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Ernest Shackleton: High-Stakes Leadership

The topic of this leadership case study is Ernest Shackleton. This paper will identify the development of Shackleton’s leadership skills, provide examples and reflections of his abilities, and relate how he played an essential role in one of history’s greatest survival stories. This study of Shackleton’s leadership is set loosely within the framework of the five practices of exemplary leadership set forth in The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, and will focus on the benefits produced by his management of team morale and unity (13).

Kouzes and Posner remark that leadership experiences are “voyages of discovery and adventures of a lifetime[and] they are challenging explorations under rigorous conditions” (174). While this may be true, it is often in an extreme crisis situation that leadership is ultimately tested. This is the circumstance that Shackleton faced with his crew of twenty-seven, while stranded in the ice floes off the Antarctic Continent. Credit is due to the leadership of Ernest Shackleton; every member aboard the Endurance survived, and was finally rescued after six hundred and thirty-four days.

Shackleton said of leadership, “If you’re a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you’ve got to keep going” (qtd. in Morrell and Capparell 215). Synopsis of the Endurance ExpeditionSee Appendix (Pages 19-21) The Endurance, the vessel carrying the men and the title of the expedition, was named by Shackleton after his family mottoFortitudine Vincimus (By endurance we conquer) (Perkins 41). To relate the significant factors of Shackleton’s leadership during the Endurance expedition, it is necessary to summarize the timeline of the events. A chronological timeline of the expedition is included at the end of this paper.

The saga of the Endurance has relevant lessons for today’s leaders concerning the vital nature of team unity and interdependence, risk taking, optimism, and selfless leadership. Shackleton, known as “The Boss” to his men, was at all times responsible for fostering and developing these dynamics, and thus provides an example of the remarkable achievements that are possible in even the direst of situations. The expedition failed in its attempt to be the first to transverse the Antarctic, yet the ultimate success is judged by the safe return of all the crewmembers.

The events of the Endurance expedition were well documented by the crewmembers through detailed diaries and photographs. From their reflections and subsequent interviews with biographers, the crew’s feelings toward their leader are apparent (Morrell and Capparell; Perkins). The following sections provide specific examples and are based on the five exemplary leadership practices as outlined by Kouzes and Posner: Challenge the Process, Inspire a Shared Vision, Model the Way, Encourage the Heart, and Enable Others to Act (13).

In all of the instances subsequently noted, it is acknowledged that the examples should not be confined to any one of the categories. Shackleton’s practice of these strategies demonstrates that an effective leader blends all of the elements into a unified theme. Shackleton Challenged the Process The search for opportunity begins when leaders take on meaningful challenges, and thus experience conditions that test their capabilities. Leaders should be able to assess and take risks. From those experiences, they can learn to lead a team to accomplish extraordinary achievements (Kouzes and Posner 17).

Shackleton’s yearning to explore the Antarctic was born out of his desires to achieve the improbable and attain fame and notoriety (Morrell and Capparell 32). Both the Artic and the Antarctic remained unexplored in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the promises of celebrity, honor for one’s country, and possible wealth were the romantic rewards for the explorers of the day (28, 55). The path that led Shackleton to a position of leadership was a natural progression of ever increasing roles of responsibility aboard various ships. He began his life at sea by joining England’s merchant marines in 1890.

Not every crewmember was destined to lead a voyage, but Shackleton used every opportunity to advance his career (Morrell and Capparell 21-25). His first assignment was a four-year apprenticeship filled with difficult and laborious duties. His early travels exposed him to intolerable crewmates and uncompassionate captains. After the four years, Shackleton began to complete a series of qualification exams, and by the age of twenty-five he had attained his master’s certificate which allowed him to serve as captain aboard any ship in the merchant marine (21-23).

