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Enduring Leadership Lessons from Antarctic Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton

The launch of the James Caird from Elephant Island on April 24, 1916.
Frank Hurley
/
State Library of New South Wales
The launch of the James Caird from Elephant Island on April 24, 1916.

One hundred years ago this week, Sir Ernest Shackleton and five members of his crew were in a jury-rigged 23-foot lifeboat named the James Caird, sailing across some of the most treacherous ocean in the world (the Drake Passage between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is notorious for hurricane force winds and ninety foot waves) near peak storm season. Ironically, they weren't waiting to be rescued. They were the rescue mission.

They'd left behind the remaining twenty two members of their expedition on rocky, barren Elephant Island in the south Shetlands, and they were aiming for the British whaling station on South Georgia Island, some eight hundred miles to the northeast. From there, Shackleton hoped, he could find a ship to go back and rescue his crew.

Miraculously, it worked. Mostly. The six men reached South Georgia Island in sixteen days, exhausted, and then had to climb across a mountain range to reach the whaling station. And, still, their troubles weren't at an end.

A glimpse of the Endurance, trapped in Antarctic pack ice.
Credit Frank Hurley / State Library of New South Wales
A glimpse of the Endurance, trapped in Antarctic pack ice.

It was May, 1916. All of Britain's resources were dedicated to fighting World War I, so finding a ship and crew was no mean feat. Plus, it was the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere. In the end, it took four attempts - four ships - to reach Elephant Island and retrieve those twenty two men.

This is the final chapter of the expedition of the Endurance, a ship Sir Ernest Shackleton named for his family motto, "By endurance, we conquer." There could be no more fitting moniker and motto for the ship, and the man, who have gone down in history for failing to achieve the stated goal of the expedition, but succeeded - against astronomical odds - in bringing home all members of the crew alive.

The Endurance had set sail from England on August 8, 1914, with twenty eight men and a mission to be the first to talk across the continent of Antarctica. But they never even reached the shore. The Endurance encountered pack ice just days after departing that same whaling station on South Georgia Island, and became trapped in the ice eighty miles from the coast of Antarctica. It was eventually crushed, and sank.

The crew spent more than a year living on the ice, before they encountered enough open water to launch the life boats and make their way to Elephant Island. At every step, the crew of the Endurance encountered conditions, obstacles, and mishaps that would be comical, if not so tragic.

That Shackleton was able to maintain control and morale, and then bring home every man alive, is a feat unparalleled in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration - and possibly, to this day. But the crew of the Endurance returned to a nation for whom the value of life and the meaning of heroism had been radically altered by World War I. For years, Shackleton's achievement went largely unappreciated by those outside the expedition.

It is only in the past few decades that Shackleton's extraordinary leadership has been recognized. While Shackleton undoubtedly possessed good looks and charisma, business historian Nancy Koehn, author of Ernest Shackleton: Exploring Leadership, says many of Shackleton's skills and attributes are learned behaviors and translate quite readily to today's business world: be flexible; hire for attitude, train for aptitude; and value your people above all else.