I want to introduce you to an amazing leader. I have never met him and neither have you. He died in 1922. His most amazing accomplishment happened 100 years ago. This leader is Sir Ernest Shackleton. He led 27 men on a journey to be the first to cross Antarctica. He failed. Why do we care about a leader whose expedition failed? Because what happened instead was incredible.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

On his third Antarctic expedition, Sir Ernest Shackleton led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition for Britain, which departed England in 1914. The plan was to sail his ship, the Endurance, to Argentina, then on to Antarctica, then walk across the continent where another crew would pick them up. Sounds simple. To put things in context keep in mind there were no radios, no weather reports, no Gore-Tex or snowmobiles, no lightweight nylon/down North Face jackets. The mission was lofty. But, Shackleton had the experience, an excellent crew, and the best 1914 gear he could get.

After leaving Argentina, the ship stopped at a whaling station on South Georgia Island. There they learned that the Weddell Sea, the most dangerous sea in the world, was jammed with ice, the worst in recorded history. Some of the whalers encouraged Shackleton to wait until next year. Shackleton spent a month at the whaling station hoping the situation would improve. Unfortunately, it didn’t. On December 5, 1914 Shackleton finally proceeded down to Antarctica. As you might have predicted, only six weeks later their ship was stuck in ice. One crew member described it as “frozen, like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar.”

The crew made heroic efforts to free the ship. They tried to cut through the ice, but hours and hours of work was never enough. They were over 1,000 miles from any other humans and no one knew their predicament. They finally settled in for a long winter. They could only hope the spring would bring warmer temperatures and free their ship. For 10 months they waited. The cold, the ice, and the food supply were all concerns and the men began hunting seals and penguins to supplement their diet. However, Shackleton’s biggest concern was demoralization of the crew. He was intentional to keep the men’s spirits high. He encouraged singing, games, and skits in the evenings. He listened to them and had an “open-door policy” long before that phrase was coined. He had all the men cross-train in various roles to increase their stimulation and their competence. Surprisingly, during the 10 months their ship was stuck in the ice, the men were content. One man wrote in his journal after a particular celebration that it was “one of the happiest day of my life.”

Playing soccer on the ice

Then, on October 24, 1915, things got much worse. The ice shifted and started to crush the ship. It was soon pitched to the side and men had to move off the ship onto the ice. They started unloading the ship preparing for the worst. Three weeks later the ship sunk and the 28 men were stuck on an ice flow in Antarctica with nothing but three small lifeboats and a pile of gear. No one knew where they were and back in England they were presumed to be dead.

The Endurance right before it sunkShackleton had no idea how to get them home safely, but he knew one thing for sure. No one was going to come save them. If they were to survive it was up to him. They made several failed attempts to cross the ice with the three life boats on sledges and 69 sled dogs. There was a resupply station a few hundred miles away, but it proved to be impossible to get there. After a few months, the ice began cracking and splitting and it became too dangerous to stay. On April 9, they boarded the three life boats and headed north. After a 16-day perilous journey they made it to Elephant Island. No one was there that could help them. But, they were on land. It was a small comfort. The men were in worse shape than ever before and demoralization was setting in. They had almost no food and daily rations were tiny. Eventually Shackleton saw no other choice, but to take the best life boat, a few of the men, and sail across the Weddell Sea to the the South Georgia whaling station where they started. It was 800 miles. Miraculously, after three weeks they made it. However, once there it took Shackleton four more months to get a ship to rescue his crew. On August 30, 1916 he arrived to Elephant Island to find the 22 men he left behind. All of them alive.

Shackleton’s journey was amazing. The early 1900’s was the age of polar expeditions. It was very common for men to die during the journey. Shackleton would not accept death. He used a systems approach to create a strong team that could handle the difficult situations they faced. It may have been my own experience with expeditions as an Outward Bound instructor and a sea kayak guide that first sparked my interest in Shackleton’s story. I now give keynotes and workshops on his leadership style, most recently for the National Conference for State Legislators. Here are the leadership lessons share in the keynote.

Elements of Shackleton’s Leadership:
  1. Model and Inspire Optimism: Shackleton believed in his mission and in his team. His optimism was contagious. He intentionally made decisions to inspire optimism in his crew. He was enthusiastic, clear in his vision, encouraged singing, games, fun antics, and other merriment during the expedition.
  2. Develop a Clear, Shared Purpose: Everyone who joined the Antarctic Expedition understood the purpose. They were selected, in part, for their interest and excitement in that purpose. Many times teams form and their purpose is somewhat vague or each team member has a different idea of that purpose. Clarity around purpose has been shown, time and again, to be the most important factor to impact a team’s success.
  3. Build Unity and Commitment Within the Team: Shackleton valued hard-work and loyalty above all else. Yet, he didn’t expect this automatically; he intentionally fostered it. The team’s well-being was his top priority, higher than his mission. He knew without the team, they could never reach their goal. He got to know each team member personally and understood their strengths and their style. He made sure team members could come to his with concerns and had an “open-door policy” long before the term was coined.
  4. Create a Plan, an Alternate Plan, and Be Flexible: After the team left Patience Camp they traveled in three life boats searching for land, which they hadn’t seen in 15 months. During the 15 day journey, Shackleton changed the plan four times. The change was always because new information emerged and he had to adjust in order to meet the end goal. He avoided getting emotionally attached to a particular plan, no matter how much time he had spent devising it.
  5. Make the Tough Decisions: Shackleton continually made difficult decisions throughout the expedition. He would have been terribly unpopular among the crew had he not build relationships and loyalty. He always made decisions with their best interest in mind. For instance, when the ship arrived in Argentina after crossing the Atlantic, the cook got drunk and disorderly one night. He was fired. Shackleton did find him a new job on a ship heading to England though. Shackleton knew that man was not a good fit for his team. He then hired a new cook who proved to be an excellent addition.
Shackleton was heralded by his team as being “the greatest leader on Earth.” Wow. To implement just one element of his leadership will be valuable. Looking at this list what is one thing, even if small, that you could do this week to better lead your team?
I hope you will find inspiration, as I did, from this amazing leader.
If you want to read more about Shackleton, I recommend the books Endurance and Shackleton’s Way.