Life aboard the ships gave Shackleton his first opportunities to take initiative and challenge the status quo. The typical behavior exhibited by crewmates often created a vulgar and miserable environment. Additionally, the harsh discipline imposed by the officers often led to a demoralized crew (Morrell and Capparell 22). In Leading at the Edge, Dennis Perkins describes the early climate of England’s Royal Navy as victim of the “success syndrome. ” This term is described by Perkins as the behavior of a dominant culture in which subordinates find it in their interest to follow the established procedures.

People who work in this type of situation do not accept change and they become risk-averse (220). In this environment of rigid hierarchy, where authority was categorized by arrogance and complacency, Shackleton realized the importance of fostering positive morale. He took the initiative to create positive diversions for the men, including teaching them nautical signaling and organizing games and concerts (Morrell and Capparell 26). These morale boosting practices would prove to be invaluable throughout the voyage of the Endurance.

When the news of planned polar expeditions became popularized, Shackleton began to position himself for a career change. He joined the Royal Geographical Society and developed his scientific skills (Morrell and Capparell 28). In 1901, he was chosen to accompany Robert Falcon Scott for an expedition to the South Pole aboard the Discovery. Scott’s leadership style represented the antitheses to that of Shackleton’s. Scott’s behavior was indicative of the success syndrome and created anger, resentment, and depression among the crew (Perkins 88).

Although the team had to return short of their goal, the Discovery expedition reinforced Shackleton’s views about what type of leader he did not to want to be. He was inspired to set out again on his own (Morrell and Capparell 35). The next challenge for Shackleton would be his own command aboard the Nimrod expedition to the South Pole in 1907. The Nimrod expedition offered Shackleton the chance to demonstrate his abilities as a leader. He pushed the limits of his team, but again he fell short of reaching the Pole.

Shackleton stopped the expedition just ninety-seven miles short of the Pole to ensure that everyone would live through the journey. They had run short of food and were succumbing to illness. In contrast to Scott’s stubbornness, Shackleton learned from the mistakes he made on the Nimrod expedition (Morrell and Capparell 37). For Shackleton, taking the risk and challenging the limits was justified, but the goal must be weighed against the expense of reaching it. This was an approach that differentiated him from other explorers during that time.

The prevalent attitude of early 20th century explorers is apparent in a quote from Vilhjamur Stefansson, who led the doomed Arctic expedition of the Karluk in 1913: [T]he attainment of the purposes of the expedition is more important than the bringing back safe of the ship in which it sails. This means that while every reasonable precaution will be taken to safeguard the lives of the party, it is realized by both the backers of the expedition and the members of it, that even the lives of the party are secondary to the accomplishment of the work! td. in Perkins 229)

The experiences of Shackleton aboard both the Discovery and Nimrod heightened his personal awareness of how to achieve his goals. Shackleton’s pursuit in life became the exploration of the Antarctic, but never at the expense of the lives of his men (Morrell and Capparell; Perkins). Shackleton had the ability to rise up and set new goals after experiencing failure (Morrell and Capparell 37). Shortly after the return of the Nimrod voyage, it was announced that Roald Amundson of Norway had been the first to reach the South Pole.

The year was 1914, and Shackleton was in the midst of planning the Endurance expedition to the Pole (43). Shackleton praised the accomplishment of Amundson publicly, and announced his new target of being the first to cross the continent. By this time Scott had also reached the Pole, but had died on the return trip. Traversing the continent represented one of the few remaining challenges in which Shackleton could distinguish himself as an explorer (Perkins 3). The voyage of the Endurance was set to launch in December of 1914.

Shackleton Inspired a Shared Vision To enlist the support of a team for a common purpose, leaders must effectively convey their own vision. Furthermore, leaders need to cultivate a shared sense of ownership of that vision; only then will team members mobilize for the greater good of the team and its common goal (Kouzes and Posner 143-48). One of Shackleton’s greatest strengths was his ability to inspire others to share his vision. This was evident during the Endurance voyage on two notable occasions. The first instance was that of his original objective to cross Antarctica. The second came with his new goal of ensuring survival for all of his crewmembers.

