spite of his own great disappointment, and we all know that is disastrous enough, he never appears to be anything but the acme of good humour and hopefulness. He is one of the greatest optimists living.”

Unite around a purpose. Shackleton under­stood that just as the freezing temperatures posed a danger, so did the mounting boredom. He en­sured that the men had meaningful work every day. Hunting seals engaged them in a purpose.

Ultimately, Shackleton returned all his men home, alive.

Decades later, his story continues to provide a case study in leadership presence. At Dardis Communications, we do a lot of coaching on this concept, turning presence into an acronym for: passionate, relate to your audience, expres­sive, self-aware, energetic, natural, confident and everyday impact. To break down these traits and practice putting each one into action is incredi­bly powerful.

No matter where your team falls on the spec­trum – exhausted by crisis, mired in boredom or somewhere in between – effective business lead­ers keep up morale and guide with their pres­ence. We can all learn from Shackleton.

Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Communications, based in Coralville. For more information, visit