Product Code: 1917
4 leadership lessons of the shackleton expedition
(and a pretty great adventure story, too)
It’s said that for the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, his life’s meaning came from the kind of close shaves one encounters only on expedition. This was a guy who led multiple campaigns to the bitter coldest corners of our planet, and who on one of those expeditions saw his ship, Endurance, broken apart in the ice and his men stranded without shelter… and who led them—all of them—to safety and rescue after nearly two years on the ice. Shackleton has been a hero ever since.
His is not only the kind of great adventure story that begs to be read in the cold of winter while sitting next to a warm fire… it’s also one of the all-time best true stories about what it means to be a true leader.
Here are four things Shackleton did that are still an inspiration today:
1. he understood the hunger for adventure that’s inside the hearts of men.
Shackleton has been widely credited as having penned this recruitment ad for one of his Antarctic expeditions:
MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY, SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL, HONOR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS.
Legend has it that some 5,000 men (and three women) replied to the ad. Why? Because what he was offering was more than just employment. In fact, this is hardly an employment ad at all. Instead, he was recruiting comrades to join him for a life-changing experience and a challenging test of personal character and mettle. He was not looking only for men with the right experience and physical capability—but for men who thrilled to the dark challenges of Antarctic exploration. In this way, he selected for those who would be in it for the same reasons he was.
Their mission was to be the first team to cross the mysterious continent and reach the other side, to walk where no man had gone before. In the end, they failed to even reach the continent, much less cross it. But the Shackleton Expedition still went down in history... as a story of amazing survival in the face of one catastrophe after another.
2. when adversity struck, shackleton kept his men focused on routine.
Shortly after Endurance made its way into Antarctic waters checkerboarded with ice floes, the ship became immobilized by the ice—just one day’s distance from the Antarctic continent. A seafarer as experienced as Shackleton would surely have known that the ship probably could be crushed by ice. But there was nothing to do be wait through the bleak Antarctic winter until the spring thaw, and that meant that for 10 months, they would have to just wait it out.
To keep spirits up, Shackleton had the team keep to their duties: taking scientific measurements, swabbing the decks, hunting to keep up food stores. In the evenings, they socialized. In confines that surely could have sparked “cabin fever,” they managed to keep their wits about them--in large part because Shackleton kept his wits about him, never seeming to waver in his belief the ice would release them and they would continue on their journey.
Shackleton’s calm and confidence set the right tone for his men, and they patiently stood by the ship. Unofrtunately, in October, 1914, the pressures of the icepack became too great and Endurance was slowly crushed apart. As one of the crew members described in his journal: "A terrible night with the ship outline dark against the sky & the noise of the pressure against her ... like cries of a living creature."
They were now stranded miles off the coast of the Antarctic continent, more than half the length of the planet from home and 800 miles across a half-frozen sea from possible help or safety. It would have been certainly understandable had Shackleton’s resolve buckled just a bit. It's easy to imagine a scenario where the team fell apart—or just plain gave up. But they didn’t. In fact, far from it.
They camped three nights on the ice and then began to march toward Antarctica, some 350+ miles away, dragging the ship's lifeboats--each weighing close to a ton--behind them. They made it about a mile or so to a more stable ice-floe and set up camp and regrouped before setting sail in the small boats upon a precarious seven-day journey to nearby Elephant Island.
3. Shackleton put his own life on the line, against incredible odds.
The moment the ship sunk, taking its relative safety, shelter and stores with it, the mission of the Shackleton Expedition changed. It was no longer about being the first to hike across Antarctica.
Now he announced a new goal: “Ship and stores have gone — so now we’ll go home.”
Shackleton was so committed to that survival that he devised an amazing rescue plan—and told his team he would lead it. The plan was this: He and five of the men would take a 22-foot lifeboat and set off across an 800-mile expanse of ocean legendary for its raging seas, to reach a small whaling station on South Georgia Island. There, he would organize a rescue party and convince them to make the return trip to pick up the others. In the meantime, the remaining members of Endurance's crew would hunker down together and wait. Among them they had only two small lifeboats, some tents and supplies. And their leader's promise.