Shackleton’s choice to form a cohesive team enabled the crew to believe in the mission, themselves, and their leader’s abilities (Morrell and Capparell 59). For the original purpose of the expedition, Shackleton selectively hired men that shared his passion for exploration and his confidence of success (Morrell and Capparell 61). His first hire was second in command Frank Wild, who had worked for him on the Nimrod and had considerable experience in the Antarctic. Shackleton saw that Wild had leadership potential and shared his love of exploration (58). Next, Shackleton needed a captain for the Endurance.

He searched for someone who was adventurous and not overly cautious. Frank Worsley was the man he chose for that job (60). These two men, along with Shackleton, constituted the core leadership team of the expedition. To fill the remaining positions, Shackleton picked from over five-thousand respondents to an ad placed in the London papers: 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. (qtd. in Perkins 2) Shackleton conducted unusual interviews and looked for adventurous men with optimistic attitudes.

During an interview, he often inquired as to whether an applicant could sing. This was an effort to gage that person’s temperament (Morrell and Capparell 61). He hired men that already shared some of his desire to seek adventure in the Antarctic. Shackleton felt that it was easier to instill his vision in men who shared his positive outlook, and he felt that these qualities were a good indication that they would be effective members of the team (75). An example of the unity that Shackleton’s presence inspired in the crew occurred two months prior to the start of the voyage.

The crew, already aboard the Endurance, was making its way to Argentina where Shackleton would join them. In his absence, many members of the crew were drinking and carousing, and generally shirking their responsibilities. Crewmember Orde-Lees recorded in his diary, “all will be put right when Sir Ernest arrives, thank goodness” (Morrell and Capparell 74). Once Shackleton was aboard, there was an almost immediate sense of shared destiny that was strengthened by his treatment of the crew. Shackleton’s previous expeditions had taught him the value of being available to his crew and the importance of leading by example (100).

He created harmony by establishing a sense of fairness for all crewmembers, regardless of rank or title (92). Forty-five days into the journey, the original goal of the expedition came to an end. The Endurance was now inextricably trapped in the ice. Shackleton would later comment on his formulation of vision in such circumstances: “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground” (qtd. in Behreandt 35). His vision shifted to getting himself and the twenty-seven members of his crew safely home.

He noted, “The task now was to secure the safety of the party, and to that I must bend my energies and mental power and apply every bit of knowledge that experience of the Antarctic had given me” (qtd. in Behreandt 35). Shackleton’s optimism in the face of misery and danger was uncanny, and infectious. Despite being trapped on the ice, the crew members’ diaries recount a surprisingly low amount of concern for the predicament, and often record feelings of happiness. Crewman Orde-Lees wrote in his diary of how Shackleton set the example: He is one of the greatest optimists I have ever known.

He is not content with saying It will all come right in the end. ‘ It is always otherwise with him. He merely says that this is but a little setback not altogether unforeseen, and he immediately commences to modify his program to accord with it, even working his future plans out to given dates and to meet various possible contingencies. (qtd. in Morrell and Capparell 108) Almost a year into the saga, the crew stood on the floe and listened as the structural beams of the Endurance were being snapped by the ice. Second in command, Frank Wild, recalled how Shackleton’s calm and optimistic speech helped relieve the anxiety of the men:

Shackleton made a characteristic speech to hearten our party, the sort of speech that only he could make. Simply and in brief sentences he told the men not to be alarmed at the loss of the vessel, and assured them that by hard effort, clean work, and loyal cooperation, they could make their way to land. This speech had an immediate effect: our spirits rose, and we were inclined to take a more cheerful view of a situation that had nothing in it to warrant the alteration. (qtd. in Perkins 30) It was important that Shackleton already had a clear vision of what he and the crew would have to accomplish to survive.

