Recently, I had the opportunity to read the fascinating book Power of 2 by Dr. Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller. The book focuses on the exceptional power that a positive partnership can have in your work and life and offers several key principles for making such a positive partnership work.
While the book was loaded with great ideas and interesting anecdotes, one in particular stood out at me. The authors retold the tale of Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild, two explorers who spent many years in the early twentieth century attempting to reach the South Pole. In their 1908 journey, the two men were literally starving to death as they traversed the Antarctic. I'll share the key part of the story from Wagner and Muller's book:
Wild was ill and extremely weak, unable to eat the dried meat and lard mixture that was the staple of the expedition. He devoured his single biscuit. As they set off to find the next cache of food, Shackleton took his biscuit and put it into Wild's pocket.
"What's that, Boss?" asked Wild.
"Your need is greater than mine," said the leader.
This isn't a tale of unbridled generosity, though Shackleton's giving of his last biscuit is harrowing in its intensity. Shackleton's gift was actually a very shrewd one. Shackleton knew that his chances of surviving were much higher with the aid of his partner, who was bearing some of the weight of the materials they needed to survive in the Arctic. Shackleton was not just giving to a friend, he was making a shrewd move to maximize both of their chances of success.
In small business practice, we are often called upon to be the Shackleton of the situation, whether we see it or not, and, yes, sometimes we are the Wild as well. We have the plan, we have the operation, but we are often missing some key pieces of the puzzle we need. We don't have the time. We don't have the manpower. We don't have the technical skill. Our partner or our employee does.
So often, the success of our plan comes down to our partners and employees, whether we like it or not. When things are going well, it's easy to lose sight of how much we need those key people around us. It's when the chips are down that truly great relationships are forged, the kind of relationship that stands the test of time and brings you both greatness.
The first step, of course, is to give, not to receive. When your partner who you have come to build this enterprise with is going through a rough patch, put a biscuit in his pocket and help him or her through that patch. Put in the extra hours to keep things going. Seek some temporary external assistance for the things you cannot achieve. Dig into your cash reserves and give a timely (and private) bonus. Do what you can to help carry those who have worked hard for you through the dance.
What you'll find is that when they come out the other side, they trust you deeply and are fiercely loyal to you. Wild's own journal from that day (sometime in February or March 1909) featured the following passage, underlined:
S[hackleton] privately forced upon me his one breakfast biscuit, and would have given me another tonight had I allowed him. I do not suppose that anyone else in the world can thoroughly realize how much generosity and sympathy was shown by this; I do, and by God I shall never forget. Thousands of pounds would not have bought that one biscuit.
Years later, when Shackleton wanted to make a return journey to the South Pole, he called Wild, who felt that the first journey had "completely cured [him] of any desire for further polar exploration." Yet his pure respect and admiration for Shackleton brought Wild to the table again, and this time they embarked on one of the most legendary journeys of all.
When you have a chance to be a Shackleton to those important people around you, take that opportunity. Later on, when you want them on board for whatever Pole dream you're chasing, they will be there for you, climbing on board your Endurance just like Frank Wild did.
While you're at it, pick up Power of 2. It's one of the best books on business partnerships I've ever read.