A case study on the life of Sir Ernest Shackleton, authored by Paul Records.
Note to Readers:
The following case study highlights a 1914—1916 expedition to the Antarctic led by British explorer Ernest Shackleton. Though it took place far outside of the context of church leadership, it provides valuable insight on the philosophy needed to succeed in a context of chaos. When the ship, Endurance, was destroyed by the ice the entire crew was forced into a two-year crisis of survival.
The purpose of this case study is to enhance one’s philosophy of leadership and to also provide a real-world example of a leader who, in spite of apparent disaster, was able to led a team to accomplish the impossible.
IT WAS THE AGE OF ANTARCTIC EXPLORATION
At the start of World War I, few realized that many European nations were racing to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent. With the absence of modern technology or equipment, exploring Antarctica was the ultimate measure of a person’s mental and physical capabilities. One writer described it as, “a symbol of absolute isolation, of man’s hardest battle against nature, a place with temperatures so low that many could hear water freeze.”
In this age a British sailor and explorer, Ernest Shackleton, led an expedition of twenty-eight men and attempted the impossible – the first overland crossing of the Antarctic continent. The expedition ship, named the Endurance after the Shackleton family motto Fortitudine Vincimus, “By Endurance We Conquer,” set sail in August of 1914 at the dawn of World War I and made its way to Buenos Aires, to South Georgia Island, and eventually to the Antarctic Circle, where it plowed through one thousand miles of ice-encrusted waters.
Losing their ship before it ever touched the Antarctic continent, the expedition would be deemed a failure. However, the story of Shackleton and his crew is a stirring example of resilience, survival, and leadership.
At a time when many similar expeditions ended in disaster, death, mutiny, and even cannibalism, the Endurance crew all returned, “not only in good health, but also in good spirits.” It has been said that polar exploration of the time was littered with dead bodies. This was not the case of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
They had survived for two years, stranded twelve hundred miles from civilization with no means of communication, on a diet of penguins, dogs, and seals, in the frigid darkness of long polar nights in one of the most brutal seas in the entire world.
When researching the saga of the Endurance nearly sixty years later, an interviewer asked first officer Lionel Greenstreet, “How did you survive when so many expeditions perished?” The stricken, eighty-two-year-old man answered in one word: “Shackleton.”
The group was composed of men with a range of temperaments, personalities, and technical skills; including medicine, navigation, carpentry, and photography. The team was diverse in social class, ranging from university professors to fishermen. The crew even contained one stowaway, a young man named Perce Blackborow. In spite of these differences, the commander of the Endurance crew knew how to pull people together, all various in nature and expertise, and lead them to work under the worst of conditions as a single unit. Scholar Dennis Perkins points out, “despite an inauspicious start, even Blackborow became fully integrated as a member of the expedition.
“Shackleton built success on a foundation of camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination, and above all optimism,” writes Margot Morrall in the bestseller, Shackleton’s Way. Studying the Endurance story, students see that Shackleton’s style of leadership was the opposite of the old “command and control” philosophy of management. His philosophy valued flexibility, individual triumph, and teamwork. He had an uncanny ability to inspire drastically different people to pursue a common goal.
“I always found him rising to his best and inspiring confidence when things were at their blackest.” –Frank Hurley, photographer, Endurance
Forty-four days after departing from South Georgia island, the Endurance was trapped by pack ice one day’s sail from the intended landing site. For nine months, Shackleton and his crew lived in below-zero temperatures as the current drove the pack ice across the Weddell Sea.
To preserve moral and to keep the men occupied, they were assigned clearly-defined tasks. By giving his men daily routines, a sense of structure and purpose was established. Even after the ship was crushed by the ice and they had to set out on foot and eventually by boat, every member was reminded of their contribution to the survival of the whole crew.
In April of 1916, after drifting in three small lifeboats in the tumultuous sea, the men arrived at Elephant island. With living conditions in mind and knowing that long-term survival was unlikely, Shackleton and five men set out on an 800-mile sea voyage in a 22 ½ foot boat to seek help. Almost a month later, the men reached South Georgia island, two years after their original departure. After embarking on a grueling and unprecedented thirty-six-hour hike to the other side of the island, they reached a whaling station. Keeping his word, Shackleton soon acquired assistance and returned to rescue the rest of his men.
