Leadership Lessons from Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition

A “Successful Failure”!

A recent upsurge in interest in Ernest Shackleton seems to be in part because his expedition to the South Pole has been described as a “successful failure” – while failing utterly to achieve its goals, it managed to do something much more glorious, the survival of its 27 crew against all odds.

The Shackleton story confirms the cliché that the journey is often greater than the destination, and that the camaraderie of fellow travellers is always more satisfying than the end prize.

Shackleton’s Story

Shakleton went on the 1902 Discovery expedition with the explorer Robert Scott, but they had to turn back 460 miles from the South Pole as the men had scurvy. Six years later, in 1908, Shackleton made it to within 97 miles of the South Pole before having to turn back. Scott and Shakleton were both beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen in 1911.

Undeterred, Shackleton came up with the idea of traversing the Antarctica on foot, a 1,800 mile journey. He set off in 1914 in the Endurance from Buenos Aires and into the Antarctic Circle, making its way through ice-strewn waters toward its goal of a base camp on the Antarctic continent from which the men would begin the trek. However, one day into the journey, the Endurance got caught in ice. Three weeks later the ship sank and the men had to camp on the ice. They then had to spend months on the frozen sheets of ice, 1,000 miles from civilisation and without any form of contact.

Shackleton – The People Manager

Apart from food, provisions and warmth, Shackleton had to deal with boredom, isolation and the worry that is they did happen to survive, they they would all go mad.

Yet the expedition, while failing miserably to reach its goal, is most famous for the fact that Shackleton did not lose a single man, and in fact all of them returned in good physical and mental health.

How did they survive? How did they all come back in good physical and mental health?

When asked some years later, Lionel Greenstreet, the first officer, why they had survived and were so well when so many polar expeditions had ended in disaster, he replied: “Shackleton”.

Whereas Robert Scott was a navy man used to hierarchy and command-and-control leadership, and treated his men accordingly, Shackleton was different. Though he respected the differences between the seamen, the scientists and the officers under his command, he tried to make the atmosphere as egalitarian as possible. If there was a job to be done, no one could be ‘above’ it.

He was forward thinking also in realising the importance of exercise and relaxation.

A careful schedule of mealtimes gave order to the day, exercise was incorporated into every day, and games and entertainment were organised every day to stave off boredom and to contribute to ‘teamwork’ and ‘teambuilding’.

He was described by a friend as a ‘Viking with a mother’s heart’. Shackleton acknowledged that his way could be very feminine. He could be tough, but his soft touch contributed to crew harmony as he nursed men who fell sick in his own cabin, nursed egos, and because the crew felt valued order never broke down.

Part of his success with men was that he gave men tasks they were interested in, and encouraged them to express themselves through their work.

In the long Antarctic nights he had them write and perform verse, he held parties, and encouraged reading from a well-stocked library.

It seems that he inspired loyalty because he wasn’t willing to ‘win at all costs’ and he believed you were only successful if you could win ‘honourably and splendidly’.

‘Shackletons Way’ written by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, takes the lessons from the Endurance expedition and outlines the lessons which can be applied by great leaders in business.
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