June in Antarctica is winter.
By June 1915, British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 men were trapped in their ship Endurance, frozen solid in the ice.
The men had said goodbye to the sun and suffered from the -23°F (-30°C) temperatures. On October 27, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. “After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain,” Shackleton wrote, “we have been compelled to abandon the ship. We are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition.”
When Endurance slipped under the Antarctic ice, members of Shackleton’s British Trans-Antarctic Expedition found themselves 1,800 miles from civilization with three lifeboats, meagre provisions and no means of communication.
What compelled Shackleton and his men to risk their lives?
Shackleton answered that “after the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen who, by a narrow margin of days only, was in advance of the British Expedition under Scott, there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeyings-the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea.”
What lessons, learning and inspiration prompt leaders to return repeatedly to a failed expedition of 100 years ago?
The answer lies in Shackleton’s ability to save every crew member despite two years of relentless adversity. In his 1922 book The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a contemporary of Shackleton’s, wrote, “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organisation, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”
The 4 Biggest Lessons
Shackleton and his men faced certain death. Yet with characteristic British understatement, Shackleton observed that “difficulties are just things to overcome.”
During the 2009 recession, CEOs and Key Executives in my Vistage groups studied this failed expedition. Here are the four biggest lessons. Tuck them away for the next recession:
- Set a new objective. With Endurance trapped in ice, Shackleton saw his dream of crossing the Antarctic continent die. He faced more than failure. He faced death. He abandoned his ship, but he did not abandon hope. He set a new objective: Get every man back to Britain safely. “A man,” said Shackleton, “must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.”
Lesson: Never give up. Think through options, select the best one, and act to achieve a new goal.
- Character counts. Shackleton learned as a young seaman that unhappy, unproductive and disloyal staff make hard work harder. “The personnel of an expedition…is a factor on which success depends to a very large extent,” Shackleton wrote. “The men selected…must be able to live together in harmony for a long period without outside communication, and it must be remembered that the men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality.”
Lesson: Reduce individual pettiness by emphasizing a shared purpose, insisting on courtesy and minimizing status.
- Overcome uncertainty with structure, communication and diversions. Shackleton knew a physically active crew would sustain morale and foster teamwork. He established routines and rotated jobs. Shackleton did not mince words on describing their predicament, but his optimism inspired his men. Shackleton led skits, singing and the first Antarctic Derby. On June 15, with five teams competing, Second Mate Frank Wild’s dog team won the 700-yard race. All 28 men placed bets and winnings were paid in chocolate and cigarettes. “Optimism,” said Shackleton, “is true moral courage.”
Lesson: In tough times, if you’ve got the right people, they’re eager to help. Give them structure and assign responsibilities. Humor helps, so don’t forget to lighten up.
- Take calculated risks. Shackleton made tough decisions that saved lives. He abandoned ship. He established a series of camps on ice floes over a six-month period. Most dangerous of all, Shackleton set sail on a 30-day voyage to South Georgia, 800 miles from their final camp in the most storm-swept waters of the world. His risks paid off. “Superhuman effort,” said Shackleton, “isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results.”
Lesson: Leaders lead. Your entire team is counting on you.
Leadership Questions for You
As you continue your journey of leadership and endurance, consider:
- Shackleton was forced to abandon a long sought-after goal. How do you know when to rely on your drive, stamina and persistence to press forward, and when to accept defeat, adapt and focus on a new goal?
- Shackleton did not mince words, yet he shielded his men from his darkest fears. How do you determine which thoughts to share and which ones to keep private?
- Shackleton knew maintaining morale was essential, so he abolished special privileges. What double standards exist in your organization that erode morale and diminish others’ trust in you?
“Leadership is a fine thing,” said Shackleton, “but it has its penalties. And the greatest penalty is loneliness.”