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April 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 7

Principal Connection / Leadership Lessons from the South Pole

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Leadership
School Culture
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Think your situation is challenging? Imagine being in charge of a crew of 27 men trapped in ice on a journey to the South Pole. This was the situation confronting Ernest Shackleton when his ship, The Endurance, became trapped as it approached the coast of Antarctica in January 1915. Stranded and isolated from the rest of the world, the crew hoped that the glaciers surrounding the ship would separate to allow passage, and they tried to break through the ice, but were unsuccessful. After the men had lived almost a year in the paralyzed Endurance, the ice expanded, crushing and sinking their ship.
The crew was forced to live on sea ice. For more than a year, they survived in sub-freezing conditions, with temperatures dropping to −20 degrees, eating only seal and penguin, unsure whether they'd ever see land again.
Realizing that they could not wait to be rescued, Shackleton and five members of his crew embarked for an island off the coast of Argentina, 800 miles away, traveling in a lifeboat. Despite confronting new hardships on that journey, they reached land and got help for the shipwrecked crew. Shackleton's men faced formidable conditions—cold, hunger, uncertainty, and fear—yet more than two years after beginning the journey, every one of them returned alive.
So what's the school leader's takeaway from this amazing story? A significant factor in the crew's survival was Shackleton's ability to forge 27 men of different talents and personalities into a team. Although you aren't fighting ice floes or navigating in frigid waters at your school, your success will also depend on the strength of your team.

Honor the Carpenter, Honor the Fiddler

First, ask yourself, who is your team? Is it everyone who works at your school? If the answer isn't affirmative, consider the implications of having a working group in which everyone isn't on the same team. Often, teachers in the same department or grade self-identify as a team; that inward focus can inhibit collaboration and cause unhealthy rivalries.
Shackleton would have likely said his team was all 27 shipmates—and that every person played an important role in the crew's success. A carpenter and a fiddler on board each contributed much-needed, though different, skills. There were three men whom Shackleton designated as leaders, but he minimized salient differences in hierarchy and reinforced the notion of team.
Shackleton's actions demonstrated the equality of the team members. When a crew member lost his mitten—a scarce and exceedingly valuable item—Shackleton gave the man his. In preparation for The Endurance sinking and the ordeal of living on ice, Shackleton talked about the importance of shedding any excess weight—and led the way by throwing his gold coins and gold cigarette case into the snow. He shared his tent with two of the most difficult sailors, men known to be oppositional. At times he didn't eat his allocation, giving his food to others. (If there had been parking spaces, I'm sure Shackleton wouldn't have used the one designated for the captain.)
So what can you do to help everyone feel part of your team? When I was principal of the New City School, I gave each person on my staff a new school t-shirt each August with our year's focus (grit, for example) written on it. I wish I had encouraged everyone to wear their shirt on the same day sometime during the year. Seeing all adults wearing the same school shirt on the same day would've been a powerful reminder to everyone—students and staff—that we're all on the same team.

Rituals, Affirmations, and Belly Laughs

Shackleton supported his crew's ability to appreciate and value one another. Certainly that was essential for a small group trapped in the Antarctic; it's also essential today when social media often reinforces our differences. Political and cultural divisions that crop up make it even more important that we form our staff into a cohesive group.
After two men in Shackleton's crew who were giving haircuts shaved off one another's hair, the entire crew followed suit, including Shackleton. Men routinely sang or read to one another, formalizing practices to strengthen their relationships. Practical jokes became part of the routine; everyone understood that laughter was an anecdote to the harsh conditions in which they were stranded. Making the best of an intolerable situation, they termed the inside of their trapped ship "The Ritz" and talked about going on an expedition to Alaska (of all places) after they returned from this voyage.
Educators often refer to their schools as families, but a family without rituals is a family in name only. At my school, we began each year with a surprise song (as the new t-shirts were unveiled) and ate dinner together on parent-teacher conference days. I often opened faculty meetings by asking a fun question (Where would you go if you won the lottery?) to get folks smiling and connecting.
What bonding traditions exist at your school? How do you celebrate each employee's length of service—and does everyone, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, get a cake and applause? How are birthdays, graduations, births, and, yes, deaths, honored? When do you gather to celebrate everyone's efforts?

What About Your Hierarchy?

It's important to consider the hierarchy at your school and how it's identified, including in subtle ways. Are some of your staff members called Mr., Mrs., or Dr., while others go by their first names? What message does that send? How restricted is access to your supply closet? If we trust staff with children, we can surely trust them with supplies. Does everyone on your staff have a school business card, or just the administrators? And what about those designated parking spaces? Such little things are big things in how people think about their place on the team.
We build a team when we make sure all our staff members feel important. The good news is, we don't need to be trapped near the South Pole to do so!
End Notes

1 Two books that tell the story of how these men survived are Endurance by Alfred Lansing (Penguin Books, 1959) and South by Sir Ernest Shackleton (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).

2 Perkins, D. (2012). Leading at the edge. New York: American Management Association.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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