In the speech, he spoke in clear and optimistic terms that gave his crew faith in his vision of survival (Behreandt 36). Shackleton Modeled the Way Leaders earn respect by setting an example through behavior and actions. The examples provided by leaders must be based first on clearly established values, and then by aligning actions with these values (Kouzes and Posner 15, 44, 77). By the time of the Endurance voyage, Shackleton had developed a value system and leadership style that focused on team unity. He always set the highest expectations for his men and used his own actions as a model.

Shackleton’s values and opinions were derived from his previous experiences in the merchant marines and aboard the Discovery under Scott’s command (Perkins 89). Morrell and Capparell wrote of the contrast between Shackleton and his former, military-trained captain: Scott was dour, bullying and controlling; Shackleton was warm, humorous, and egalitarian. Scott was known to torment his underlings; Shackleton would tease but never humiliate. Scott tried to orchestrate every movement of his men; Shackleton gave his men responsibility and some measure of independence.

Scott was secretive and untrusting; Shackleton talked openly and frankly with the men about all aspects of the work. Scott put his team at risk to achieve his goals; Shackleton valued his men’s lives above all else. (35-6) Shackleton was an able enough seaman to set an example through tasks and duties, but the traits he modeled that were crucial for his crew’s survival were democratic egalitarianism, optimism, and self-sacrifice for the good of the team. When Shackleton exhibited his values in his actions, it was for the purpose of uniting the team and fostering positive morale (Morrell and Capparell; Perkins).

Shackleton recognized the need for decision making authority, but he eliminated the damaging effects of unnecessary hierarchy in favor of creating a team environment. Shackleton diminished some of the traditional class hierarchies even before the ship became wedged in the ice of the Weddell Sea. Everyone, including himself, was assigned to contribute to the duties aboard the ship. He would often lend a hand in the most menial of tasks, and was likely to be the one to step in and replace an injured or ill man (Morrell and Capparell 91).

From the outset of the journey, some crewmembers were not accustomed to these practices. Thomas Orde-Lees, the ships storekeeper and motor expert, wrote in his diary: I must say that I think scrubbing floors is not fair work for people who have been brought up in refinement. On the other hand, I think that under the present circumstances is has a desirable purpose as a disciplinary measure; it humbles one and knocks out of one any last remnants of false pride that one may have left in one, and for this reason I do it voluntarily and without being asked, but always with feelings of revulsion and self-abnegation. td. in Morrell and Capparell 90)

After the ship was lost to the ice and the crew’s situation became more desperate, Shackleton leveled the remaining scraps of the hierarchy of authority. Shackleton assigned some of the routine duties on a rotational basis, but for other tasks he specifically paired team members by personality. As a result, everyone’s confidence and competence was boosted, and the effects further strengthened the social bonds (Morrell and Capparell 92). Though he clearly defined himself as the leader, everyone’s role became the same.

A good example of his insistence on treating everyone equally occurred the night after the crew abandoned the ship and set up camp on the ice floe. Since the original plan called for some team members to remain on the ship, the provisions only included eighteen reindeer skin sleeping bags. These extra warm bags were intended for the shore party, and the remaining wool bags did not provide the same protection from the elements. The twenty-eight men drew lots to see who would get the eighteen bags. Shackleton rigged the lottery so that he and the other executive officers would take a wool bag.

In doing this, Shackleton demonstrated that he would go without to ensure that his crew survived (Behreandt 37). Perkins writes that “Shackleton understood the importance of demonstrating through action as well as words that he was a leader doing his duty” (35). Shackleton displayed this trait as the Endurance was in its final days before being totally crushed by the ice. He allowed the men to retrieve their personal items, but restricted them to a total of two pounds of personal gear; if they had to march across the ice to safety, then every ounce could endanger their lives (34).

Captain Worsley recalled the scene: He himself set the example, throwing away, what a spectacular gesture, a gold watch, a gold cigarette case, and several golden sovereignswhich brought home to me at any rate the shifting values in life and the knowledge that there are times when gold can be a liability instead of an asset (qtd. in Perkins 34). Shackleton established the sense of unity necessary for survival with more than just optimism and equal treatment. He showed that he cared about the comfort and survival of all of his men even to his own disadvantage.

