10 Leadership Lessons from Ernest Shackleton’s Famous Arctic Survival Mission

Few, if any, business challenges will rise to the life and death level that faced Ernest Shackleton and his 27-man crew during their doomed Antarctica expedition in 1915 and 1916.

Nevertheless, there are many applicable learnings we can take from their ultimate and monumental survival achievements.

First, for those not familiar with the story, here’s a quick recap, which does not do the amazing feat justice (this post is inspired by the book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage):

  • The expedition’s ship, Endurance, was caught in an arctic ice pack vise grip and was slowly crushed and sunk;
  • The crew survived hundreds of miles on floating blocks of ice;
  • Three open, wooden life boats were used to navigate to a tiny strip of land;
  • From there, a crew of six in one boat sailed 800 miles in one of the the most dangerous seas in the world;
  • Finally, three men made a seemingly impossible land journey to reach a whaling station, leading to the eventual rescue of the entire crew.

Here are ten reasons why Shackleton and his crew survived what should have been an unsurvivable mission. More than 100 years later, they are still relevant and highly applicable to businesses and organizations.

  1. Human Spirit/Positive Outlook. Do not underestimate the mental part of the equation. The right attitude is always critical, even during the worst predicaments.
  1. Critical Fixed Goal. At all times, Shackleton and crew had a laser-focused, specific, tangible, critical objective. There was nothing fuzzy about it and everyone understood the mission.
  1. Perseverance. The dogged, stick-to-it, keep trying mindset was instrumental to the crew’s survival.
  1. Trusting Your Team. Shackleton did not try and do everything himself. He empowered, delegated and deployed his team in the best manner he could. For example, the survival probably would not have happened without the expert seamanship and navigation of Captain Frank Worsley.
  1. Someone Clearly in Charge. Look, while collaboration is great and necessary, at some point someone has to make the call on how to proceed. Shackleton was that guy.
  1. Analyzing Options. Shackleton constantly evaluated the current situation, and considered the scenarios and options. This analysis drove his decision-making, yet he was not a one-man show. For instance, he did not hesitate to seek input and counsel from key members of the team. This use of key team members as a “discussion partner” and sounding board was undoubtedly an important factor for their ultimate success.
  1. Adaptability. In business and in life, it’s always how you navigate the journey. Similar to managing the sails in a difficult sea, it’s necessary to course adjust. Shackleton was willing to recalibrate or change his decisions when necessary.
  1. Practical, Real-time Decision-making. Probably no one would want to be in Shackleton’s proverbial shoes and have to assume such life and death decision-making. Yet, he understood his role and did not shirk from making the tough calls.
  1. Effective Communication. Shackleton continuously kept the entire crew informed.
  1. Good Fortune. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with some good fortune along the way. Believe it or not, sometimes that is the difference in the outcome.

Harvey Chimoff is a customer-focused global business leader who connects marketing across the organization to drive performance and achieve business objectives. His B2B and CPG marketing expertise includes agribusiness, ingredients and food and beverage. Contact him at harveychimoff.com.

One thought on “10 Leadership Lessons from Ernest Shackleton’s Famous Arctic Survival Mission

  1. Having been to the National Geographic headquarters in DC at the time there was an exhibition about this, I was fortunate to see a film about Shackleton and many other photos and displays about the incredible trip these men took took across the sea. Both Shackleton and Worsley were superb leaders and their men trusted them. All of your numerical points do make for excellent leadership qualities and can be developed and encouraged over time.

    Like

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