Associate Life

Fennie Wang

The Case of Ernest Shackleton

June 22, 2012 9:49 AM | Permalink | Print

This past week, the summer associates in the New York office had a great treat—two hours of a leadership seminar focused on the case of Ernest Shackleton and led by Bill Lee, a former co-managing partner of the firm and currently a litigation and intellectual property partner in the firm's Boston office. Bill was affable and inspiring, very much the characteristics of a great leader and certainly of someone teaching a leadership seminar.

On the eve of World War I in 1914, Ernest Shackleton, along with 28 brave and foolhardy men, set sail for the South Pole on the Endurance. The Endurance froze in the water and when spring came, it started to sink. The men abandoned ship to the nearest island. In these times of crisis, Ernest Shackleton turned from, perhaps, a reckless adventurer to a true leader. Shackleton had a talent for community building: he had selected men with complementary skills and similar attitudes of optimism. He fostered equality amongst the men, no matter their profession, skills or rank since all 28 would have to work together to ensure the survival of the whole. Shackleton's arrogance turned to confidence when making critical, binary decisions, particularly his decision to sail for the nearest supply station as the only hope for saving his men.

With a bit of luck and true grit, Shackleton did accomplish the impossible: he sailed the icy waters of the Antarctic in a life boat, found the supply station, and eventually a ship strong enough to bring all of his men back. All 28 survived.

The parallels between Ernest Shackleton and a law firm seem tenuous at first. Shackleton himself probably would have been bored in the safe and sanguine confines of a Park Avenue office building. The concrete jungle still pales in comparison to the South Pole, but Bill was able to draw the connection for us. Shackleton's greatest traits were his sense of optimism, respect for those he was leading and ability to assemble the right team for the job. These traits are applicable to a lawyer. As Bill said, when his cases get tough, he needs to maintain optimism in order to motivate his team. He would not ask an associate to do something he would not do himself. And he understands the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and picks a team that has complementary skills. After all, the best teams do not always have the best individual members. And while, as summer associates, we're the most junior individuals at the firm, Bill said that it's still instructive to keep in mind these leadership traits because we will always be thrust into leadership positions sooner than we think.