On the lifeboat journey to Elephant Island, Shackleton noticed that Hurley, the expedition’s photographer, was missing his gloves. Shackleton removed his and offered them to the man. When Hurley refused the gloves, Shackleton threatened to hurl them over-board if he did not take them. The photographer relented. That act was reminiscent of an earlier gesture that Shackleton extended to Frank Wild during the Nimrod expedition; the two men were stranded on the Antarctic Continent and at risk of starvation when Shackleton offered Wild his only remaining biscuit.

When Wild refused, Shackleton threatened to bury it in the snow (Morrell and Capparell 168). Morrell and Capparell relate that when crewman Thomas Orde-Lees came down with a terrible bout of sciatica, Shackleton moved him into is own small cabin (120). There Shackleton personally tended to Orde-Lees for two weeks; much to his own discomfort–he had a touch of sciatica himself. Shackleton would stoke the stove to reach sweltering temperatures at night for Orde-Lees’ relief. Orde-Lees, not a popular crewmember due to a tendency to possess a lazy selfishness, wrote of the experience in his well-kept diary:

Here I have lain in the utmost comfort but severe pain for the last five days while Sir Ernest has coiled himself up as best he could on a narrow little bench much too short for himHe looks after me himself with all the tender care of a trained nurse, which indeed he seems to me to be far more than merely my leader and master for the time beingWhat sacrifices would I not make for such a leader as this. (qtd. in Morrell and Capparell 120) This example was not lost on the typically selfish Orde-Lees. Upon reaching Elephant Island, many of the men were suffering from frostbite. Crewmember Greenstreet had badly frostbitten hands and feet.

Orde-Lees had placed Greenstreet’s worst foot against his stomach and thus revived it (Morrell and Capparell169). Shackleton’s men were willing to sacrifice for him and each other because they had been shown his willingness to sacrifice for them. Shackleton Encouraged the Heart An important aspect to keeping the morale and commitment of followers is the recognition of individual and group successes. Leaders should find ways to celebrate the contributions of team members in meaningful ways (Kouzes and Posner 19). For Shackleton, the encouragement of a positive social atmosphere in the miserable conditions was essential for survival.

On other explorers’ failed expeditions and in similar grim circumstances, it was not uncommon for men to experience delusions or insanity (Perkins 61). However, aboard the Endurance, Shackleton first established a routine of work and structure so that the crew would feel secure (Morrell and Capparell 107). To balance out the routine, Shackleton and the crew would gather each night to play games, sing, and celebrate birthdays and holidays (118). Morrell and Capparell point out that even Orde-Lees, who often considered these festivities a useless diversion, would record one celebration as the happiest day of his life (97).

Shackleton insisted that everyone aboard participate in these events in an effort to prevent feelings of isolation and homesickness, which would demoralize the crew (96). One special event worth noting occurred while the ship was still intact but trapped in the ice. Shackleton gathered everyone together and proposed a group haircut. Shackleton volunteered to go first, and one by one they shaved each other’s heads. Although this event was entertaining to the crew, it served as a symbol of their shared identity and further strengthened their bonds (Perkins 71-2).

Eric Miller, senior advisor for investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin, and Jenrette, noted, “Shackleton knew when to encourage a little celebration and enjoyment of something that the men would consider a delicacyHe was able to join in and participate in both fun and labor without the sacrifice of authority and respect'” (qtd. in Morrell and Capparell 102). Shackleton held festivities to honor one crewmember to balance group celebrations. He recognized the need to acknowledge each crewmate on an individual level. One very popular way that he accomplished individual recognition was in the celebration of each crewmember’s birthday (118).

