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“Fundamental change in our Education System”, Ed Gillcrist of Shackleton Group and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Exercising authority as a leader is not always about where authority formally resides; sometimes it is about who has the best situational awareness at any given time and can provide the best guidance in achieving the overall mission or objective. That is the individual to whom leadership should transfer, at least for long enough to […]

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Exercising authority as a leader is not always about where authority formally resides; sometimes it is about who has the best situational awareness at any given time and can provide the best guidance in achieving the overall mission or objective. That is the individual to whom leadership should transfer, at least for long enough to see the team through the transition of circumstances. This is the essence of tactical leadership and one of many ways to effectively exercise authority as a good leader.


As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingEd Gillcrist of Shackleton Group.

As the chief executive of the Colorado-based business consultancy Shackleton Group, Ed Gillcrist relies on over 30 years of organizational development and leadership experience as well as that of a Marine officer and aviator to help organizations develop and lead more adaptable and effective teams.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I’m the youngest of 10 children, 9 brothers and one sister. We were/are an extremely tight knit Irish Catholic family and grew up with lots of involvement and guidance from our parents. We all played sports, where in school plays, play guitars and had lots of time singing songs together as a family. Our extended family is equally close, I had 36 cousins, I have 39 nieces and nephews and 21 great nieces and nephews. We have a long tradition of military service. 47 members of my family have served in every war since the Civil War to the present. I have multiple nieces and nephews on active duty as we speak. My Father was a Marine and worked for Oak Ridge National Laboratories in East Tennessee, where most of my siblings and I were born. In the late 60’s we moved to Vienna, Austria where my father took a job with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and subsequently the United Nations as a diplomat. I was four years old when we moved and returned to the US when I was 18. My parents lived there for 20 years. During the formative years of my life, my parents exposed us to the rich history of western civilization and made sure they leveraged every opportunity for us to be exposed to as many different cultural and historical opportunities as possible. My Father made us extremely aware of what it meant to be the beneficiaries of being American and to be grateful for those blessings. He also made it clear that it was important to recognize the awareness and responsibilities associated with that. Growing up during the Cold War and less than 20 miles from the Soviet Iron Curtain, we saw and experienced a multitude of refugees from those countries who left to escape the tyranny and despotism of Soviet and Communist rule. My father ensured we saw the fallout of the tyranny and despotism of the Third Reich. He also made sure we understood the importance of learning history, of reading and of educating ourselves, in order to take on the inevitable responsibilities of leadership that my parents expected of each of us. My parents insisted that we all play sports and participate in plays, to not only make us more well-rounded, but mostly to ensure we understood what it meant to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My time in the Marine Corps was inspired by two key things. First, my family history and legacy of serving this incredible nation. My career was an opportunity to give back to a nation who has given so much to me, my family and others. Secondly, having grown up so close to the Iron Curtain, and having been exposed firsthand to so many who had escaped oppressive regimes and environs, I felt a calling to defend and ensure the longevity of a unique concept and idea successfully embodied in our constitution. So, in short, a calling to continue a heartfelt family legacy and to serve my country to ensure it remained safe from the despotism and tyranny that has run rampant through history in so many other places.

