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Product Code: 1917

4 leadership lessons of the shackleton expedition

(and a pretty great adventure story, too)

It’s said that for the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, his life’s meaning came from the kind of close shaves one encounters only on expedition. This was a guy who led multiple campaigns to the bitter coldest corners of our planet, and who on one of those expeditions saw his ship, Endurance, broken apart in the ice and his men stranded without shelter… and who led them—all of them—to safety and rescue after nearly two years on the ice. Shackleton has been a hero ever since.

His is not only the kind of great adventure story that begs to be read in the cold of winter while sitting next to a warm fire… it’s also one of the all-time best true stories about what it means to be a true leader.

Here are four things Shackleton did that are still an inspiration today:

1. he understood the hunger for adventure that’s inside the hearts of men.

Shackleton has been widely credited as having penned this recruitment ad for one of his Antarctic expeditions:

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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.

Legend has it that some 5,000 men (and three women) replied to the ad. Why? Because what he was offering was more than just employment. In fact, this is hardly an employment ad at all. Instead, he was recruiting comrades to join him for a life-changing experience and a challenging test of personal character and mettle. He was not looking only for men with the right experience and physical capability—but for men who thrilled to the dark challenges of Antarctic exploration. In this way, he selected for those who would be in it for the same reasons he was.

Their mission was to be the first team to cross the mysterious continent and reach the other side, to walk where no man had gone before. In the end, they failed to even reach the continent, much less cross it. But the Shackleton Expedition still went down in history... as a story of amazing survival in the face of one catastrophe after another.

2. when adversity struck, shackleton kept his men focused on routine.

Shortly after Endurance made its way into Antarctic waters checkerboarded with ice floes, the ship became immobilized by the ice—just one day’s distance from the Antarctic continent. A seafarer as experienced as Shackleton would surely have known that the ship probably could be crushed by ice. But there was nothing to do be wait through the bleak Antarctic winter until the spring thaw, and that meant that for 10 months, they would have to just wait it out.

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To keep spirits up, Shackleton had the team keep to their duties: taking scientific measurements, swabbing the decks, hunting to keep up food stores. In the evenings, they socialized. In confines that surely could have sparked “cabin fever,” they managed to keep their wits about them--in large part because Shackleton kept his wits about him, never seeming to waver in his belief the ice would release them and they would continue on their journey.

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Shackleton’s calm and confidence set the right tone for his men, and they patiently stood by the ship. Unofrtunately, in October, 1914, the pressures of the icepack became too great and Endurance was slowly crushed apart.  As one of the crew members described in his journal: "A terrible night with the ship outline dark against the sky & the noise of the pressure against her ... like cries of a living creature."

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They were now stranded miles off the coast of the Antarctic continent, more than half the length of the planet from home and 800 miles across a half-frozen sea from possible help or safety. It would have been certainly understandable had Shackleton’s resolve buckled just a bit. It's easy to imagine a scenario where the team fell apart—or just plain gave up. But they didn’t. In fact, far from it. 

They camped three nights on the ice and then began to march toward Antarctica, some 350+ miles away, dragging the ship's lifeboats--each weighing close to a ton--behind them.  They made it about a mile or so to a more stable ice-floe and set up camp and regrouped before setting sail in the small boats upon a precarious seven-day journey to nearby Elephant Island.

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3. Shackleton put his own life on the line, against incredible odds.

The moment the ship sunk, taking its relative safety, shelter and stores with it, the mission of the Shackleton Expedition changed. It was no longer about being the first to hike across Antarctica.

Now he announced a new goal: “Ship and stores have gone — so now we’ll go home.”

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Shackleton was so committed to that survival that he devised an amazing rescue plan—and told his team he would lead it. The plan was this: He and five of the men would take a 22-foot lifeboat and set off across an 800-mile expanse of ocean legendary for its raging seas, to reach a small whaling station on South Georgia Island. There, he would organize a rescue party and convince them to make the return trip to pick up the others. In the meantime, the remaining members of Endurance's  crew would hunker down together and wait. Among them they had only two small lifeboats, some tents and supplies. And their leader's promise.

Shackleton departed by sea in April 1916 on what is now widely heralded as one of the all-time greatest sea journeys in history. In their tiny boat, the team navigated through gale force winds and even a hurricane over the 17-day journey to South Georgia Island. From there, they made a 5-day trek through the mountains, finally reaching the whaling station. Where he worked to organize a rescue team and returned to save the men he’d left behind.

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4. he never wavered from that commitment.

It took months to get a rescue ship. There were three failed attempts by ships that couldn’t make it through the ice. Finally a Chilean steamship was able to make it. All 28 team members had survived months of waiting in the bitter cold and were there, waiting for him when he returned in late 1916--as he'd said he would.  They had been stuck on the ice for nearly two years--much of that camping.

In the end, the Shackleton Expedition never crossed Antarctica. His team never even reached the Antarctic continent. But he delivered all of his men home safe—and that remarkable accomplishments and the many harrowing feats it took have made the Shackleton Expedition the stuff of legend.