Shackleton was aware that maintaining morale was essential for survival. He gave the men personal attention by helping them with their duties and by engaging them in personal conversation. During the polar winter, the sun would set for four months, and many of the younger shipmates would have trouble dealing with the prolonged darkness (Morrell and Capparell 117). Celebrated events gave the men some relief from focusing on their predicament and served the purpose of keeping the overall morale in good standing. Shackleton Enabled Others to Act

Leaders need to create a collaborative team that is built on trust. In this environment, team members are more likely to develop feelings of commitment and personal ability. This is realized when followers have the confidence to take a leadership role (Kouzes and Posner 19). Shackleton realized that the interdependence of his team was essential to survival. After the Endurance became frozen in the ice floe and the goal of exploration changed to survival, Shackleton’s focus on teamwork became even more important. Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance, observed in his journal:

The irritation of trying to drift north and knowing ourselves powerless to combat the inexorable laws of naturewas bound to result in a certain fraying of nerves and consequent ebullitions of temper. Little cliques and factions grew up, but Shackleton’s tact and diplomacy soon destroyed that spirit. He would redistribute the occupants of tentsand would remind each man that strength lay in unity. (qtd. in Perkins 82-3) Perkins notes in Leading at the Edge, “A unified team is one in which every member understands the task to be done and feels a sense of deep personal responsibility for the success of the group’s efforts” (79).

To increase the sense of a collaborative effort Shackleton established the “Directive Committee. ” This committee was comprised of Wild, Worsley, and Hurley and acted as a sounding board for all major decisions (79). Shackleton always kept the members of the crew informed, and never left any member out (80). However, all final decisions were made by Shackleton. The team’s physician, James, told biographers that Shackleton “did a lot of thinking out loud in the tent but his decisions were definitely his own” (qtd. in Morrell and Capparell 146).

Shackleton’s examples of leadership also became a useful guide for second in command, Frank Wild. Wild was left in charge of the men remaining on Elephant Island while Shackleton left in the lifeboat on a daring attempt to secure a rescue. Wild’s leadership abilities followed the pattern set forth by Shackleton. He captured the essence of Shackleton’s optimism by having the men start every day with preparations to leave the island; Wild would yell out, “Lash up and stow, boys, the Boss may come today” (qtd. in Perkins 48).

Wild also held depression at bay by keeping the crew busy or diverting their attention. He kept the tradition of special celebrations going, and cared for even the smallest details concerning individual crewmembers. Crewmember Macklin claimed that on one occasion Wild had given him a shave and a haircut so he would be more comfortable (Morrell and Capparell 193). Wild had learned from Shackleton’s example, and his own development as a leader played a crucial role in the crew’s survival of the last one hundred and twenty-eight days of the saga (191-93).

Reflections The survival story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew aboard the Endurance provides many lessons for leadership. Kouzes and Posner state in The Leadership Challenge, “Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow” (Kouzes and Posner 20). In this paper we have selected examples to express how Shackleton developed his values, sought out opportunities, inspired followers, set a personal example through action, celebrated achievements, and developed his team members.

There are many other instances not included within this paper, but the overall theme remains; above all, Shackleton had a strong focus on team unity and employed all his leadership strategies for the purpose of getting every man home alive. The loyalty and trust that Shackleton inspired in his men is undeniable. In 1921, five years after the rescue, Shackleton set out again on his last expedition aboard the Quest. Remarkably, his eighteen-member crew was comprised of eight Endurance colleagues, including Wild and Worsley (Morrell and Capparell 208).

Following Shackleton’s death, Wild summed up the feelings he had for his leader: I have served with Scott, Shackleton, and Mawson, and have met Nansen, Amundsen, Peary, Cook, and other explorers, and in my considered opinion, for all the best points of leadership, coolness in the face of danger, resource under difficulties, quickness in decisions, never-failing optimism, and the faculty of instilling the same into others, remarkable genius for organization, consideration for those under him, and obliteration of self, the palm must be given to Shackleton, a hero and a gentleman in very truth.

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