As far as my current career of almost 20 years, I still believe it was influenced by those same elements, but also included an awareness that the more we learn, the greater responsibility to give back in our experience, both our successes and our failures. While I had no intention, initially, of getting into the field of Organizational and Leadership Development, it’s where I somehow ended up, where my experiences lead me, and where I’ve ended up growing the most. It is also, I feel, where I was able to contribute the most. All in all, I’ve realized that both careers have afforded me great opportunities- to learn from varying circumstances, to live and work in diverse environments and to work with extraordinary people-both clients and teammates.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I’m sure, and I’d bet most folks agree, there was more than just one person, particularly depending on when and where I was in my life or career. That said, the one individual who had the greatest impact and acted as the thread of continuity throughout my life was, and still is, my father. He is an extraordinary example, as a father, husband, Christian, friend, teammate, athlete, author, teacher, and leader. He doesn’t have a pretentious or self-righteous bone in his body, constantly reads, loves history, and not only leads by example, but with extraordinary humor and zest for life. All of my siblings and our children adore him and seize every opportunity to spend whatever time we can around him. My father had an unbelievable knack for encouraging us when we needed it, helping to teach us to overcome whatever challenges we were faced with, to look for the best in those around us, to be assertive, to be compassionate, to be men and women of our convictions, to stand up for what we believe in and to have the moral courage to stand up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. My parents set high standards, expected a lot from us, and held us accountable when we fell short. My Dad has an amazing ability to balance all at once being both demanding and compassionate, but never unreasonable. He taught me one of the greatest lessons in life is to wake up every day and pray; Today….I will try to be the best steward of the gifts God gives me, and tomorrow to be a better steward of those gifts than I was yesterday! He never wished for us to avoid life’s challenges, but rather to have the grace, will, leadership and fortitude to overcome those challenges. I recently was privileged to witness my father’s induction into the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame. He was an extraordinary world class athlete, both as a young man and through the Master’s and Senior Master’s Divisions at the age of 70. He never bragged or told stories about those events or times, unless they were to share a lesson about when he fell short, or how to overcome some challenge…or to take advantage of an opportunity to make fun of himself. Nevertheless, once the award was bestowed on him he stood up and gave his acceptance speech. He began by wondering how in the world the selection committee could have possibly picked him, and how they must have had a hard time finding adequate nominees that year. He then went on to regal the audience with a couple of extremely funny vignettes from his life, in which he had really screwed something up or done something stupid. The audience was in hysterics. Not once did he pat himself on the back for any of his own accomplishments. He gave credit to everyone else in attendance for their accomplishments, and, MOST importantly, he really meant it. He has never recognized what an extraordinary man he is.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

There are so many!!!!!!! Both mistakes and funny stories. I can say unequivocally though, there have been an endless number of mistakes, but ultimately, in the wake of every mistake, there was growth and sometimes even success. One specific instance that I have never forgotten involves an individual that worked for me for quite a while. The person had proven themselves both unpredictable and frankly unreliable. After multiple attempts at correcting shortfalls and trying to elicit any improvement (without seeing much change) I began to feel the failure was largely mine as a leader. With that in mind, I decided to take a chance with them. Thinking that I was being a bold and creative leader, I gambled that when given a task of greater significance, whose outcome was more consequential to the team and organization, that they would naturally rise to the occasion. They didn’t, and it was a disaster. They were true to their past performance. My poor judgement and lack of awareness as a leader in that circumstance was an unnecessary risk to the team and the organization. The key lesson I learned was that leadership alone can’t fix some individual shortcomings, and that the tough decision, the hard decision, but ultimately the right decision for the good of the team and the organization would and should have been to let them go.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

First, I think it’s critical that every individual defines what success means to them. Having said that, I’ve learned over time AND firmly believe that it cannot be measured in dollars. I also believe that true success is the direct outcome of effort, desire, and striving always to do the right thing. Be a leader always, regardless of where you sit in the organization. Good leadership is a commodity that no organization can ever have too much of. Good leadership requires a commitment to hard work, dedication to the organization, and realizing that you are part of something bigger than yourself. Find the thing that you are, or can be, passionate about and make that your work. Then, your work will always make a difference. Finally, check your ego at the door! The work you do is not about you; it’s about the organization or greater thing that you are part of. When it becomes just about you, it may be time to move on. At the end of the day, any success I’ve experienced has been because of the support of those around me, my family, my friends, and my teammates. Success is not achievable on your own, so you must be sure to recognize and be grateful for all those whom you’ve counted on. Always remind yourself that it’s because of the “we,” not the “I.”

