Leadership Lessons From a Death-Defying Polar Explorer

They say great leaders rise to the top in times of trouble. Discover--and adopt--the 9 smart tactics this adventurer used to keep his team inspired under extreme circumstances.
November 17, 2014

Did you suffer through the Polar Vortex last winter? Accuweather says there’s likely to be another one this year. If that mere thought exhausts you—or if you’re just feeling overwhelmed by the difficulties of motivating yourself and your employees as the year draws to a close—I have just the antidote.

On a recent plane trip, I read Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the true-life tale of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, who led an ill-fated expedition to cross Antarctica by dogsled in 1914. Before he and his team had even landed, their ship Endurance was smashed to bits and the 27 men on board spent nearly two years stranded on ice floes and at sea. The dramatic story will have you riveted to the page—and if you’ve ever struggled to finish a huge project or keep your staff upbeat in the face of bad news, Shackleton’s story will give you some much-needed perspective.

Here are nine leadership lessons from Endurance’s amazing tale of survival. 

1. Choose the right team. Shackleton pulled together his crew using instinct, choosing most of them after talking to them for just a few moments. Although he was careful to select men with the expertise needed for the trip, he paid equal attention to personalities and compatibility. Those who didn’t get along with others during the preparatory stages were let go.

2. Build bonds. Things went wrong early on. Slushy ice surrounding the ship froze solid overnight, trapping the Endurance like a fly in an ice cube. Making matters worse, winter came, polar night fell and the sun didn’t rise for months on end. Other men had gone mad in such situations, but Shackleton kept his crew occupied by encouraging practical jokes, games and social occasions like dog races and gambling. The crew even put on plays to entertain themselves. By the time spring came, the men were a tight-knit unit.

3. Give ‘em a break. The men thought spring thaw would be their chance to set sail, but the melting ice floes started to crush the ship. Realizing the Endurance was doomed, the crew disembarked and set up tents on unstable ice floes. Soaking wet and freezing, they couldn’t relax because the ice floes kept cracking, forcing them to constantly strike camp; move their gear, dogsleds and supplies to a safer spot; and start all over again. Fortunately, Shackleton knew exactly when he needed to push his men and when he could let them rest, enjoy a little extra seal blubber (yum!) or even sip from their precious alcohol supply. As a result, they were willing to work hard when needed.

4. Walk the walk. Shackleton never asked his team to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. At one point, realizing they needed to lighten the weight on the ice floe, he asked everyone to get rid of anything non-essential to the mission. Then he ripped the 23rd Psalm out of his Bible and threw the rest of the book—along with his prized gold watch—into the ocean. Soon, the rest of the team had discarded their personal keepsakes, too.

5. Monitor your bad apples. To maintain a tight-knit crew, Shackleton kept a close eye on the few men with negative attitudes. He included them in important decisions and committees, flattering them so they wouldn’t turn against him and cause dissension in the ranks. He also kept them busy by assigning them tasks so they had no time to brood and spread negativity.

6. Be prepared. The crew spent months drifting on ice waiting for surrounding icebergs to break up so they could launch three small boats they’d salvaged. Rather than letting them sit idle, Shackleton gave everyone jobs and conducted regular drills so they’d be ready to act at the first opportunity.

7. Stick together. When they finally took to the sea again searching for land, Shackleton and his men spent miserable days soaked to the skin, lashed by icy rain and wind. To avoid getting lost, they had to work in teams to keep the three boats together and take turns sitting watch all night.

8. Take responsibility—but have a succession plan. When they finally reached the island they’d been aiming for, they discovered it was rocky, barren and battered by gale-force winds. Knowing they couldn’t survive there long, Shackleton gathered five men to join him in taking one boat to another island where a Norwegian fishery operated. Before leaving, however, he gave his second-in-command detailed instructions in case he never returned.

9. Take risks. After weeks at sea, Shackleton and the five crew members finally landed on the inhabited island—but on the wrong side. With the boat too battered to sail any further, there was only one option: Shackleton and two of his men set out to cross the island—an unimaginable challenge, since it was mostly sheer, rocky ice cliffs.

After hiking all day and making many false turns, the exhausted men found themselves atop a glacier with a sheer, 2,000-foot drop. Night was falling, fog was rolling in, and if they stayed where they were, they’d freeze to death. Shackleton turned to his men and told them, “We’re going to slide down.” Screaming all the way, they did—and made it to civilization at last. Nearly two years after setting out, the Endurance’s crew was rescued, and all 27 of the men survived. 

While you're unlikely to ever find yourself and your team in a life-or-death situation like Shackleton's, learning from his approach to leadership can help you guide your team out of even the most challenging business situations.

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Photo: Getty Images