Embracing Digital Leadership

Today the world is changing faster than ever — in favour of the customer. Yet our brains were built for a safe, predictable, local world in which change was fairly linear. That world is gone. To deal with a volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous world, changing faster each day, we need a new way of leading organisations into a very different future.

Companies in almost every industry are battling to stay relevant, competitive and profitable. We see many CEOs falling victim to the ‘jaws of death’, as the gap between the transformations they must make and the ability to achieve them yawns wider.

Something has to give. My proposition is this: Individual leaders need to adapt and renew their own skills faster than ever before, delivering a more resilient brand of supportive, situational leadership.

Leading through the wilderness

Back in January 2013, I was lucky enough to find myself on board the Australis at King George Island on the Antarctica Peninsula, talking to Tim Jarvis AM and his expedition crew, including Barry (Baz) Gray of Her Majesty’s Navy. Tim and his courageous (and a little crazy) crew were there for the Shackleton Epic, an expedition to recreate the British pioneer’s remarkable achievement 100 years earlier. I was keen to understand the underlying motivation and leadership skills that enabled Shackleton to succeed on his amazing rescue mission, despite incalculable odds.

Back in 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed for Antarctica, to attempt the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. He never got there. Instead he became a legend. Over the course of two years, he led his crew of 27 through a harrowing ordeal, living on the ice and on a desolate speck of rock called Elephant Island. Everyone survived. And, considering their circumstances, they had a pretty good time. In the opinion of his team, Shackleton was “the greatest leader who ever came on God’s earth, bar none.”

Looking at the challenge facing us in the digital age today, I can’t think of a better role model than Shackleton, who was an inclusive, resourceful and personable leader.

Shackleton’s Way

Margot Morrell, the New York Times business bestselling author of Shackleton’s Way, distilled Shacleton’s leadership wisdom into four key practices that formed the backbone of the leadership experience I delivered for our support crew on board the Australis, in between whale watching, dodging icebergs and exploring the Antarctic wilderness.

  • Shackleton didn’t drive, he led by example. He never asked his men to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. He supported his men in many ways, offering them ‘room service’ in their tents in the morning and caring for them when they were sick. He kept a light touch on the leadership reins until he really needed to draw a firm line.
  • Shackleton unleashed the power of his team, creating a vibrant, healthy culture that helped sustain his men through their Antarctic ordeal. A culture built on responsibility, hard work, fairness and optimism. He fully understood that high levels of team engagement and motivation are a product of a healthy culture, not the source of it.
  • Shackleton was constantly driving positive outcomes. His realistic optimism, no matter how bleak the outlook, created a positive working environment for his men. He took the time to celebrate team wins, big and small. He always played to people’s strengths, mixing and matching his men in different combinations to get jobs done.
  • Shackleton understood the power of connecting with his people. He built genuine bonds of trust with his men, getting to know each of them personally. He insisted on getting everyone together at critical moments, so they could all hear one message from the boss.

Remember, this was almost one hundred years ago, way before leadership was on any bestseller lists, or being studied at business school.

Applying these lessons in real life

Talking it through with Tim Jarvis and Baz Gray ahead of the team’s perilous sailing journey on the Alexandra Shackleton, they highlighted three key lessons learned from Shackleton’s Way:

  • The need to adopt role/subject matter-based leadership, not a hierarchical approach, taking primary input from the team members who know the terrain best. This was why he had selected diverse team members, for their boatmanship, navigational and mountaineering skills, among many.
  • Enabling team members to build capability over time. Baz explained that new recruits to the Royal Marines go through a gruelling 32-week training course, which used to be a ‘do or die’ affair. Leaders of this training course now go through a 5-week course themselves, called “Teach/Coach/Mentor”. As a result, new recruits enjoy a range of teaching styles that better match their individual temperament and learning preferences. They can be ‘back-trooped’ when they are failing or injured, and given a chance to recover. Baz was proud to confirm that pass rates on the 32-week course are up 15% since the “Teach/Coach/Mentor” program was implemented.
  • Back-up plans for potential incidents and injuries that are reasonably foreseeable must be clear and mentally well prepared for. Hence the team’s practice of the ‘abandon ship’ drill in Antarctic survival suits and the careful preparation for treating known possible injuries to the crew. When ‘it hits the fan in the extreme conditions the guys would face, the crew’s response had to be instinctive and precise.

You can see how these lessons might apply in business life too. The incredible success of Shackleton’s leadership in bringing all his men safely home is clear in their many testimonials. I like the words of Frank Hurley, the Australian expedition photographer, best: “I always found him rising to his best and inspiring confidence when things were at their blackest”. Wouldn’t you like to have a leader you could say that about, or better still, lead at this standard yourself?


Steve Lennon is a strategic provocateur, change-maker and incisive storyteller. He is an expert in digital strategy, business transformation and culture management. Serving on the leadership team for Australia, Steve leads CGI’s digital transformation and data insights offering. His focus is to guide clients in crafting their vision and roadmap for digital transformation. Innovation, leadership alignment, design thinking, cultural change and business strategy are all key elements of his approach, backed by the global resources of CGI. Steve has deep experience in helping leaders drive enterprise-wide digital transformation efforts, with a focus on leadership, culture and organisational change, to deliver personalised customer experiences, new business models and improved operational capabilities.

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