Shackleton departed by sea in April 1916 on what is now widely heralded as one of the all-time greatest sea journeys in history. In their tiny boat, the team navigated through gale force winds and even a hurricane over the 17-day journey to South Georgia Island. From there, they made a 5-day trek through the mountains, finally reaching the whaling station. Where he worked to organize a rescue team and returned to save the men he’d left behind.
4. he never wavered from that commitment.
It took months to get a rescue ship. There were three failed attempts by ships that couldn’t make it through the ice. Finally a Chilean steamship was able to make it. All 28 team members had survived months of waiting in the bitter cold and were there, waiting for him when he returned in late 1916--as he'd said he would. They had been stuck on the ice for nearly two years--much of that camping.
In the end, the Shackleton Expedition never crossed Antarctica. His team never even reached the Antarctic continent. But he delivered all of his men home safe—and that remarkable accomplishments and the many harrowing feats it took have made the Shackleton Expedition the stuff of legend.
In September of 1914, Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton set out on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition with the goal of being the first man to traverse the Antarctic continent. Aboard what would become his aptly-named ship, the Endurance, he and 27 men set sail for the South Pole. But along the way, the ship became trapped in ice, setting off a series of events that would lead him away from his original goal and yet test him as a man and enshrine him as a hero far more than the attainment of it would have. While he did not complete the transcontinental journey he had hoped for, he brought back all 27 of his men alive, a feat of magnificent leadership without parallel.
How did he do it? Shackleton’s leadership abilities were myriad, but today we will focus on the two most vital: his resilience and service.
A Leader Must Be Supremely Resilient
Resiliency involves both the hardihood and courage to take on risks and challenges, and the ability to bounce back from difficulties and disappointments. Shackleton would face hardships that almost defy belief, and it was his iron-clad resilience that allowed he and his men to survive.
The story of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is the story of surging optimism met with crushing defeat manifested over and over and over again. That the former never failed Shackleton, and the latter never broke him, is truly what brought his men through to the other side.
Numerous times, Shackleton and his men felt incredibly hopeful that a goal was in sight and things were turning their way, only to have these hopes utterly dashed:
The Endurance trapped in ice.
- The Endurance gets stuck in the ice floes before reaching Vahsel Bay, where the expedition across Antarctica was to begin. But Shackleton is still hopeful that if they wait until the ice melts in the spring, they’ll be able to continue the journey.
- But after months trapped in ice, the pressure from the shifting floes twists and breaks the ships; it slowly fills with water and Shackleton must issue the order to abandon the vessel. The men must now camp on the ice floe.
The men attempt to pull the boats across the ice floes.
- Shackleton is hopeful that the men and dogs can pull the supplies and boats across the ice floes until they reach open water, at which point they can set sail for Paulet Island, 346 miles to the northwest. He leads the party, breaking the trail and trying to smooth the pressure ridges with a shovel and pick. But the wet snow soaks the men’s tents and sleeping bags and slows progress considerably. After only making it two miles in two days of marching, the plan is abandoned. The men will have to remain camped on a barren sheet of ice, where they must be careful that the ice does not crack and the killer whales do not rise to the surface and tip them into the freezing waters.
- After 2 months camped on the ice, Shackleton decides to attempt another march. The men once more leave in high spirits, but again, the progress is so painfully slow that the expedition is quickly abandoned. The men will have to camp for four more months as their icy home drifts for hundreds of miles, their lives completely at the mercy of nature. At one point, the coast of Antarctica comes within sight, but the way is blocked by ice, and Shackleton is forced to slowly slide away from his goal.
- After almost six months of living on ice, it finally melts sufficiently for the boats to be launched. The men set off for Elephant Island, which is only 30 miles away. After an arduous day of sailing, Shackleton feels hopeful they are almost there. But when their position is checked, they find they are now 60 miles from their destination—the current has carried them off course.
En route to Elephant Island the men first tried camping on ice floes, but this was abandoned when one cracked open as the men slept, tearing a tent apart and dropping its inhabitant, still inside his sleeping bag, into the icy waters. Shackleton, ever vigilant about the safety of his men, had sensed something was wrong, and was right on the scene, immediately fishing the man out.
