Leadership Lessons: Sir Ernest Shackleton and The Endurance

I’m thrilled to share one of my favorite stories from the last century, as the leadership lessons contained in the written and film record of this incredible expedition are timeless and inspirational.    In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew set sail from England to Antarctica, in an attempt to achieve what no one had done before: cross the Antarctic continent from one coast to the other via the South Pole.

Unfortunately, Shackleton and his crew never set foot on the continent, as they were caught in an ice flow some 85 miles offshore.  Their ship, the Endurance, was eventually crushed in the icy grips of the flow, and the tale of survival and rescue that followed is one of the greatest tales of human determination and accomplishment of all times.

Watch this video clip before reading on.  They had a photographer on board (Frank Hurley: http://www.shackleton-endurance.com/images.html) and they managed to preserve the film throughout the expedition and rescue!

One value of recounting the great achievements wrought by our fellows throughout history is that their stories help to put our current worries, fears or concerns into perspective.  Did you really let traffic “ruin your day,” the wrong item in your take-out order “upset you” or an unfriendly glare or comment “cause you to blow up?”  Try dealing with being stranded in the middle of nowhere for two years, incommunicado and with 27 people you’ve only just met.

Another benefit of reviewing such incredible but true tales is that they contain in them concentrated and luminous pearls of wisdom concerning life, leadership and management.  No matter what Shackleton encountered, he maintained his dignity, his position of leadership and a level head. 

I read a great paper summarizing the leadership lessons available in Shackleton’s adventure in the Endurance.  It was written by Charles Chappell, of the 2001 class of the Wharton Executive MBA Program.  You’ll love this! 

http://leadership.wharton.upenn.edu/l_change/Interviews/Shackleton.pdf                

I recommend that you write down the leadership lessons italicized in Chappell’s paper, stick them somewhere you will see them regularly and put them into practice.  They’re nothing short of life changing!

12 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons: Sir Ernest Shackleton and The Endurance

  • I remember being captivated by this story when I was younger, but have never considered its application to leadership and management development. Very inspiring!

  • What an amazing story & film! This isn’t theory or Sunday Armchair Quarterbacking, this is in the trenches, life and death leadership at it’s finest.
    There are numerous stories about expeditions with worthy Leaders but very few where the whole Team returns after facing such adversity.
    I’m thinking about the points on Leadership noted by Charles Chappell, these can really be applied in any situation – we are all Leaders in one regard or another.
    Thanks for the post – it’s a wonderful reminder of a real life example of Leading.
    ~where were these points when I was an expedition Leader in Alaska?? – would have saved me some trouble 🙂 ~

  • I read this book several years ago when my husband suggested it. I have to say at first I thought that it might be too much of a “guys” book, but I quickly found that it captivated me and I read it in 2 days. The courage,wisdom and compassion that was displayed by Shackelton kept he and his men alive even in the most horrid of situations. He held onto hope and was always looking to keep their spirits up even when all evidence would say they were doomed. It is great to remember stories like this, in times of chaos relative to the state of our world. It shows us that no matter what the conditions are, if we act in a way that inspires others, with courage, strength of character and optimisim combined with practicality, we too can endure. Thanks so much for reminding me of this great story and the attached paper.

  • I have always loved this story too. One of the reasons this story has been so well preserved is that a couple of the members of the expedition wrote books about it and a few kept detailed diaries that were used in the accounts; so you can hear the same story told from different perspectives. Really interesting!

    The impact this story has on me is their courage, tough mindedness and ability to persevere in the face of unbelievably discouraging odds. The saying, this too will pass, works when you can see the end of something, but how to keep that spirit when you can’t is the measure of a person.

    I remember hearing someone speak on how to survive a disaster; they said most people perish as a result of panic. As you read any of the accounts of this expedition they obviously had to make thousands of split second decisions but you never get the feeling that panic was the foundation. In “South” which is Shackelton’s version you get a window into his decision making process and the absence of panic is notable.

    One part you highlighted, that I thought was key, is how he selected his crew. That account in his book is very interesting and his criteria was certainly not conventional in it’s day.

    I once asked one of the most successful hoteliers in the U.S. how he hired such an incredible staff. From the valets out front and through out the property it was obvious he had a remarkable group. His answer was “I hire for attitude and train the position”.

    It would seem that Shackleton was ahead of his time; he chose wisely who to surround himself with.

  • Thanks for bringing this story back to the forefront of my mind Gregg. I’m very familiar with it – and have always been inspired by the Shackleton as a human being. He seemed to have an innate ability to assess people and situations without losing focus on the big picture. As a leader he understood what makes people prosper, perform and grow into something they previously thought impossible when thrust outside of their “Comfort zone.” For many this is not only a challenge – but completely not-understandable. Many a mutiny has occured based on that premise alone.

    There are many lessons to be remembered and recalled from this story during the course of any given day for me. (not only in my chosen field, but also as a member of my community and most importantly as a parent.) I’ve always been curious as to the nature vs nuture concept when thinking about Shackleton and his inspiring leadershp qualities. I can only hope that I am able to effectively give my children the gifts of these qualities during the course of their lives. Just something that I think about … 🙂

  • I’ve been reading your post daily, Gregg, with tremendous appreciation for the vast range of starting points provided for living and sharing a richly fullfilled life. Thank you!

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