The Odyssey of Shackleton: the character of a leader and what we can learn from his behavior

Among the examples of leadership that survive as shining moments in history, one of the best known is that of the transarctic expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton to the South Pole aboard the Endurance. We know about his preparations, the way he recruited the crew based on character rather than skills, his formidable drive… and, just 80 miles from its landing point, the stranding of the Endurance, getting stuck in the ice and ultimately falling apart and sinking, leaving the entire crew with the seemingly impossible task of returning to one of the islands where they would build a whaling ship or where they at least could find provisions to survive on. Dragging along three lifeboats rescued from the shipwreck, on October 27, 1915, the crew of the Enduranceset off an expedition through the ice in search of the edge of the ice sheet, so that they could get into the boats and embark on an even bigger quest: to reach an island that would provide them some shelter. It was a failed trek, causing further strain, which could only be salvaged by the fierce yet kind leadership of Shackleton. They lived on a sheet of ice, which they hoped would bring them closer to the water’s edge, until April 7, 1916, when they sighted Deception Island and realized that the ice beneath their feet could crack under the weight of the lifeboats. So, after 6 months on ice, Shackleton decided it was time to brave the frigid waters of the Antarctic Ocean.

The decision to head off in the direction of Deception Island was followed by the most dangerous and painful days thus far in the expedition (now 15 months on). Nighttime temperatures reached -22 °C, and the winds changed dramatically overnight. Several days into their trek, Shackleton discovered that instead of heading west, the winds were pushing them in the opposite direction. In successive changes of course, they scrapped the destination of Deception Island in favor of the not-so-near Elephant Island, then decided to head toward Antarctica and, finally, thanks to another shift in the wind, they managed to reach Elephant Island. Now 16 months into their expedition, they were 800 miles from the nearest inhabited land: South Georgia.

Shackleton was then faced with one of the decisions where he demonstrated the most intelligence. He clearly recognized the state of mind his men were in, and how long they could survive with the provisions that they had on the island. But above all he zeroed in on who should accompany him on the expedition to South Georgia. He chose his five crew members based on their qualities (toughness, sailing experience, etc.) and their level of “conflictiveness”: two of the men joining him were those who had a stronger command over the rest of the crew, and who if they were to fall apart would most adversely impact the rest. So he took them with him, and left Frank Wild in charge of the camp on Elephant Island, his most trusted man after his number-two man, Frank Worsley, who would accompany him on the trek since he was the best sailor.

After giving instructions on what to do if he were to perish in the journey, the six men left April 24 from Elephant Island en route to the whaling station of South Georgia. Perhaps one of most amazing trips in the history of exploration. In the course of two weeks, they faced blocks of ice that threatened to sink the tiny boat; shifting winds that if diverting them far enough off course could drag them into the Drake Passage (between Antarctica and South America, one of the most hazardous stretches of ocean); waves unlike any they had ever seen before, which nearly capsized the boat several times; and the contamination of the water they had brought aboard when they were still 80 miles from the island.

Along the way Shackleton never left his men’s side, checking and monitoring their health and mood. Thanks to that, he knew that the only viable decision when they disembarked at the opposite end of the island of South Georgia was to have the three men who were in the worst shape stay there and take shelter while he and the others set off on foot to traverse the unexplored inland part of the island.

About 30 miles on the map, but far longer when walking, let alone climbing. Indeed, on four occasions they had to backtrack after climbing a massif after discovering there was no way to descend on the other side. And on one occasion they opted to slide down a slope, not seeing any other options. On one occasion, when they had been going for 24 hours nonstop, Worsley and Tom Crean, who were accompanying Shackleton, fell asleep upon reaching the top of a hill. Shackleton resisted the urge to lie down, knowing that if did, all three of them would freeze to death, and there would be no hope for the other 25 men. He woke them up, telling them they had slept half an hour and they continued on their way.

