Ernest Shackleton: Life and Crisis Leadership Lessons from an Antarctic Explorer (Part 1).

ALMOST ALL LEADERS ARE HONORED FOR THEIR SUCCESSES AND VICTORIES, but rarely for failures and defeats.  Ernest Shackleton is an example of that rarity, who is now considered a role model for CEOs and Leaders.

Let’s dive into this amazing personality and learn some unbelievable life and leadership lessons.

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Ernest Shackleton was not good at his studies. In fact, it is said that he was ‘bored’ by his studies. Just age 16, he joined a shipping company learning the tricks and trade of sailing and becoming a certified master mariner.

So Many Failures, Yet so Successful.

In his sailing career, Shackleton is quite famous for his failed Antarctic expeditions including ‘Nimrod’ and the first South Pole attempt by Robert Falcon which too failed.

Years later looking for permanent employment, Shackleton applied for regular commission in the Royal Navy but was unsuccessful.

He became a journalist and started working for a magazine, but again got bored and left.

He tried his hand in business but failed.

Also tried his luck in politics by standing in the 1906 general election, but again failed.

And when he died at age 47, his family was in debt.

Now honestly would you call such a person successful? No!

But amazingly Sir Ernest Shackleton has been tagged as “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.”

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Interested to know why then read this till the end. And believe me, once you learn the amazing story of his remarkable ‘Endurance’ Antarctic expedition, you’ll understand the why behind the title.

Welcome to Part 1 of the three-part blog series and let me introduce you to an amazing leader, I have never known, and neither you have. He died exactly 100 years ago in 1922.

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Let’s dive in!

The Story Goes Like this:

On August 3, 1914, the First World War broke out. On August 8, British Explorer Ernest Shackleton bitten by his secret ambition to return to the Antarctic once again, lead his team of 27 people and sailed from London in the ‘Endurance’ ship in a daring attempt to make the first overland crossing of Antarctica on foot.

Just five months later in January 1915, the Endurance froze and got trapped in a sea of ice. For almost nine months till October 1915, the worst fear came true: the ship got crushed by heavy ice and started to sink.

Shackleton ordered his men to abandon the ship saying, “She’s going down.” All equipment, and resources that could be salvaged were transferred to camps built on nearby drifting ice. For the next few months, the crew lodged themselves in five tents on the floating ice, nearly 200 miles from the nearest landmass.

Stranded in the frozen Antarctic, the team of explorers under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton, endured icy temperatures, dwindling food reserves, death threatening conditions, and scary isolation of more than 1200 miles from the nearest civilization. There were times when the crew endured temperatures so low that they could hear the water freeze.

Forced to sleep on the wet ice and survive on an unpalatable diet of dogs, penguins, and seals, this is an amazing and gripping tale of resilience, patience, and endurance. Just imagining this is enough to give us goosebumps. Isn’t it?

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By April of 1916, the ice floe on which the entire crew was camping was crushed by the ice. The ship finally breaks and sinks into the icy waters. Shackleton and his team mount themselves on the lifeboats and started their journey to find the nearest land. After sailing for another 5 days, the tired and exhausted crew finally landed at Elephant Island.

It was almost 15 long months that the men found dry and solid land beneath their feet. But their happiness was short-lived. Just like the fleeting ice their happiness too was fleeting.

The reason: Elephant Island was an isolated, uninhabited, and inhospitable place. Because of its typical topography and no vegetation, it was not on the shipping routes. Whalers too avoided the place; thus, Shackleton knew it was not the place where they could hope for help and rescue.

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The Final Rescue.

But the most magnificent part of the story was yet to come. With the single goal of getting his entire crew safely back to civilization, he decides to undertake an open-boat journey to reach South Georgia some 720 nautical miles to get help and rescue his crew.

Shackleton selected five members and set out in one of the 22 feet long lifeboats on a most heroic journey across the dangerous waters and at the mercy of stormy seas. Finally overcoming all obstacles, the team reached the destination. But the dearest journey was still pending.

Shackleton loaned a ship, sailed it back to Elephant Island to rescue the remaining 22 men left behind. It took him some 4 attempts over a period of five months to reach Elephant Island.

Miraculously, Shackleton did not lose a single soul in the entire brutal adventure. In fact, every man not only survived but was found in good health and good spirits- all thanks to the exceptional leadership of one man.

Greatest Example of Crisis Leadership.

This 24-month ordeal is a captivating and absorbing story that reveals some amazing life and leadership lessons you will never read. In fact, sometimes the story is almost too fascinating to be believed.

With the world fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, we are facing an unprecedented crisis with so many uncertainties of what tomorrow may bring. And as the pandemic drags on, many people are looking back in history to get some hope and inspiration. A look into the exploits of Ernest Shackleton is a perfect fit.

What does it take to be successful in leading others during these challenging times?

What does real crisis leadership look like?

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If you too are really looking for answers to the above question, then let me tell you there is no better example of best crisis leadership in action than Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton’s leadership saga is now an integral part of management studies and is now taught in almost all leading management schools: Harvard, Cambridge, Wharton, and many more. In fact, NASA has a ‘Shackleton Training Program.’

Get the Right People Onboard.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn.

In Life, you are as good as the people you surround yourself with and in business too you are only as good as the people you keep.

One of the best leadership lessons we can learn from this story is to have the right people in the right places at the right time. From the very beginning Shackleton knew that if he really wants to make this mission a success, he need to hire men of passion and surround himself with dedicated men.

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Want Proof?

I don’t know if you have seen the job posting an ad that Shackleton placed in the London Times, it was quite unique, but was a reflection of his desire.

The ad read, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Would you apply? I don’t know, but the ad generated over 5000 applications.

People who applied had to be passionate about the whole mission. He finally selected 27 of them. His hiring and selection methods even reflected his style.

He selected physicist Reginald James because of his extra ability of singing. Some he hired for their expertise and some he hired because of his gut feeling and intuition. For him, character, temperament, humour, and attitude were equally as important as technical abilities. His investment in people was key to the survival story.

In Business too, whether it is a large multinational or a small start-up, hiring the right people is a prerequisite for the long-lasting success of any business. The people you employ could be the difference between prosperity and decay.

No doubt that leadership is extremely important, but the question is- can a leader alone do anything? It is always the collective work of the team that allows a company to grow and flourish.

So, leaders must focus on selecting the best people. They will become future leaders and innovators, the foundation on which the long-term success of your business will depend.

Great success always comes from the people that lead and the people who are led.

People inspire you, or they drain you – pick them wisely.”- Hans F Hansen.

Don’t miss reading the 2nd part of this series.

In “Part 2”, I’have continued revealing and sharing some mind-blowing life and leadership lessons from one of the greatest leaders- Ernest Shackleton.

So, keep connected by commenting your precious views and opinion and keep reading.

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