Margaret Morrell

Book interview - Margaret Morrell

Business leadership guru Margot Morrell says that today's engineering manager has much to learn from explorers of the past. She should know her book 'Shackleton's Way' has sold 400,000 copies.

It's one of the best selling management books of all time. For two decades, it has consistently appeared in various 'Top 10' lists of best management books ever. The success of 'Shackleton's Way' has been a phenomenon. With sales currently at the 400,000 mark, it has been translated into 10 languages and has topped the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Business Week best-seller lists. The late Sir John Harvey-Jones, one-time chairman of ICI, said of it"Reading this book is a must. 'Shackleton's Way' for the first time analyses Shackleton's skills in leadership in a way that is entirely relevant to every businessman today."

Its author, Margot Morrell, is briefly in the UK to attend the naming ceremony of a replica of Sir Ernest Shackleton's legendary lifeboat, the James Caird. At this point you may be wondering what a lifeboat belonging to a polar explorer from yesteryear can have to do with the way organisations are run. But it's a lifeboat central to a brand of management thinking, and an icon for how strong leadership can put the brakes on corporate disaster. As 'Shackleton's Way' illustrates, powerful and successful people - from dotcom entrepreneurs to CEOs of multinationals ''have modelled themselves on the Antarctic explorer.

As an author, Morrell is interested in how important leaders of the past influence business managers of today. However, she doesn't just write about explorers. Morrell has also written a 'business-biography' of the US President Ronald Reagan, 'Reagan's Journey Lessons from a Remarkable Career'. Morrell is also interested in Apollo 13 and writes in detail about astronaut Captain James Lovell's astonishing feat of ingenuity in bringing his stricken vessel back to Earth.

"These are great examples of people who are able, in the face of real adversity, to lead successfully. In Shackleton's case it was putting right a disaster so that his men could live to fight another day. With Reagan it wasn't really a question of a washed-up actor suddenly becoming the most powerful man on Earth, as so many seem to think. He made it to the top of five separate careers. And so I think there's something we can learn from him, too. Nasa called Apollo 13 a successful failure, and they learned more from that one mission than they did from the rest of the Apollo programme put together."

When things go wrong at corporate level, it's the manager's head that rolls, so it's important that today's leaders have role models to inspire them. The first such person Morrell wrote about was Shackleton, precisely because he had presided over a catastrophe of colossal proportions, whose solution was heroic.

Coping with disaster

Morrell has always been interested in the practical lessons that can be learned from history. As a teenager she loved Herman Wouk's 'The Caine Mutiny', a book essentially about leadership in the face of disaster. Importantly for Morrell, because the action takes place on a destroyer-minesweeper during the Second World War, "everything was confined to a small self-contained group. And I think that this is what appeals to me about the Shackleton story, too. You can really put it under the microscope and analyse what certain leaders do under certain conditions without the data being confused by external distractions".

Anyone who has seen the Kenneth Branagh TV movie 'Shackleton' will know the Shackleton story means only one thingthe rescue mission on the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

The narrative is simple. Shackleton's ship 'Endurance is beset by ice in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica and eventually sinks, leaving the 28-man complement stranded on the ice, unable to communicate with the outside world, facing certain death. Shackleton leads his men over the ice to Elephant Island in the South Atlantic where they set up camp. Shackleton orders one of his lifeboats - the 23ft open whaler, James Caird - to be modified, so that he can set sail to fetch relief for his men, most of whom will remain on Elephant Island to await his return.

Shackleton decides to make for South Georgia, a tiny speck of rock 800 miles away. He picks a crew of five men to go with him and for 16 days they face rough seas, eventually making landfall against all odds. Finding themselves on the wrong side of the island, he then leads a team of three on a dangerous mountain journey that will take three days.

The men eventually arrive at the whaling station at Grytviken, starving and frostbitten, but alive. Shackleton then supervises three unsuccessful attempts to take a ship to Elephant Island to rescue his men. Attempt four is successful and eventually every man under Shackleton's command makes it back to England.

