Shackleton and the Antarctic: Leadership Lessons for today

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay look at the leadership legacy of Ernest Shackleton. In this first-part of a two-part article they outline his story and his leadership qualities

News recently broke that the sunken wreck of HMS Endurance had been found after more than a hundred years, lying deep below frozen wastes in the Weddell Sea. The ship had transported the explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica in 1914, the sinking of the ship was just one of the many disasters that struck his ill-fated expedition. Understanding of how Shackleton planned and dealt with adversity and extreme conditions fits many of the conditions modern leaders are experiencing, minus the snow and ice.

Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition 1914-1916
Ernest Shackleton led a team of 27 men across the frozen wastes of the South Pole, when his ship became stranded on the ice. With no other solution in sight, Shackleton and a small number of colleagues set off on a gruelling journey, risking frostbite and starvation, to get help and successfully rescued all his crew. It is this leadership which he displayed time and again to powerful effect and it is his exemplary behaviour that makes his journey more than just a gritty tale of hardship and courage.

Relevant examples of leadership challenges
What went on during that tough expedition says a lot about leadership and the practical challenges leaders face which are still true and relevant today. As in the expedition, in a critical situation, the leader is the one everyone turns to for a pathway ahead; yet for good leadership to take place, trust is a key ingredient which has to be nurtured and earned. Leadership often becomes the focus of praise and, in times of failure, particularly of criticism. Emotional factors such as morale play an important part in success and good leaders need to read people and bring out the best in them. All these aspects came out in the harsh climate of the Antarctic.

In Shackleton’s eyes, team spirit was crucial to enable everyone to work together, even when the going got tough

Dealing with crisis after crisis
Leaders recently have had to face up to one crisis after another, as did Shackleton. Even as Shackleton tried to reach safety, the last stages of his journey required trekking a dangerous 20 miles across the mountainous and frozen interior of the island of South Georgia. If this were not enough, Shackleton’s rescue mission of his men needed four attempts in different boats before he was able to reach the rest of his team whom he had left behind weeks before on a windswept beach.

Shackleton had been able to weld a strong team: some teams are capable of summoning extraordinary resources and do this with good spirits, in some, low morale saps all energy. Here are some traits seen in Shackleton in terms of leadership success.

Display calm
Alexander Macklin, the ship’s doctor, first noticed Shackleton’s ability to handle a crisis when the ship stuck in the ice, “It was at this moment Shackleton…showed one of his sparks of real greatness.” Shackleton made sure he headed off any signs of extreme nerves and panic in the crew.

Be open and honest
Shackleton always spoke honestly of risks and dangers, but with a firm conviction that they would come through. After issuing the order that each man could carry only two pounds of personal gear, Shackleton set the example by removing his gold watch, gold cigarette case and some sovereigns and throwing them away. Another example, when they took to a small boat in freezing, treacherous seas Shackleton spent a disproportionate time standing up at the tiller and braving the elements.

Support your team
One of those close to Shackleton later wrote, “Whenever Shackleton notices that a man seems extra cold and shivering, he immediately orders another hot drink served to all.” In Shackleton’s eyes, team spirit was crucial to enable everyone to work together, even when the going got tough. He prompted the men to play football together, take part in singing, organised group competitions such as dog-sled racing, dressing up and having their heads shaved to pose for the camera.

No team barriers
To help his crew get over the shock and distress when first leaving behind their ship, Shackleton served his men in a very caring way: first thing the next morning, he made hot milk and brought it personally to everyone in turn.

Commonly followed boundaries and values
Shackleton put great stress on setting ground rules and ensuring everyone mixed together and worked as a team.

To many, the last two years have presented huge challenges. Leaders will always face difficulties, but like Shackleton can be guided by effective role modelling and fundamentals. We have given examples of how Shackleton put these into practice.

In the next article we will look at suggestions for putting together a leadership development programme which uses Shackleton’s expedition as a springboard for learning about leadership.

Steve Macaulay is an associate of Cranfield Executive Development, Sarah Cook is managing director of leadership development consultants the Stairway Consultancy.

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