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The Most Important Leadership Trait​

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Heads up. This post isn't about internal audit. Well, yes, it is, in that the subject of leadership is as important to internal auditors as it is to any profession. (I've long held that internal auditing is one of the few professions where even the most freshly-minted plebes get the opportunity to flex their leadership skills.) But that is probably all I'm going to say about internal audit in this post. (Well, I think that's all. I never quite know where these pieces are going until they get done.)

On with the story.

On December 4, 1914, Ernest Shackleton and a crew of 27 set sail from South Georgia Island to attempt something truly audacious; to travel by land across Antarctica. Even today, this would be a harrowing and dangerous excursion. But, to put in perspective just how audacious, the South Pole had only been reached three years earlier. Ten people had reached it; five of those had died.

Things did not go well for Shackleton. (That may be one of the most understated of understatements I have made in my entire life.) Their ship never reached land. Within one month, the boat was locked in ice and the crew was adrift, travelling at the whim of the ice floes. What followed was an incredible journey of survival that lasted a year and a half.

Eventually, the team was forced to abandon the boat as it was being crushed by the surrounding ice. To prepare for the walk across the ice sheets, they would need to leave all unnecessary items. Shackleton had experience with survival in such situations, and he needed to prove just how unimportant sentimental items would be for their ultimate survival. He explained that each man would be allowed the basics —​ the clothes on his back, two pairs of mittens, six pairs of socks, two pairs of boots, a sleeping bag, and a pound of tobacco. They would also be allowed two pounds of personal gear. But he pointed out that no article was of any value when weighed against their ultimate survival. He explained they should be ruthless in ridding themselves of every unnecessary ounce, regardless of its value.

After he spoke, he reached under his parka and took out a gold cigarette case and several gold sovereigns and threw them into the snow at his feet. Then he took the Bible that had been given to the expedition by the Queen Mother Alexandra of England. On the flyleaf she had written "May the Lord help you to do your duty & guide you through all the dangers by land and sea. May you see the Works of the Lord & all His Wonders in the deep." He ripped out the flyleaf, as well as the 23rd Psalm and a page from the book of Job.

Then he laid the Bible in the snow and walked away.

You can read a lot about leadership and you will get all kinds of suggestions and ideas and theories and concepts and approaches and flashes of brilliance and moments of insight and just a whole lot of really wonderful "things" that will make you a better leader.

But they are all dross, chaff in the wind, sounding brass or clanging cymbals, unless they are backed by action.

People want leaders who do not just pay lip service to platitudes. People want leaders who put their own concepts into action. And people want leaders who approach it all with true sincerity; who do not ask of their employees any more or less than they ask of themselves.

They want leaders who, when asking for sacrifice, are willing to sacrifice just as much themselves.

Those are the leaders that people will follow.

(Note: The description above regarding Shackleton is taken from the book Endurance by Alfred Lansing. I cannot recommend it enough. It is a concise but compelling story of what Shackleton and his crew accomplished. No, they didn't cross Antarctica. But they did accomplish things no one could have imagined. And, [spoiler alert] they all survived.)

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