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Wow. Again, there are so many great books that have influenced me at different periods in my life. I remember as a young man, reading the book Endurance about Shackleton’s trans-antarctic expedition. Shackleton had previously been part of the Scott expedition-racing the Norwegian explorer, Amundsen, to the Pole. The expedition ended in disaster for the British team, largely due to Scott’s ego. I realized how one poor decision after another by Scott continued to exponentially compound the horrific emergency he had created. Shackleton took all of those lessons with him and was determined not to make the same mistakes again. When his ship was caught and ultimately crushed in the ice, he recognized that the mission changed, and his new mission was the survival and successful return of his men to their families. He GENUINELY checked his ego at the door and saw to the care and survival of those he led. That book is a must-read for all leaders, in my opinion, and had a lasting impact on my family and me. So much so that we named our company after him. It’s worth noting, and I think indicative of who Shackleton was, that the Shackleton Family motto was “Fortitudine Vincimus”… through endurance we conquer!

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Teddy Roosevelt

We are bombarded in society today with Wiki experts and Social Media historians. In other words, far too many folks today rely on and are satisfied with soundbites to keep themselves both educated and informed. Additionally, The media and social media alike are replete with armchair quarterbacks who are full of advice but lack any practical experience. I find it very difficult to suffer those that tell me how the world really works but have never left the confines of the pages of a book or the boundaries of a campus but are willing to expound on the virtues or fallacies of this, that, or the other. The true credit goes to the man or woman in the arena, who’s been there, done that and can share the practical experience of their lessons learned and has the scars and consequently the credibility to prove it.

A profound example of this is from the 1800s, when there was little understanding of what lay at the north pole. There were multiple attempts to raise expeditions to explore. Critical to these attempts was whatever corporate knowledge could be leveraged. A famous German cartographer of the day who traveled about Europe demanded that he knew what was at the north pole; a tropical sea inside a short ice barrier. This professor had never left the continent, save a short trip to Great Britain. His voice was the prominent one heard over the objections of other ACTUAL explorers who had tried unsuccessfully to penetrate this supposed ring of ice. As a result, several expeditions embarked on disastrous adventures based on the loudest yet least credible voice. Experience is a grand professor that should be supplemented by intelligent education, but in the words of Mark Twain, “don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.”

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am truly excited about every project we are working on. We deliberately chose to stay engaged in the government arena so that we could continue to contribute in some small way to the systems or platforms that our men and women in uniform rely on to bring them home to their families. We are lucky enough to have spent almost 20 years helping, or we at least like to believe and hope that we are helping those teams and organizations be as effective as possible. The blessing has been that, by and large, we are treated as members of the team that we are supporting as opposed to outsiders. It is truly collaborative, and that alone provides us an enormous amount of drive and incentive to get better and continuously improve on the support we provide.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?

First of all, I’m immediately leery of any claim to expertise in most areas, and certainly the same goes for the area of leadership. I’m happy to claim that I’m an experienced leader, and that implies mainly all of the trips, bumps, falls, and scrapes that get any of us to this point in our lives-all of the events, the good, the bad, and the ugly. At the risk of alienating a whole lot of people that are firm believers in EI, I’m not a big fan of that label. To me, it’s just packaging and grossly overcomplicates what people need to know to grow as leaders. The elements that make up EI have been around since the beginning of time, in other words, long before Goleman’s book and even before the child psychology studies that coined the phrase 50 or 60 yrs ago. What I’m trying to say is that Columbus didn’t discover the Western Hemisphere; it was always there; he just bumped into it. I’m not trying to diminish all the studies and data that academics have collected over the years or even to suggest that it doesn’t have some application somewhere. But to suggest that it is the pivotal element of leadership or that it is some epiphany of leadership development is a potentially dangerous and misleading assertion. George Washington, Shackleton, U.S. Grant, Gandhi, all of them and many more great leaders had never heard of the concept of EI but were extremely effective at exercising their authority and all of those elements that are important in leading and balancing all that leadership required at the right moment given the circumstances. Yes, at the end of the day, in order to be a good or even simply an effective leader, we have to be situationally and self-aware. I have to understand what drives me and what drives those I lead, work with, work for, etc. HOWEVER, this is just ONE of the multiple aspects that make up a good leader. It’s the combination and application and balance of all of these things, from intelligence, knowledge, awareness, and on and on… that make us good or effective or better at leading, and ultimately exercising our implicit or explicit authority effectively. To suggest that one is somehow more important that all the others is misleading and speaks to EI’s credibility and unnecessary complexity in my opinion. Leadership, and exercising the authority that naturally or coincidentally goes with that, whether you want to lead or whether its thrust upon you, is hard enough even for seasoned leaders, let alone those who are trying to figure it out for the first time without making it feel like you have to assimilate all of this intellectual fodder to be able to lead. In my opinion, conceptually, leadership is not as complicated as we make it out to be, but EXTREMELY hard to do and even harder to do well.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

