Leadership Lessons From the Shackleton Expedition
Ernest Shackleton’s failed quest to reach the South Pole is still a management tutorial in how to face repeated crises. The crew of his ship, the Endurance, was photographed in July 1915 while trapped by an ice floe.
A HUNDRED years ago this month, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and four teammates became the first men to reach the South Pole, arriving in triumph five weeks ahead of Robert Falcon Scott. The Amundsen crew would return safely to its base, but, heartbreakingly, Scott and his four British companions died on the return journey.
The race to the pole has long attracted leadership experts, who like to contrast the Amundsen focus on efficiency and innovation with Scott’s more deliberate dedication to scientific pursuit.
But another polar explorer — Ernest Shackleton — faced harsh conditions in a way that speaks more directly to our time. The Shackleton expedition, from 1914 to 1916, is a compelling story of leadership when disaster strikes again and again.
Consider just a handful of recent events: the financial crisis of 2008; the gulf oil spill of 2010; and the Japanese nuclear disaster, the debt-ceiling debacle and euro crisis this year. Constant turbulence seems to be the new normal, and effective leadership is crucial in containing it.
Real leaders, wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
Shackleton exemplified this kind of leadership for almost two years on the ice. What can we learn from his actions?