Finally, after 36 hours of nonstop hiking, the three men arrived at the whaling camp, looking ragged and smelling even worse—to the astonishment of the whalers, who figured the entire crew had died after two years with no word on the Endurance. News of Shackleton’s return spread like wildfire to Britain, still entrenched in the First World War, was met with amazement, although not for very long. The death of millions of people on the European battlefields obviously overshadowed the fate of the 28 crew members of the Endurance.

So when Shackleton asked for help to rescue the men who remained on Elephant Island, he did not count on assistance from the English Admiralty, which indicated it could not provide a boat until the Discovery, the vessel used by Scott in his 1901 expedition, was able to travel to Antarctica a few months later, in September.

That was too long for Shackleton, who suffered with every passing minute of not being able to go rescue his men. He tried with two borrowed boats, having to turn back 60 miles off the island due to the ice. Shackleton tried a third time, after raising the equivalent of what today would be $110,000 at a popular English club in Chile, by sharing his story and the fate of his men. But the boat he procured also was unable to get through the ice surrounding Elephant Island.

Shackleton’s hair, which never had a speck of gray before, turned white in the course of those weeks. But then on August 30—four months after leaving his 22 crew members, and more than two years after setting out for the South Pole—the naval vessel Yelcho, on loan from the Chilean authorities, reached Elephant Island. From the moment the horizon appeared before him, Shackleton was observing and counting the number of figures that waved at the ship as they approached. After a few minutes of real anguish, he counted 22. A miracle had happened: none of the crew members had died, and Shackleton would safely return his men.

But he would not be receiving much glory upon his return home. Only the respect of his men, their admiration, and debts accumulated, which he would carry with him until his death. After going through military service, something missing for Shackleton. He had weathered the debt by giving lectures about his adventures, but that kind of life was not for him. So he decided to embark on another Antarctic expedition, on which he was joined by many of his old crew members. At the beginning of this adventure he unexpectedly died, in his cabin, at age 47, in the familiar island of South Georgia, where he was buried.

Worsley, his second in command, would offer this as an epitaph: “What can we say about Shackleton as a man? We can reminisce about how he led our trek through the ice after losing the Endurance; how his leadership kept us alive, and how his unbreakable spirit kept our spirits up; and how, by setting an example, he guided us to victory in that fight against the elements….”

In closing, we would like to highlight the aspects of Shackleton’s leadership that inspire the most admiration in us and that we think could be of the greatest interest to the executives of our time:

  • The power and energy that come from having strong convictions about what one can do and what one should do. These convictions led Shackleton to plan adventures up to the last day of his life, and to have the inner strength for himself and his crew to endure, even in moments of extreme difficulty.
  • Along with that conviction was his careful preparation, paying attention to the smallest of details, in any and all aspects of the expedition: financing, crew, ship, supply, logistics… Without the coolheadedness that Shackleton demonstrated in the months of preparation, they could never have survived the difficulties they ended up facing.
  • And great empathy in the way he treated his peers, being attentive to each of them, to their mood, even their interests, which made him someone near and dear, as well as admirable.
  • Along with that empathy was his calm but steadfast determination when making decisions, earning the respect and trust of his peers. He never avoided an argument, or a confrontation, and knew how to make tough decisions on a personal level. But always with the common good of the entire crew in mind.
  • During moments of tension and difficulty, being well versed in human psychology, he knew how to be attentive to both the emotional and “strategic” facets. It was not enough to have a contingency plan: it had to take into account the need for activity and routine that helped his men face the harsh reality without hitting a wall.
  • An extraordinary flexibility to adapt to the circumstances, to whatever was going on at all times, with the humility of someone who knows that the circumstances would never adapt to his plans regardless of how well prepared they were.
  • And, finally, perhaps the most prominent of all, his affection and genuine concern for his men, which of course went well beyond the contract that bound them. That affection came from being near them, being completely present when talking with each of them, even if it were only a few moments.

Only a leader with such character would inspire a sailor who met him on the Endurance to remark that, “Under his command, we would have gone to the end of the world if he had asked us to.” If leading means that one’s presence makes the people near them better, then Shackleton was indeed an extraordinary leader.