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Updated 29 Sep 2020

Leadership lessons learnt from adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton

Today’s leaders can learn from one of the world’s greatest failed adventures and the indomitable spirit of the man who fashioned glory from disaster. 

Axel Ritterhaus, 07 October 2015  Share  0 comments  Print

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Sir Ernest Shackleton is synonymous when it comes to adventure having led three expeditions to the Antarctica in the earliest 20th century. All this in a time long before Gore-Tex, satellite phones and vacuum packed rations. It is however, Shackleton’s second expedition in January 1915 aboard the aptly named “Endurance’ that has become synonymous with the man and his legacy.

Upon arriving in the Antarctic and after maneuvering around the ice pack for weeks Shackleton and his crew found their vessel captured between the ice.

 Ironically the ships name was to become their destiny. In October 1915, nine months later, they were still trapped. Things then got even worse for the beleaguered crew when the ship was finally destroyed by the ice.

Related: 10 Behaviours of real leaders

Stranded without a ship to the intrepid crew were forced to make camp on the desolate and frigid ice flow. This was accomplished using tents and whatever else could be rescued and scavenged from the Endurance.

1. Structuring your teams

While reading about this adventure there were a few particular leadership lessons that stood out to me. Firstly the question of how to allocate the men into their specific tents; having only a few tents meant Shackleton had to determine who should be together in a tent. As always, the crew consisted of loyal followers, strong supporters of Shackleton and some rebels, questioning Shackleton’s every action. 

What would you have done with those rebels? Would you have grouped them all in one tent, so they do not influence the loyal crew members? Perhaps you would have instead placed one rebel into each tent, hoping the other crew members would cool the rebel down? Or perhaps you would have decided to invite all the rebels into your own tent?

Shackleton chose the third and arguably the most challenging option. In this case it meant that he was always aware of their mood, their discussions and their intentions. He did not stop there though he also gave them responsibilities and duties, in order to keep them busy and working towards the greater cause.

I have to be honest and say I am not sure if I would have made the same choice but it turned out to be the correct one. He was able to keep his entire crew working together as one unit without the mutinies and dissent that often befall such circumstances.

Sir -Ernest -Shackleton -postage -stamp

2. Taking difficult tasks head on

The second leadership lesson I took away from the story was that a leader does not shy away from the difficult tasks. You see, when it became apparent that the expedition was stranded with little chance of being found Shackleton took it upon himself to lead a skeleton crew to search for help.

Recorded interviews with the men who accompanied him speak of a leader who literally led from the front, breaking the ice to make it easier and safer for his crew to follow.

3. Motivate and care for your team

Finally; a leader motivates and cares about his team. Given the dire situation it was only natural that morale amongst the crew would be low so Shackleton set about organising football and hockey matches on the ice. He also arranged marches across the ice mindful that keeping the men engaged and active improved their overall morale.

On many occasions this courageous man acted selflessly placing his men’s needs before his own, when photographer Frank Hurley lost his mittens Shackleton replaced them with his own.

Related: The path less travelled on the journey to success

Hurley was reluctant to take them and so Shackleton threatened to simply throw them overboard. He took numerous double shifts on watch and even gave away his own specially-made expedition boots replacing them with thin ski boots.

All of these skills resulted in Shackleton performing what is one of most impressive leadership success stories of all times. He and five others made an almost 1,300 km open boat journey to organise the rescue of the team.

On May 20th 1916 (yes, 16 months after the ship was caught in ice), they arrived at the whaling station Stromness. It took a few more weeks until the remaining crew was rescued. All 27 crew members were to survive the 635 day in the ice desert.

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About the author

Axel Ritterhaus

Axel Rittershaus is an internationally renowned C-Level / Executive Coach & Author who started as an entrepreneur in the IT industry in 1993. He knows that success is the result of hard work and determination even more than innate talent. A master of maintaining focus and follow-through, Axel supports C-Level leaders globally in achieving goals. Axel is dedicated and passionate to see clients succeed beyond their expectations. Axel is also the president of the International Coach Federation South Africa and a multiple Two Oceans and Comrades finisher.

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