Leadership and Resilience: Lessons from Ernest Shackleton
Guy Sapirstein, PhD
Resilience Consulting, LLC

Just over 100 years ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out from Plymouth, England on his quest to walk across the Antarctic continent. His objective was to be the first person to cross the 1500 miles of frozen tundra.

Spoiler alert: He failed.

What makes the Shackleton story so compelling is that upon realizing early on that the original mission was doomed, he successfully realigned his expectation and goals. His new goals were to make sure his crew would return safely. With this goal in mind he succeeded. Despite taking more than two years (!) from the time they embarked on the voyage to complete the rescue, not a single man was lost and all returned safely home.


The Story (abridged):

In early 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton published an advertisement seeing men for his expedition. Even though he was perfectly candid about the dangers, about 5000 men applied.  From the candidate pool he and his leadership team selected 25 men. They left England in early August 1914. After stopping at a whaling station in the south sea for about a month, they left for Antarctica in December 1914. After only 6 weeks they got stuck in the ice. They spent close to 11 months around the ice bound ship until it was crushed by the ice and sank. They set up camp on the ice, but eventually were faced with breaking ice platforms and needed to get to solid land. After a week of rowing in lifeboats they reached Elephant Island. This small island offered no protection (other than being solid ground) and was not on any shipping routes. Clearly this was only a temporary solution.

Shackleton came up with an idea: he and a small crew would row for 800 miles to get back to the whaling station they had left about 15 months previously and get help. After 17 days and one hurricane they landed on the island only to discover they were on its wrong side. There were 22 miles of ice and mountains between them and the whaling station but 36 hours later they got to their destination. Due to ice and storms it took 3 months for Shackleton to rescue the men left on Elephant Island.

All the men returned to England in 1916, more than 2 years after leaving Plymouth port.

 

What can we learn from Shackleton?

No doubt, few, if any of us, will be attempting anything as dangerous as what Shackleton did. Most leadership decisions are positively mundane compared to the challenges he faced. But what then can we learn from his experience and style?

Organizational resilience is a function of 3 factors: People, Processes, and ‘Places’ (technology and infrastructure). Using this model we can begin to examine Shackleton, his leadership, and his resulting resilience throughout the ordeal.

People: Shackleton’s personality and characteristics were clearly a strong factor in the resulting success of bringing home the crew. He was always positive, encouraging, he lead by example (giving his food to his men, taking the inferior equipment), he was able to quell dissent by directly addressing it.  He did not tolerate bullying and made sure all the crew was cared for. In addition he maintained an orientation towards the future and never lost hope.

Shackleton also understood that teams are only as effective as their weakest member: when he identified crewmembers struggling he made sure to help them in any way he could.  Rather than approaching the situation as “survival of the fittest” he practiced “protection of the weakest”. That approach both inspired confidence that all were cared for equally, and a loyalty to him as a leader. In that type of situation, it was clear that if people began to die the morale would rapidly deteriorate.

Processes: When I recently presented this topic to a class of MBA students they had difficulty identifying the processes which Shackleton utilized, and tended to focus on his personality and character.  Nonetheless, the processes he implemented were the unheralded key to everyone’s survival.

The first process involved strategic planning: Shackleton knew that Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole about 3 years earlier (in another, more successful mission). He carefully evaluated what would be a lucrative accomplishment with ongoing potential revenue. He continued thinking strategically when realizing the original goal was not possible to accomplish. At that point he realized that his priority needed to be saving his people, and he appropriately realigned his efforts.

Following the initial strategic planning, Shackleton engaged in the first organizational process which involved crew or team selection.  With an acceptance ratio of about 1:200 applicants (25 selected from a pool of 5000) it is clear that Shackleton and his leadership team were looking for a very specific type of individual to join them. This selection process assured that they were traveling with people who were team players, possessed their own internal resilience and both physical and mental strength.

During the mission there were several processes that Shackleton implemented to the benefit of the crew. These processes can be divided into three main groups:

a.     Safety related: Shackleton made sure that the men not only were safe by planning to get them all to safety, he also made sure they felt safe and cared for by not tolerating bullying. There were several documented incidents of him taking steps to save individuals from certain death (while rowing; falling into the water at night; and more).

b.     Creating Predictability: He made sure the men had a schedule they adhered to.  The schedule involved games, Teatime, ship related activities (until it sank), food gathering activities, etc.  By making sure they were not simply sitting around idly he helped the men experience an internal sense of structure that helped the days go by smoothly.

c.     Control and conflict resolution: He made sure that everyone knew who was in charge.  He was the undisputed leader. While certain decisions were made communally he took responsibility for all the strategic decisions.  In addition he deliberately spent time engaging in conflict resolution whenever the need arose.

‘Places’ (technology and infrastructure): Despite the failure of his mission one has to admire the planning and thought that went into the “stuff” he took with on the mission.  The ship was specially reinforced to manage the ice; the sled dogs were appropriate for the weather and conditions (as opposed to Robert Falcon Scott who died a few years earlier with ponies which died within days of being exposed to the weather). The amount and type of supplies he brought along was more than sufficient for the initial period of their ordeal.


Where did Shackleton err?

Clearly, Ernest Shackleton was an inspirational leader who possessed an inner strength and keen intuition about people and teams. Despite those qualities and meticulous preparation he subjected his team to a two-year ordeal just to stay alive (the original mission abandoned early on). What could he have done differently?

Looking back on the diaries and accounts of the voyage, it appears that Shackleton had choice points only days after leaving the whaling station. Like many charismatic leaders he was focused on the mission and its original goal and failed to appropriately account for the “contextual” conditions: i.e. the amount of ice encountered only 3 days after leaving the whaling station. His optimism and goal directedness were his Achilles heel.

Shackleton left the whaling station in December: the southern hemisphere summer. Yet even during the “warm” months the ice was a significant problem. In fact it was so significant that they were not able to reach Antarctica, but rather stayed on the ice floes. Had Shackleton been a little more dispassionate about his goal, and proactive about evaluating the evident risks (i.e. more ice than anticipated), he would not have put himself and his crew in the danger they eventually faced. Once he abandoned his original mission (crossing Antarctica on foot) he became more focused on the actual risks and in fact succeeded in his secondary goal: bringing everyone back alive and well.

 

Conclusion

Shackleton’s story is studied in many leadership trainings and is often used as an example of resilience and personal leadership. In addition to his obvious personal talents and charisma as a leader, he was wise enough to utilize organizational processes that supported his leadership. These processes included strategic planning, team selection and building, emphasizing safety, creating predictability, and establishing effective mechanisms for control and conflict resolution.

Shackleton’s failure was allowing his passion, determination, and focus on his goal to distract him from being proactive about evaluating the apparent risks which emerged as the mission progressed.

The implications for leaders and organizations are clear:

1.     While passion, determination, careful planning, and resourcefulness are invaluable, don’t be blind to changing circumstances and learn to adapt.

2.     Make sure you have the right team!

3.     Ensure that people feel safe in addition to being safe.

4.     Create some structure and predictability (but not too much).

5.     Establish a clear understanding of how decisions are made and conflicts are resolved.

6.     Make sure the infrastructure you have suits the needs you will be encountering.

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