- For seven days, Shackleton and his men row and sail in small, open boats upon the stormy seas. Blocks of ice threaten their path. Rain and snow squalls soak them though. Snow showers dust them in white. The sun is absent for 17 hours a day, and the temperatures dip below zero in the dark. Sleep comes only in tiny, involuntary snatches, and the men are completely exhausted. On the fourth day of the journey, the water supply runs out and the men grow so dehydrated they cannot eat. Elephant Island is spotted, but as they pull close, a strong gale prevents them from landing. For two days they can see their goal but not approach it.
- When the men finally make land, they dance along the “beach” and let the pebbles dribble through their hands. Despite the fact this was “an inhospitable place, devoid of any vegetation, covered with glaciers and swept by ice laden surges of the South Atlantic Ocean,” the men are overjoyed; this is the first time they’ve been on solid land in 497 days. But Shackleton realizes that their landing spot is too open to wind and waves, and the men must get back in the boats and move another 7 miles around the island.
- The men make camp and are greatly relieved, believing they will be able to spend the winter on the island and be picked up by whalers in the spring. But Shackleton realizes there will not be enough food on the island to last that long; he must break the news to the men and get back in the boat to sail another 800 miles to the whaling stations on the island of South Georgia.
The launch of the 22-foot James Caird from Elephant Island, the boat that would carry Shackleton 800 miles on the open sea to South Georgia.
- Shackleton chooses five men to accompany him, loads a boat with a month’s supply of rations, and takes off to their last hope of salvation. South Georgia was only a tiny speck of an island, and with the smallest mistake in navigation, the men would be swept out into the Atlantic Ocean, where the nearest land was thousands of miles away. For 16 days, the men are battered by waves and wind, fierce gales, and the constant spray of freezing ocean water, which chills them to the very marrow of their bones. Water makes its way into nearly every nook in the boat, including their moldering sleeping bags, and has to be continually pumped and bailed out by hand. The men cannot stand or sit up straight, and with the ship violently pitching back and forth, they must crawl over the stones serving as ballast to move from one part of the boat to another. Their bodies grow sore and bruised; exposure leaves their mouths cracked and swollen. As the men near the island, water rations grow low and have to be cut; desperate dehydration sets in. Land is spotted on the 14th day, but there is nowhere safe to put in. The drinking water is now completely gone. A hurricane-force gale rocks and floods the boat. The men feel the end is near. But the next day they finally find a bay in which to put in.
The small boat encountered 80-foot waves.
- But the men’s journey is far from over. They find themselves on the opposite side of the island from the whaling stations. Shackleton decides to make an overland journey to reach them, an expedition never before attempted, and one that would take the men over steep snow-slopes and glaciers, jagged mountain peaks, and impassable cliffs. But first another delay—bad weather keeps the men from starting the march for ten days, an anxiety-filled time as their thoughts continually turn to the men left on Elephant Island.
The island of South Georgia was beautiful and forbidding.
- When the march begins, Shackleton as always breaks the trail for the other men, trudging through soft, knee-deep snow and across fields of ice. Without flashlights, the darkness hides the deadly crevasses until they are just upon them. Several times the men grow hopeful that they are almost there, only to realize they have gone the wrong way, forcing them to gloomily retrace their steps. For 36 sleepless hours the men march in search of the whaling stations, stopping only for meals.
- Finally, Shackleton reaches the first signs of civilization he has seen in a year and a half. And still, the setbacks are not over. Shackleton is desperate to rescue the men on Elephant Island as quickly as possible. He makes three attempts to retrieve them, but each time the ship is forced to turn back because ice blocks the way. It takes a fourth ship and four months until Shackleton makes it back to Elephant Island, but he is greeted with the most rewarding sight of all: all 22 of the men he had left behind, alive, waving from the beach.
Hope. Progress. Crushing setback. Hope. Progress. Crushing setback. This was Shackleton’s reality for a year and a half. Such a string of endless disappointments might have made a lesser man want to curl up and die. But not Shackleton. Although he had moments where the weight of the situation sat heavily upon his shoulders, he would always shake off the gloom and resiliently move forward once more; his manly spirit could not be defeated.
This was true from his first setback to his last.
While the Endurance was trapped in ice, the ship’s captain, Frank Arthur Worsley, said of the man everyone called “The Boss:”