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Leadership Lessons From Extreme Hardship: The Ernest Shackleton Saga

Leadership is a long game. That's what the story of Ernest Shackleton demonstrates through his heroic attempt to trek across Antarctica in the early 1900s. Why anybody would want to punish themselves like that is beyond me, but hey, I’m not one to judge.

In my book Navigating Chaos (download a free chapter here) I shared the concept of organizational fitness, which refers to the health of a team or company based on having the right “fit” of attitudes, character, and competencies. If there's a BETTER example of hiring and screening for fit than the Shackleton saga, please let me know.

Anyway, after reading about the experience of Shackleton and his crew, it is truly incredible what the body will endure should the mind choose to pursue. If there was one lesson I learned during BUD/S, it was that whatever the mind seeks, the body will submit. But BUD/S was nothing compared to what Shackleton and his crew endured. While BUD/S certainly entailed degrees of self-preservation, Shackleton’s was strictly about survival.

Attracting & Selecting Talent

In order to attract the right people for the unfathomable journey that awaited Ernest Shackleton and his ship, the Endurance, he posted a sign—warts and all—to solicit the right fit for a crew.  The sign read:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

Call me crazy (you wouldn't be the first), but this doesn’t exactly make me want to raise my hand. I’ve been cold, wet, tired, and miserable for long periods of time too—and it all sucked. There is no such thing as getting used to the cold. You can take as many cold showers as you want but the only thing you’re doing is depriving yourself of a much more enjoyable experience.

At the same time, aspiration is a powerful motivator. Like the crew of the Endurance, people volunteer for the military for a purpose; a purpose that dwarfs any sort of short-term agony one may experience in the process of selection. Nothing lasts forever.

In 1914, Shackleton set sail with an all-volunteer crew aboard his ship the Endurance, named after his family motto of Fortitudine Vincimus, or, “by endurance we conquer.”

The men he attracted to carry out this mission were all volunteers, selected after an interview process based on men who shared a common, nationalistic vision. Shackleton chose to appeal to the higher motives of honor and recognition while also warning of low salary, extreme cold, and constant danger. He was authentic in his proposal (unlike some hiring managers who promise you the moon only to blast you off into a completely different "galaxy") as he only wanted like-minded individuals who shared a common purpose: personal fulfillment from extreme hardship.

Shackleton was hiring for attitude.

But Shackleton’s men appeared to already possess the type of motivation he required and he merely provided an opportunity for these men to fulfill their own aspirations. The intrinsic motivators of intellectual curiosity, esteem (the need to achieve, gain approval or recognition), and affiliation were embedded in Shackleton’s  "shitty" offer.

Although Shackleton chose men with technical expertise, he was also sensitive to having the right moral character and personality. He held temperament, optimism, and perseverance as vital ingredients to reaching success given the harsh circumstances, and adjusting the ratio of optimists to pessimists on board was something he believed would aid in tackling such an arduous mission.


The camp

The Story

Catastrophe struck when the Endurance became lodged in pack ice. Realizing that this was not part of the plan, Shackleton ordered his crew to convert the ship into a camp to endure the winter, with hopes of the ship breaking free come springtime.

Not so much.

When spring arrived, the ship did, in fact, breakaway but the hull had become so weakened after months of compression that it began to leak.

Oh Shit!

The crew had to take everything they could carry. For the next couple of months, they established a camp on a drifting piece of ice, hoping it would drift towards an area of land where there were known provisions from previous exploratory attempts of other crews.

Again, not so much.

Shackleton & Rescue Crew

Eventually, the floe broke into two, and Shackleton ordered his crew into lifeboats with the intent of heading to Elephant Island—the closest stretch of land.

Seeing the health and morale of his men dwindle away, Shackleton led a team of five brave souls back out into the water again.

Sixteen days later, the crew found land, and Shackleton trekked to a whaling station to organize a rescue for his men back on the ice.

He returned to Elephant Island to rescue the remaining men, only to find that not a single member of his team had died after searching nearly two years for survival.

Key Leadership Takeaways

Training & Retention

To be top tier at anything requires the drive, focus, unshakeable character, the courage to face and adapt to the unknown, and flawless execution, all while considering the hearts and minds of others. The successful execution of these traits comprises leadership competence.

While there really was no additional training specific to the crew that they didn’t already have, the leadership lessons that the men ultimately did receive were lessons in life that would shape them forever.

