Leadership Lessons from a Great Polar Explorer
Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874–1922) is among the greatest polar explorers in history. And in recent years, experts have paid increasing attention to him as a leader. Although he never took a management course, his instincts as a born leader helped him guide a large group of men — from varied backgrounds and a range of temperaments — on a heroic voyage to safety after what could have been one of the most disastrous expeditions ever to founder on the treacherous ice of the South Pole.
“My name is Shackleton”
In late 1914, Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set off aboard the HMS Endurance with the goal of establishing a base on the coast of the frozen continent, and from there making a cross-continent trek to rendezvous with another contingent, taking advantage of way-stations of food and fuel their comrades had supplied for them along the way. Antarctica was then as little known to humans as the moon is to us today.
After getting stuck in pack ice for 10 months, one October day in 1915 the Endurance responded to the pressure by shifting position. Its rudder and keel broke off. As freezing water invaded, the crew knew they had to abandon ship. Already prepared with a plan to respond when the moment came, Shackleton and his men gathered their supplies and made camp on the ice. After close to a month, the ship sank under the ice, lost forever.
His crew remembered that Shackleton showed no outward sign of discouragement or rage. He just calmly told his men that they would have to winter amidst the pack ice. He outlined both the possibilities open to them and the real dangers they faced.
After a failed week trying to cross the ice on foot, Shackleton ordered that his team would maintain camp on an ice floe. With the warming weather of April 2016, the floe disengaged from the pack and drifted with the crew within sight of outlying rocky islands. When the floe began breaking up, the team took to their lifeboats and confronted the freezing spray of a turbulent ocean. Sleep-deprived and near their mental breaking points, the men gained the safety of Elephant Island.
Shackleton, his captain, and some of the crew then set out in a lifeboat for the 800-mile journey to a whaling station on the island of South Georgia to seek rescue for their weakened teammates. They battled punishing winds and waves for more than two weeks, only to be blown off-course and end up on the opposite side of the island from the station.
Shackleton took two men and spent 36 hours crossing perilous cliffs and ice shears to reach the station. They were the first humans ever to navigate that terrain, and the stunned Norwegian whaling crew could not believe their eyes. A bearded, unkempt, soot-stained man staggered up to them and quietly said, “My name is Shackleton.”
In August 1916, Shackleton showed up on Elephant Island in a Chilean ship to rescue the last of his men. Almost two years after they had set out for Antarctica, he brought every one of them home safely.
Understanding and caring for people
Shackleton was cautious, yet he had a natural way of understanding people, their motivation, and how to manage them. Additionally, he seemed to have a fine-tuned sense of when danger was approaching, and did everything in his power to avoid it. Perhaps most important of all, he put the lives and well-being of his men before everything else, including his own comfort and safety. And he never asked his crew to do any task he was unwilling to do himself.
Shackleton was a good man to have in your corner in a pinch. A master of improvisation and practicality, he was able to throw aside any planned course of action that wasn’t working in favor of one that would.
A quote from scientist Raymond Priestly just about sums it up. If you need scientific leadership, Priestly remarked, go on an expedition with Robert Falcon Scott. If you need to travel fast and efficiently, go with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the South Pole. But “when you are in a hopeless situation” with nowhere to turn, “get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Priestley served on expeditions to Antarctica with both Shackleton and Scott, whose 1910–1912 voyage to the South Pole ended in the deaths from hypothermia of his entire party.
Inspiration, not demands
More than one historian and expert has remarked that Scott’s leadership style, centered on “command and control,” likely played a role in his and his team’s demise. Amundsen is typically described as a resourceful self-starter with an entrepreneurial mindset.
But it is Shackleton who usually rises to the top among leadership experts for the heroic tenacity, against all odds, with which he guided his men cross-continent to safety. And no small part of Shackleton’s success was due to his ability to communicate, inspire, and build a spirit of discipline and teamwork while keeping morale high.
Putting human life and well-being first
Part of it was his temperament. Years before the Endurance mission, Shackleton turned back from an opportunity to reach the Pole when he realized he would not have enough food to supply all his men for the return journey. He wanted fame and glory, but contrary to a common Victorian mindset, he wanted to be alive to enjoy them. And he always felt his first duty was to his men, to bring them back alive and well.
Building cohesive teams
Aboard the Endurance, Shackleton had several seasoned sailors with Antarctic experience and know-how, but he also had many field researchers, novice seamen, and even a stowaway. Knowing how human nature worked, Shackleton deliberately avoided the formation of cliques by rotating bunk assignments.
Understanding the value of teamwork, as well as of respect and care for each individual, he made a special effort to work with anyone who seemed to need extra help. He refused to play favorites, and built up each man’s self-esteem and confidence by letting everyone know that they were all equals.
Shackleton also understood the value of cross-training. His scientific team helped with routine maintenance and cleaning of the ship and equipment. His frontline sailors assisted in taking scientific measurements.
Showing respect and loyalty
He also believed in equity. Shackleton insisted on distributing winter clothing to the crew before the officers, and gave away his own mittens to a man in need. He was legendary for his loyalty to his team, and he asked the same of them.
And he knew that morale and optimism were at the heart of any successful endeavor. He administered discipline, when needed, with a light touch, and didn’t swagger around barking orders. He never permitted a sense of doom and gloom to take hold of his team, and he ensured a regular round of useful work that would prevent the idleness in which low spirits and grumbling could take hold.
Shackleton’s legendary practicality led him to make incisive decisions about what to save from the Endurance. He knew his men would need the basic necessities for keeping warm, hunting food, securing drinking water, and attending to medical needs.
But he also understood that keeping up their sense of themselves as full human beings was essential. He therefore made the decision to devote precious space to taking along books and playing cards to keep them occupied and lift their mood. He also insisted that his meteorologist take along his banjo, calling it “vital mental medicine.”
And as the Endurance sank into the ice, Shackleton himself salvaged a page of a beloved poem by Rudyard Kipling.