Leadership Lessons from a Great Polar Explorer

“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.

Image by UK Parliament | Flickr

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.

Decisive problem-solving

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.

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.

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.

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.

Championing humanity

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.



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Eugene Chrinian

Eugene Chrinian


Eugene Chrinian is the CEO of Ashley Furniture HomeStores in NY and NJ. Eugene Chrinian's mission includes an emphasis on Leadership and Christian Values.