The leadership lessons that the crew of the Endurance received from Ernest Shackleton were nothing short of amazing. The harsh environment, organizational structure, duties, motives, and leadership styles (yes, more than one since leadership is situational) displayed by Shackleton—not to mention how he found success in an otherwise failed situation—offer ideal examples of what leadership should look like.

While there are far too many leadership lessons from Shackleton to cover in a single blog post, I will highlight a few:

Leadership Lesson #1

Not one of us is better than the rest of us.

The environment in which Shackleton launched his expedition was shifting constantly due to the fierce competition among nations at the time to reach the South Pole. Once onboard ship, Shackleton focused on a flattened organizational structure by creating a separation of authority between him and the crew. That is, he let the inmates run the asylum for all but the most pressing matters. Among the rest of the crew, Shackleton stressed the triviality of maritime norms by sharing chores and manual work with everyone.

“Sharing labor worked well to extinguish jealousies among the crew… it humbles one and knocks out of one any last remnants of false pride.”

This organizational structure served well in allowing the group to become a team and remain focused on survival in the harsh and declining conditions.

Leadership Lesson #2

Hire for attitude.

While the implication of the journey was clearly defined at the onset by his “wanted” posting, Captain Ernest still had to funnel through the applicants who would be a good fit for the crew. The ability to face and overcome challenge is not uncommon, but a humble attitude that turns consequence into opportunity is.

If you look at the screening process for the expedition, it’s really very simple: this journey will definitely suck and you won’t make any money. But, you can rest assured that...


...misery loves company. 

Once in camp, Shackleton reinforced the standards by delegating responsibility that supported each crewmember’s skill, such as cooking, storytelling, or carpentry. Having a sense of responsibility also prevented the crew from departing from humanity despite the inhumane conditions. What emphasizing responsibility and civility did was maintain respect among the “ranks,” as Shackleton did not want was for his crew to fall into attitudes of hopelessness and despair.

Shackleton kept the crew motivated by continually being aware of their ultimate objective while also focusing the scarce resources they had on critical short-term tasks that created momentum, such as salvaging food or establishing another camp.

Pursuing short-term goals served as stepping-stones to help the crew measure progress toward reaching their longer-term goal of survival.

To protect group morale, Shackleton removed pessimistic members from their daily duties and assigned them to his party during the foot trek so their negativity would not contaminate the others.

Almost everything Shackleton did was intended to promote team unity, and this arduous voyage created a shared identity and inspired a level of team commitment that most people will never know. Shackleton constantly reinforced team unity and cohesion that only bred more team trust.

This is a “how to” guide in the creation of a learning, positive, and trustful team culture.

The leadership of Ernest Shackleton from the survivor story of the Endurance in the early 1900s was nothing short of incredible.

To endure for two harrowing years in the extreme cold of Antarctica, Shackleton and his crew needed a positive vision of hope that would pull them through every second, every minute, of every day. For Shackleton, this meant envisioning a daily objective for the crew to aspire for, leading authentically by including himself in everyday chores (hey, nobody is too good to take out the garbage), and balancing the "no we can't" people with the “yes we cans.”

A team’s effectiveness is only successful to the degree that it develops and adapts its routines, practices, and behaviors towards the purpose it aspires to pursue. In the case of the Endurance crew, it was the consistent achievement of short-term goals that generated and sustained hope for two long years.

There is nothing stronger than the will of man. Credible leaders, like Shackleton, create moral commitment from their people. As a result, their people:

  • Are more likely to act with moral courage towards their convictions
  • Voice pride in their organizational affiliation
  • Feel a strong sense of team spirit and personal belonging
  • View their values as similar to those of the organization
  • Have a strong sense of identity

Shackleton’s Motives, Values, Ethics, and Integrity

Shackleton’s greatest contribution was his unfailing belief in his dream, his crew, and the dedication he demonstrated in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenge.

There were some questionable ethical considerations that put the crew in perilous circumstances, like when Shackleton refused to heed warnings about continuing his mission before losing his ship. But his humor, openness, and optimism demonstrated authenticity and consideration for his crew.

He maintained his values and set the standard for his team. Endurance, perseverance, and loyalty were also strong characteristics that called to the higher qualities of physical and moral courage that were espoused by Shackleton, which added not only to the expedition but also to the science of man’s quest for knowledge.

Below is a summary table of the motives, values, ethics, and integrity personified by Shackleton:

The leadership demonstrated by Shackleton is an inspiration to us all and a reminder that having a purpose for everything we do is what propels oneself towards onward and upward.

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