So, I’m not going to get into a technical definition for all the reasons I just addressed. There are hundreds of discussions and definitions and books and articles out there on what EI is or supposed to mean. Suffice it to say that the important take away for new, young, emerging leaders is that you have to know yourself and your people and always weigh and balance those “knowns” against circumstances in order to help lead and ultimately have the physical and moral courage to accept the all the responsibilities associated with that mantle and exercise your given authority appropriately.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

It shouldn’t be considered separate, rather an element of our overall intelligence. It’s unnecessary and confusing to posture it as a deeply intellectual concept that you have to delve into intellectually to understand what it all means and how to apply it. Look, leaders have to understand the environment they are leading in that includes themselves and those around them. Any experienced leader knows fully how difficult it is to parse out any of the hundreds of influencing factors at any given time and say THAT’S IT; if all leaders just do THAT from now on, they will be successful. These things are not and should not be considered separate and distinct, and consequently, the hinge on which leading pivots, rather its an amalgamation of lots of things at any given time. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, operate in varying environments, under a variety of circumstances. At the end of the day, I have found, for me, and those that I’ve worked with, whom I’ve led and those that have led me, that at least ONE common denominator that contributed to their effectiveness and success was that they were always willing and able to exercise the authority they believed they were responsible for.

I always admired the courage and confidence with which they did this. An example, in my article, Creating a Culture of Leadership, I describe what I mean by exercising your authority effectively.

“Break hard right now!” the crew chief of the search-and-rescue helicopter yelled over the radio. Until that moment, the flight had been relatively uneventful. The weather was good, and the five-person crew had executed this same routine several times a week. The crew chief’s words shattered the calm. The pilot’s response at the controls was an instinctive and immediate hard right turn. The crew chief continued, “Keep it coming, sir. Keep it coming. OK, roll out!” Again, the pilot complied without hesitation. “Alright, sir, descend about 500 feet,” the chief continued. “OK, sir, that’s good, you can level off. You’ve got it.”

Exercising authority as a leader is not always about where authority formally resides; sometimes it is about who has the best situational awareness at any given time and can provide the best guidance in achieving the overall mission or objective. That is the individual to whom leadership should transfer, at least for long enough to see the team through the transition of circumstances. This is the essence of tactical leadership and one of many ways to effectively exercise authority as a good leader.

Like I said before in order to be willing and able to exercise our authority, as leaders, we have to be able to recognize, understand and rapidly assimilate and balance an enormous number of factors and then LEAD! Above all we have to accept our position or role and be confident enough to let that authority transfer to whoever can get us all where we need to go, removing our ego from the equation long enough to experience the required success.

Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?