This case study reveals a few vivid points for those that lead teams. First of all, to build a consensus among people a leader must inspire followers by their example. Never once did his men look to Shackleton and see a man hopeless, negligent, or without purpose. Walter How, seaman aboard the Endurance, later wrote, “He was a tower of strength and endurance, and he never panicked in any emergency.” Lionel Greenstreet, first officer, recounted, “He had a quick brain, and he could visualize things ahead, and as far as he could he safeguarded any eventuality that was likely to occur.”
Even in imperfect working conditions, people find reasons to endure if the mission is worthwhile and grand. To continue in spite of great adversity, a person must believe that the intended goal is larger than their singular life. Prior to their departure, the following advertisement ran in a London newspaper aimed at recruiting men for the Endurance expedition.
Studying the life and legacy of Ernest Shackleton, we are shown a vivid lesson in humility. To lead a team to its fullest potential, a leader must foster a spirit of servanthood. Never arrogant, he always looked out for the betterment of his men.
Leaving the ship behind as it was being crushed by the pressure of the ice and continuing on foot, he put the needs of his men above the object of the expedition. To survive, they had to abandon their original goal. With a lack of sleeping bags, Shackleton and his officers gave the men under them in rank priority in the choosing of wool bags.
Another example of a selfless mentality is described by Thomas Orde-Lees in his journal. When Hurley, the photographer, lost his mittens, Shackleton was quick to respond.
“At once he divested himself of his own, and in spite of the fact that he was standing up in the most exposed position all the while he insisted upon Hurley’s acceptance of the mits, and on the latter’s protesting Sir Ernest was on the point of throwing them overboard rather than wear them when one of his subordinates had to go without; as a consequence Sir Ernest had one finger rather severely frostbitten.”
This type of attitude contrasts a similar expedition which set out only a year earlier in August of 1913 to explore the North Pole.
Led by Canadian born Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the crew of the Karluk also found themselves in a fight for survival, facing shortages of food and supplies. Stefansson had been educated at the University of Iowa and Harvard and had been a distinguished teaching fellow at Harvard. With a team culture drastically different than that of the Endurance, the crew of the Karluk found themselves transformed into self-interested, disparate individuals that after facing disaster, lied, cheated, and stole from each other. Perkins writes, “the disintegration of the team had tragic consequences for the eleven members who died in the Artic wasteland.” He continues to write, “the tragedy of the Karluk expedition resulted, in part, from a leader who failed to understand the distinction between individual actions and team motivation.”
With hindsight, we see that Stefansson was a self-promoter, with an aim for personal glory. Unlike Shackleton, he was never able to put the needs of his men above the object of the expedition.
Ignoring the counsel of his ship captain, Robert Bartlett, who advised turning back while there was still time, Stefansson refused and plowed ahead.
After the ice closed around the Karluk, and realizing that any hopes of forward progress were futile, Stefansson set out on a personal expedition. After posing for photographs, and taking some of the expedition’s best dogs, he took two sledges with food and ammunition and left his crew behind to hunt for Caribou. He never returned. Stefansson was not seen again until 1918, when he suddenly reappeared after five years of exploration. Reading his travel journals, one would find little note of his men. Stefansson wrote immensely, however, of hunting, weather, ethnographic observations, and his interactions with the Inuit.
When questioned about his actions later, Stefansson rationalized his decision to abandon his crew and minimized the condition of his men. Perkins writes, “what he did not foresee, or apparently care about, is that many would not reach safety and would die in the ice.” In time, it was Captain Bartlett who traversed to Siberia and shortly after led efforts for the rescue of the crew.
It is clear to see that Stefansson’s philosophy of leadership rested on his own ambitions. Viewing the example of Ernest Shackleton, we see exactly the opposite.
Lastly, viewing the case study of the Endurance expedition, we discover what is possible when people unite for a common cause. Even in the worst of conditions, Shackleton ensured that his men were bound in a circle of brotherhood. He knew how to handle the constant naysayer and often separated negative crew members from the rest of his men and assigned them to his own tent. With limited resources, he brought order to a chaotic environment.
Ignoring hierarchies and distinctions of class, he assigned fair tasks to each and every man. Though quite average, with no academic hope as a schoolboy, he earned the unfailing loyalty of his men. After returning from the two-year disaster and having failed at his original goal, Shackleton embarked once again to the Antarctic region on further expeditions. Interestingly, many of his men joined his efforts and returned to the frigid temperatures of the Weddell Sea. Why would they venture back into the land of frozen seas and polar nights? Ultimately, because Shackleton would be leading them.
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about the author:
I'm a Husband and a Daddy, a minister, a teacher and preacher, writer, youth leader, blogger, and servant of a great God.