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Leadership Lessons from Ernest Shackleton

ernest shackleton explorer wearing turtleneck sweater close up

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:

endurance ship shackleton expedition trapped in ice

The Endurance trapped in ice.

shackleton expedition men pulling boats across ice

The men attempt to pull the boats across the ice floes.

shackleton expedition men camping on icebergs ice floes

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.

shackleton expedition men launching boat from shore

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 expedition small boat big waves painting

The small boat encountered 80-foot waves.

south georgia island shackleton expedition

The island of South Georgia was beautiful and forbidding.

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. [1]

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:”

“Shackleton’s spirits were wonderfully irrepressible considering the heartbreaking reverses he has had to put up with and the frustration of all his hopes for this year at least. One would think he had never a care on his mind & he is the life & soul of half the skylarking and fooling in the ship.”

No matter what befell him, Shackleton remained of good cheer and always found reasons to laugh. Even on the soul-crushing boat ride to South Georgia, Worsley remembered him laughing. And on the arduous 36 hour hike to the whaling stations, Shackleton could still earnestly say, “laughter was in our hearts.”

And here is the mark of a real leader: the worse things got, the more cool and collected Shackleton became. Worsley remembered that Shackleton could sometimes be irritable when the going was good and he could afford it, “but never when things were going badly and we were up against it.”

How did Shackleton maintain his resilience amidst trials that would have made other men crumble? He concentrated not on the things that couldn’t be altered and weren’t under his control, but on what he could do.

After the Endurance sank, Worsley remembered that Shackleton was:

“bitterly disappointed, as sorely grieved as I was myself, and he let me get a glimpse of his mind when he said, sadly, one day: “It looks as though we shan’t cross the Antarctic Continent after all.” He paused, and then squaring his shoulders, added cheerfully, ‘It’s a pity, but that cannot be helped. It is the men that we have to think about.’”

And for the rest of the journey, that is essentially all he focused on, finding his strength in a service and a cause greater than his own ambitions.

A Leader Serves Those Under Him

shackleton expedition men waving from shore to boat

“Shackleton’s first thought was for the men under him. He didn’t care if he went without a shirt on his back so long as the men he was leading had sufficient clothing.” –Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer

“How he stood the incessant vigil was marvelous, but he is a wonderful man…He simply never spares himself if, by his individual toil, he can possibly benefit anyone else.” –Thomas Orde-Lees

“Shackleton had a genius—it was neither more nor less than that—for keeping those about him in high spirits. We loved him. To me, he was a brother. The men felt the cold it is true; but he had inspired the kind of loyalty which prevented them from allowing themselves to get depressed over anything.” –FA Worsley

Equal in importance to Shackleton’s supreme resilience, was his care, almost obsession, for the well-being of his men.

Shackleton was ever concerned about his men’s morale. He understood that idleness quickly begets depression, and so he kept the men as active as possible, sending them out for vigorous games of football and hockey while the Endurance was trapped in ice. This is also why he chose to attempt the marches across the ice once the ship sank, wisely observing that:

“It would be, I considered, so much better for the men to feel that they were progressing—even if the progress was slow—towards land and safety, than simply to sit down and wait for the tardy north-westerly drift to take us from the cruel waste of ice.”

On the way to South Georgia, he assured that the men got regular meals and drinks of hot milk every four hours; the routine gave the men stability and something to look forward to. Worsley wrote:

“It was due solely to Shackleton’s care of the men in preparing these hot meals and drinks every four hours day and night, and his general watchfulness in everything concerning the men’s comfort, that no one died during the journey. Two of the party at least were very close to death. Indeed, it might be said that he kept a finger on each man’s pulse. Whenever he noticed that a man seemed extra cold and shivered, he would immediately order another hot drink of milk to be prepared and served to all. He never let the man know that it was on his account, lest he became nervous about himself, and while all participated, it was the coldest, naturally, who got the greatest advantage.”

He always thought of the needs of his men above his own, and he was always ready to sacrifice his own comfort for others. As Worsley put it, “It was his rule that any deprivation should be felt by himself before anybody else.”

When they sailed to Elephant Island, the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley, lost his mittens, so Shackleton gave him his own; when Hurley protested, Shackleton threatened to throw them them overboard. Hurley accepted the mittens, and Shackleton’s fingers became frostbitten. Yet he never complained. When they made land in South Georgia, the men were too exhausted to pull the boat all the way in. Therefore Shackleton decided to let the men eat and rest before finishing the job. But the boat had to be watched to make sure it did not float away. Shackleton took the first watch, and let the men sleep; he then took the second watch as well, which had been assigned to Worsley, because he was so grateful for the “Skipper” having brought them safely ashore. When the men marched over the island, Shackleton was in thin leather ski boots because he had given his warm, specially-made expedition boots to another man.

ernest shackleton chest up photo ice on beard wearing turtleneck

Shackleton thought of himself as the father of the men, and believed it was his responsibility to get every man out alive. This was a great weight to bear upon his shoulders, but he bore it stoically.

When the men landed on Elephant Island, Shackleton said to Worsley, “Thank God I haven’t killed one of my men!” Worsley replied, “We all know you have worked superhumanly to look after us.” To which Shackleton answered gruffly, “Superhuman effort…isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results.”

A leader who serves and loves his men as Shackleton did, makes a sacrifice that is not simply altruistic, for such actions have the effect of forging the deepest loyalty.

When Shackleton prepared to leave on the voyage to South Georgia, he gathered his men, men who had just been through hell, and told them that the journey would be fraught with danger and had only the slimmest chances of succeeding. And then he asked for those who were willing to accompany him to step forward. Worsley recalled the scene:

 “The moment he ceased speaking every man volunteered…On the island was still safety for some weeks. The boat journey promised even worse hardships than those through which we had but recently passed. Yet so strong was the men’s affection for Shackleton, so great was their loyalty to him, that they responded as though they had not undergone any of the experiences that so often destroy those sentiments. They were as eager to accompany him as they had been on the first of August, 1914, the day upon which we had sailed nearly two years before.

It must have been a great moment for Shackleton. There was a long and pregnant pause before he replied, and then he said only three words: “Thank you men.” I remember thinking that this was one of the finest and most impressive utterances I had ever heard.”


South [2] by Sir Ernest Shackleton

Endurance [3] by F.A. Worsley