"What's interesting to me about this story is that we can analyse how and why Shackleton is successful as a leader." Because there are a finite number of people contained in an isolated community for a long period of time, according to Morrell, "you can really get to grips with exactly what was going on and draw conclusions about Shackleton's leadership strengths".

The men kept diaries, so the process of watching the disaster unfold can be examined in detail"It's a researcher's dream."

Most powerful coach on Earth

After completing 'Shackleton's Way,' Morrell's research led her to another icon of leadership: a man once described as the most ambitious you could ever meet. Morrell says that this is not something that one could necessarily deduce from Ronald Reagan's public image of homespun, folksy charm. Casper Weinberger, the Reagan administration's Secretary of Defense said that he "could charm anybody, but for people who really hated him it took 10 minutes".

But with Reagan there was always this credibility gap, despite the famous 'special relationship' with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that was supposedly stabilising the world. Morrell says"He was seen as a B-grade actor. But the really fascinating thing about him is that he was a poor kid from nowhere who managed to coach himself to the top time after time."

Morrell's question at this point, and one that led her to write 'Reagan's Journey', was "how do you do that? And what can the rest of us learn from him?"

According to Morrell, the original blueprint for the book was predicated upon leadership lessons "learned from a great communicator". But as Morrell researched the book, she realised that this wasn't the most interesting thing about the US President. In fact, it was his journey from the middle of nowhere in the heart of the midwest to "basically the top of the world" that was the real ticket.

The lesson all leaders can learn from Reagan, says Morrell, is that he focused on his strengths. At the age of 14 he decided that he would be going to college: "At this point only 7 per cent of the American population is going to college, and here we have a poor kid, son of an alcoholic, and yet he sets about making it happen. He graduates at the dead bottom of the Depression in 1932, when unemployment is at 24 per cent. But with the help of a mentor he has met through his summer job he's able to get started.

"As a result of the unsatisfactory relationship with his father he sets about creating mentor relationships throughout his life. A coach. A teacher. A senior person on a movie set. They're all mentoring him and that's what ultimately gets him into politics at the age of 54."

The first two lessons are clear exploit your ability to be a self-starter and get to know people who are willing to help you. The next question to consider is how, when there are so many people who start from where Reagan started, it should be that there are so few that finish up where he did. Morrell thinks that Reagan had an ability to view possibilities from different angles, making himself available for "lightbulb moments".

"Right from the beginning he was able to do this. His big breakthrough was when he asked himself what it was he wanted to do. Until that point he had been thinking differently, thinking of the paycheque and security. But then he saw with the simple question - what do I want to do? - that there was a whole range of possibilities waiting for him to explore."

After many sleepless nights Reagan came up with three objectives to entertain people, play sport and get involved in politics. This triangular set of ambitions became the constantly evolving theme of his life. When he eventually moved into the White House there were still three objectives, but they had modulated into lowering taxes, containing the spread of federal government and defeating Communism.

'Reagan's Journey' is a call to action. What are your particular strengths? How are you going to find your particular mentor relationships? And how are you going to start driving positive outcomes?

"Of course, Reagan took this to extremes," says Morrell, recounting how, having survived an assassination attempt in 1981, Reagan insisted on walking into the Emergency Room with a bullet lodged an inch from his heart. Apparently he joked with the surgeon that he hoped he was a Republican. "How can you drive that positive attitude? What kind of inner resources do you tap into to be like that?"

Success and failure

The Reagan story is all about energy, ambition and drive a feelgood rags-to-riches parable for the modern world and a flag-waving inspirational jaunt to the summit of success. In contrast, Shackleton's Endurance expedition was fundamentally a failure, having achieved nothing in terms of its original objectives.

"I agree," says Morrell, "but the value here is that we can learn just as much from Shackleton's failure and his resistance to it as we can from Reagan's monumental success. At the end of the day both men shared a very simple and similar visionLead'by example, communicate effectively, keep up morale and maintain a positive attitude."

To find out more about Margot Morrell's leadership training toolkits based on Reagan and Shackleton, visit

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