How Shackleton built his High Performance Team

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated journey to the Antarctic in 1914 is legendary amongst survival stories. When disaster struck and Shackleton’s ship The Endurance became trapped in the ice, he led his men to Elephant Island before taking a small boat across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia. He then launched a rescue mission and returned to bring them home. All of his men survived.  

Shackleton is regarded as one of the greatest leaders of all time – and rightly so. Few could have demonstrated the determination, vision and sheer competence to save his men from such a disaster.

One of his contemporaries would later remark;

‘Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton’ 

The Heroic Leader

Shackleton was a hero. He perfectly fits the model of someone who put others before himself and led his men away from certain death. His concern for the welfare of his people was such that when the photographer, Frank Hurley, lost his mittens in one of their boat journeys – Shackleton gave him his, suffering frostbitten fingers as a result of his selflessness.

Shackleton fits the model of the heroic leader, someone that characterises the very best of the human spirit.

It would be easy just to say ‘he was different’ but I believe that there are things that we can learn from how Shackleton prepared for his voyage.

Firstly, if he was going to stand half a chance of crossing the Antarctica, Shackleton knew that he was going to need a high performing group of people to get the job done – and as I’ve said in my talk ‘How to Recruit a High Performing Team’,

You can’t build a high performing team with low performing people.

Shackleton may never have placed this advert in the newspaper but it is highly likely that he did apply some sort of test to his selection procedure. He would not have wanted men that couldn’t cope with the following and I would argue that if he had failed to select the ‘right sort’, more of them would have died on the ice.

‘Men wanted for hazardous journey to the South Pole. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

Ernest Shackleton

The key point is that Shackleton would have chosen ‘the right men for the job’. 

He was looking for people with the right attitude perhaps more than the ones with the necessary skills and experience.

This is arguably the most important lesson when building a high performing team.

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Attitude and Mindset

You have to select people based on their attitude and mindset rather than their skills and experience. This is poorly understood in the business world. Look at any job description on LinkedIn and you will find recruiters looking for a combination of skills and experience. What can you do and what have you done?

The problem with these are that they don’t take into account what someone ‘could do’. There is no measure or assessment of potential.

Think about some of the best people that you’ve ever worked with, chances are that their skills and experience led them to be competent but not extraordinary.

What sets high performers apart isn’t their skills and experience, it is their mindset and attitude.

The Royal Marines understand this which is why they don’t look to recruit potential Marines who know how to fire a rifle. That can be taught. They’re looking for people with the right character, the right mindset and the right attitude that will get through the training.

The selection procedure pose the question, ‘When have you demonstrated determination?’ They test you to see if you’ve got it by putting you through some demanding physical challenges.



At this point, people often tell me ‘but the military is different’ and I agree that it is. But you can still select your people based on their attitude by asking them some challenging questions that get to the heart of their character.

Netflix do this. They recruit people with values that align with their organisational values.

These are some questions that will help give you a sense of someone’s character;

  • Who are your role models and why?
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to take a significant risk.
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • How do you handle feedback?
  • How do you behave when you’re under pressure?
  • How do you handle change?

The answers to these questions have nothing to do with what people have done. They drive deeper and are designed to get a sense for how people think.

How people think, drives how they feel, which drives how they behave and the results that they get.


The battle for talent is one that you have to win if you’re going to achieve the objectives of your organisation. The basic ‘experience and skills’ selection procedure is not good enough because it doesn’t give you a sense for an individual’s character or mindset.

Work out the sort of person you need for your organisation to be successful.

Create some questions that give you a sense of the character of your candidates – and just like Shackleton, you might stack the deck in your favour before you play the game.

You can’t build a high performing team with low performing people. 

Attitude and mindset are more important than skills and experience. 

Make sure your selection process takes this into account.


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