Leadership: Sir Ernest Shackleton
Updated: Aug 5, 2018
One of my favorite leadership cases from Harvard Business School was written by Nancy F. Koehn (Harvard Business School 9-803-127). This case study deconstructs Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to be the first explorer to lead a transcontinental expedition across the South Pole (1914-1916) yet also highlights his extraordinary successes recovering from that failure.
Shackleton's failure created his greatest challenge and the most meaningful success of his life, which was to get his entire crew home, ALIVE, after an incredible, two-year journey of hardship and survival.
There are many extraordinary leadership lessons in this case but one of the most interesting is how Shackleton selected his team.
Shackleton’s methodology is in stark contrast to our highly automated, computer filtered world that rejects applicants based on a set of key words.
Shackleton simply started with an advertisement in the local newspaper.
"MEN WANTED: for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. SIR ERNEST SHACKLETON”
Published in December of 1913, Sir Ernest Shackleton sorted this advertisement’s 5,000 respondents into three categories: Mad, Hopeless, and Possible. He personally interviewed each of the ‘Possible’ candidates using his instincts to judge character while looking for evidence of perseverance, good temperament, and good humor.
This was one of the key building blocks laying the foundation for his ability to successfully bring his crew home alive. Shackleton had the ability to pick the right people, with the right grit, endurance, and commitment to the larger cause so when faced with extreme adversity, they had the capacity to survive and endure.
The 2-year journey is summarized in the following timeline and only hints at the tremendous hardship that they endured on the trek home.
August 1914: Endurance sets sail.
January 1915: Within sight of Antarctica, Endurance becomes trapped in ice.
October 1915: The Endurance sinks. The 28 men salvage three life boats from the ship.
April 1916: The ice melts and the crew sail 650 miles to Elephant Island.
April 1916: Splitting the party, Shackleton sails with 5 men the 800 miles to South Georgia Island.
May 1916: Shackleton and two of his men trek 29 miles across uncharted glaciers and 10,000 foot mountain ranges to the populated outpost on South Georgia Island.
August 1916: Shackleton rescues the 22 remaining men.
LEADERSHIP LESSONS FOR TODAY
In our rapidly changing, competitive world, Shackleton’s story of the Endurance expedition demonstrated that he had the ability to respond rapidly to changing circumstances by reinventing team objectives. Rapidly changing environments require commitment to a larger purpose and flexible, imaginative methods to achieve a goal.
Today, successful leaders must be prepared to change course midstream, pivoting when market conditions shift and redefining their purpose or plans as necessary.
Shackleton’s original mission was to be the first team to trek across Antarctica. When disaster struck, his revised mission was to get every crew member home alive.
This type of rapid pivot in a life-or-death situation may be obvious, but it demonstrates an unusual emotional backbone and fortitude. The explorer Robert Scott by contrast, wasn’t able to recover from the disappointment of his expedition’s failure. Losing their bid to be the first explorers to the North Pole by a mere 8 weeks (Roald Amundsen’s team got their first), Scott was so devastated that he couldn’t muster the strength and endurance to get his team back alive. The entire team died on their way back to their ship.
Shackleton’s other leadership choices during this arduous, two-year journey, include his relentless focus on his men’s psychological and physical health. He understood that in their circumstance, fear and boredom would literally kill them. To balance this, he implemented strict routines, created order, and structured social interaction.
Shackleton also embodied the new survival mission – not only in what he said and did but also in his physical bearing and the energy he exuded. He visibly demonstrated his own courage and confidence every single day. He constantly fed his team ideas and motivation, never revealing his doubts and fears. He kept his men focused on the future and the goal of getting every single one of them home safely. He improvised. He adapted.
One of the hardest parts of leadership is not just feeding your team with ideas and motivation but feeding yourself. In the face of enormous obstacles, Shackleton found a way to do this, every day, for 2 years under incredibly harsh conditions.
In closing, Koehn's case study includes this enlightening quote from Sir Raymond Priestly comparing Shackleton's leadership skills to the other explorers of his time:
World Polar Exploration 1900-1916
‘For scientific discovery give me Scott;
for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen;
but when disaster strikes, and all hope is gone,
get down on your needs and pray for Shackleton.’
-Sir Raymond Priestley, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist
Harvard Business School 9-803-127 by Nancy F. Koehn