Leadership Lessons from the Uncertain Adventure of Ernest Shackleton and Crew on the Endurance Apply to Today

  • Published: Tuesday, May 26, 2020

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – In September of 1914, Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton set out on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, intending to be the first man to traverse the Antarctic continent.

When their ship the Endurance got stuck in the ice and sank, the crew began an unscheduled 18-month survival test. They stayed alive as they moved among the drifting ice floes until they eventually found an island and established camp. When their provisions began to run low, Shackleton and several crewmates boarded one of their salvaged lifeboats and made a daring 800-mile voyage to a whaling station. They returned with a ship, and all 27 survived the ordeal.

While Shackleton did not complete the transcontinental journey he had hoped for, he brought back all 27 of his men alive in 1916, a feat of magnificent leadership without parallel. As a result, Shackleton has been called the “greatest leader that ever came on God’s Earth, bar none.”

“I read the book ‘Endurance’ because of the history and adventure,” said David Burton, a county engagement specialist in community development with University of Missouri Extension. “I did not realize at first, but I was reading a book on leadership that made me want to do more digging on Shackleton’s leadership methods during an uncertain time. Several of the lessons apply to our present situation and the challenges faced by many business owners.”

REMARKABLE LESSONS

While the story itself is a great adventure, what makes it a remarkable lesson on leadership is that the crew gave sole credit to Shackleton for not only their survival, and for making the journey an enjoyable time.

“Shackleton not only managed the vision and the details of the expedition, but managed the personalities and morale of the crew for the entire time,” said Burton. “His brand of leadership valued flexibility, teamwork, and individual triumph.”

According to Burton, some lessons taken from Shackleton’s strategies include surrounding yourself with cheerful, optimistic people; picking a No. 2 who is loyal and but not a yes-man; and hiring people who share your vision. Through these strategies, Shackleton was able to maintain an upbeat, positive environment, even in the worst situations. At critical times, when a negative voice could do serious damage, Shackleton kept the few pessimistic individuals close to him, to lessen their effect on the other men.

“I was struck by Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival,” said Burton. “This capacity is vital in our own time when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.”

SUPREMELY RESILIENT

Resiliency involves the 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 ironclad resilience that allowed him and his men to survive.

The story of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is the story of surging optimism met with crushing defeat manifested repeatedly. That the former never failed Shackleton, and the latter never broke him, is what brought his men through to the other side safely.

Numerous times, Shackleton and his men felt hopeful that a goal was in sight, and things were turning their way, only to have these hopes dashed. There was lost equipment, wasted supplies, leaking boats, treks through waist-high snow, and rowing against the wind and waves (in the most challenging place on Earth).

Even when Shackleton finally reaches the first signs of civilization he has seen in a year and a half, the setbacks are not over. It takes four different attempts in four different ships over four months until Shackleton makes it back to Elephant Island. He is greeted with the most rewarding sight of all: all 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 18 months. Such a string of 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 move forward.

“Here is the mark of a real leader: the worse things got, the more calm, cool, and collected Shackleton became,” said Burton.

A LEADER SERVES

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

Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer on the Endurance, wrote this: “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.”

Shackleton was concerned about his men’s morale. He understood that idleness leads to depression, and so he kept the men as active, sending them out for vigorous games of football and hockey while the Endurance was trapped. They also had regular meals and drinks because he felt the routine gave the men stability and something to be looking forward to each day.

“Through the routines, order, and interaction, Shackleton managed the fear that threatened to take hold when the trip did not go as planned.  He knew that in this environment, without traditional benchmarks and supports, his greatest enemies were high levels of anxiety and disengagement, as well as a slow-burning pessimism,” said Burton. “Just as important, Shackleton kept his men’s focus on the future, and his goal was to bring the team home safely.”

He always thought of the needs of his men above his own. As Greenstreet put it, “It was his rule that any deprivation should be felt by himself before anybody else.”

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.

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

MORE INFORMATION

Community development specialists with MU Extension help people create communities of the future by tapping into local strengths and university resources. The Community Development Program works collaboratively with communities to foster economic development, leadership development, community decision making, community emergency preparedness, and inclusive communities.

For more information, contact any of these MU Extension community development specialists working in southwest Missouri:  Pam Duitsman in Christian County, (417) 581-3558; David Burton in Greene County, (417) 881-8909 or Maria E. Rodriguez-Alcalá in Jasper County at (417) 358-2158

###

 

Writer: David Burton

Media Contact

David Burton
417/881-8909

Related Program

Use Tab key to loop through the section bellow. Press Enter or Space to enter content for each tab button. Press Esc key to exit and to go to the next section at any time.

Extension resources