No, I don’t. I think we as leaders and our educators (whom SHOULD actually fall into the category of leaders), but clearly not all of them do, have a responsibility to UN-muddy the waters for those we lead and teach. We have an absolute obligation to try and simplify the complex so that it is both teachable and learnable. Making things simpler or trying to is extremely hard work, but that in part is our job…like our company philosophy says.” Work hard to keep things simple.” I recognize that it may not always be as simple as we like, but we need to strive for that. In my opinion, the concept of EI does the opposite; it unnecessarily overcomplicates the concept. So, in my opinion, our education system needs to focus on all that leadership is and should be and try to help our students with that and emphasize the importance and impact. We can put them in leadership positions, encourage them to be part of sports, clubs, drama, etc. and then discuss those dynamics with them, just like a coach debriefs a game or we debriefed missions in the Marine Corps, rather than drag them down the path of the ethereal and complex academics of EI.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Fundamental change in our Education System. I believe our education system is one of the critical foundations of how we grow. We have established an education business instead of an education system. We have convinced every child in this country that they are somehow not as valuable to society unless they have a college degree. This is a gross injustice, in my view. Those with college degrees did not build civilization, on the contrary, civilization was built and grown by those with skills and vocations, admirable vocations at that, guildsman, carpenters, plumbers, inventors, etc. We need to bring back the vocational aspect of education to our schools and applaud those who want to go that route and encourage it if they want to.

Furthermore, we need to reduce the number of years students spend or are required to spend pursuing higher education work. i.e., a college undergraduate degree. I think, on average, students spend 5 ½ plus years at university to achieve an undergraduate degree. This is in part because students are required to have approximately 140–150 hours of course work completed to graduate. Only roughly 1/3 of those hours are in their competency. Once students graduate from High School, they are required to take all the fundamentals over again, basic math, science, English, etc. (which in and of itself speaks to the challenges of our secondary education system). Then a multitude of hours to ensure they are “well rounded.” This puts an enormous cost burden on each student, an overriding and long-term debt, and frankly, doesn’t prepare them adequately for the work environment where they will ultimately become effective, contributing members of society and the world at large. We could reduce the undergraduate system requirements to say some basic refresh of fundamentals and focus on only core requirements. This would obviously vary from degree to degree; PoliSci is going to have very different requirements from Engineering or Architecture from Medical etc., but going beyond core would then be a Masters or advanced levels of education. I suspect this would be met with some disdain by higher-level academia because it is a business, and they would then have fewer customers and sell less product/service and have fewer individuals attending university for shorter periods of time while more moved into vocations. This would hurt their “business “model” approach to education. However, this change would allow academia to be focused more on their real reason for existence, which is to provide focused education. We/society places undue importance and credibility on a college degree and certifications and far too little on the experience. While I fully understand that some professions absolutely require those things (surgeons, pilots, engineers, etc.) for the good and safety of all, but it shouldn’t apply to EVERY industry and profession. The unfortunate result of this is we cull out so much potential talent and capability because they don’t have a college degree that we and our society miss opportunities for greatness to reveal itself, and that’s a shame. In short we need to applaud and promote the value and ideals of vocations, the very things that our civilization was built on, and shift/pivot the primary focus of higher education from a business to a more focused education on core requirements.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Elon Musk. I think he is bold, a straight shooter, and I think he is what he appears to be, and although some people may not like that, from what I can see on the public stage, he appears to walk the walk. He recently said two things (on different occasions) that resonated loudly with me.

He made a comment about their space endeavors that, in my opinion, reflects good leadership and how true leaders should act. To paraphrase, he said, “if the space launch is successful, it’s because of the combined talent, leadership and collaboration of the team of men and women who made it work” the immediate question was, what if it fails? To which he responded, “if it fails, it is 100% on me, and the decisions I made!” That is what good leadership looks like. He recently suggested or commented that he was more interested in the experience than a college degree or words. Because he doesn’t want to miss some potential talent that didn’t make the cut on paper.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

To further access Gillcrist’s work and his colleagues, visit www.shkgrp.com, where you will find his and his employee’s unique Insights & Information on Leadership, Organizational Development, and helping organizations do what they do better!

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