Ernest Shackleton: Life and Crisis Leadership Lessons from an Antarctic Explorer (Part 3).

WELCOME TO (PART 3) OF THREE-PART BLOG SERIES that looks at some astonishing and unimaginable life and leadership lessons from one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.

In the first two posts (PART – I & PART – II) I introduced you to a prodigious and awesome leader, I have never known, and neither you have because he died exactly 100 years ago in 1922. His name- Ernest Shackleton.

In this final post, I’ll continue to share the remaining stunning and unbelievable life and leadership takeaways from the famous explorer- Ernest Shackleton.

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  1. Lead by Example.

True leaders always lead by example.

Leaders don’t lead by telling others what to do, but they lead by others by showing others what to do.

Shackleton is a prime example of a leader leading by example and leading from the front. His motto was very straight- he would never ask anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.

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After issuing the order to vacate the ship and allowing just two pounds of personal possession that each man could carry, Shackleton set the example by removing his gold watch, gold cigarette case, and some gifts and threw them away. He was a perfect embodiment of a leader who ‘walks the talk.’

Whenever the team faced dangerous situations, he was always the first one to face them. Also, when they took a lifeboat across the most dangerous and treacherous waters to reach the island of South Georgia, he would spend a big chunk of time standing up at the tiller and facing rough weather.

When there was a shortage of fur for sleeping bags, he spent the mission sleeping on the woollen bag and allowing the fine warm fur bags for his men. There are n stories of Shackleton leading from the front.

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Remember a leader who leads by example places himself as a credible and dependable person who earns the trust and loyalty of his people. The law of reciprocation works and the people work hard enough to help the leader achieve his goals.

  1. Keep Calm Under pressure.

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” – Publilius Syrus

Being a leader – whether you are running a Fortune 500 company or a start-up or a mom-and-pop store – is stressful.

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In an interesting research, 53% of leaders agreed that they react poorly and become panicky at times of crisis.

Shackleton’s leadership was par excellence when it comes to keeping calm under conflict and crisis. He was extraordinary and exceptional at what we call today ‘crisis management.’

“It was at this moment Shackleton…showed one of his sparks of real greatness.” Writes the ship’s doctor Alexander Macklin when he saw Shackleton dealing with the crisis of ship getting stuck in the ice, “He did not…show…the slightest sign of disappointment. He told us simply and calmly that we would have to spend the winter in the pack.”

He very well knew that being a leader his presence each day has a huge influence on his people’s mindsets. For these, he managed his emotional intelligence (EQ) well, even though he had never heard of the concept. As Daniel Goleman highlights, it’s not the IQ and technical skill, but EQ which is what sets high performers apart, and today is a must-have characteristic of true leadership.

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Rarely a leader would encounter a challenge as Shackleton did, but remember this: In times of crisis, it is easy and tempting to panic which then becomes contagious and spreads throughout the organization.

  1. Flexibility, Agility, and Learning

One of the traits that made Shackleton such a great leader was his flexibility and agility. Throughout the journey, he was open to new realities and continuously assessed and reassessed his priorities accordingly.

As the context and conditions changed, he would review, revise and reset, his goals and objectives. As soon as the ship got stuck in ice, all-out efforts were initiated to address the issue, but once he was convinced that nothing more can be done further, he immediately changed the entire course of the mission. The goal was no more the exploration to the Antarctic but to survive first and then ensure the safe return of his team back home. The priority suddenly shifted to get his men back to civilization.

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Is it easy to do so? No!

Just imagine if you’re a leader and have staked everything around your most sought-after goal, rallied the whole team around the mission and now suddenly circumstances force you to abandon the goal and give up your dream completely.

Will you be able to throw away the rulebook and abandon the plan if it is not working?

Will you be able to create an alternate plan and be flexible?

Will you be able to detach emotionally from your dream?

Would you be able to improvise fast?

Believe me, the majority of leaders won’t be able to do it.

But Shackleton was different! The difference is what made him an extraordinary leader. After the crew left the ‘Patience’ camp and headed to Elephant Island in three lifeboats, he changed the plan four times during the 15-day journey.


Because new information kept emerging and he recalibrated a new plan to meet the ultimate goal. He would easily detach himself emotionally from his plan irrespective of the time and effort he had spent devising it. He was a great improviser and a firm believer of the fact that when circumstances change, you be ready to change your response.

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  1. Master Conflict management and Deal Effectively with Dissent.

One study indicates that on average a manager or team leader spends almost 40% of their time resolving conflicts between employees.

Another study shows that almost 2/3 of performance problems happen because of unresolved conflicts.

Just imagine how much time and energy– the key to productivity and efficiency gets wasted because of interpersonal conflicts within the group.

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Conflicts happen in all groups but think of dissents and conflicts between people facing life and death situations like Shackleton’s team. He knew from day one that team unity and camaraderie within his men were imperative for the whole mission. So, he began early, when they got onboard Endurance, he realized that the dining table was not big enough to accommodate the entire team.

He instructed the carpenter to add an extension to the table so that everybody could be seated together. His sole objective was to ensure no division between officers and men. Another way to avoid building up conflicts was to make sure that his men did not spend more than a week sharing a tent with the same man.

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One of the ways to avoid building conflicts in the first place is to get the crew to respect each other. For that, he would often insist on commonsensical courtesy like using the familiar words of thank you, please and excuse me. Seems simple but goes a long way in maintaining civility. His whole conflict management strategy was to ensure no building of conflicts in the first place.

Inspired by the wisdom of ‘keeping your friends close and your enemies closer’ Shackleton chose his team very carefully on every step. For example, when selecting the team to make the difficult journey to South Georgia Island, he chose two men who he felt were most likely to cause dissent and discord to be on his team. He wanted his team staying behind on Elephant Island to be safe and secure, so he took the potentially disruptive and trouble-makers with him on the treacherous journey.

  1. Be Visionary, Decisive, and Meticulous.

Shackleton was decisive and visionary.

Throughout the expedition, he was always making difficult decisions. Some decisions were harsh and were unpopular among his men, but since they knew that he always takes decisions keeping the welfare and interest of the team in mind, his decisions were welcomed.

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The relations that he had forged with his men made his decision-making easy. At the same time, he was a bold visionary. No matter what the current scenario or the past decisions were like he always looked ahead across the horizon to see the next opportunity. He was always thinking about the next step and his focus was always on the future. He would not dwell in the past failures and look to blame someone but would always learn from it and make the next grand plan.

Apart from being visionary, he was also quite meticulous in detail. His planning would account for minute details and contingency, but when circumstances would force his strategy to change, he would immediately build a new strategy with equal meticulousness.

Don’t miss to read the first two parts (Part 1 and Part 2) of, “Ernest Shackleton: Life and Crisis Leadership Lessons from an Antarctic Explorer.”

I would love to hear from you in the comments section below as to what do you rate the leadership of Ernest Shackleton and what traits would you like to copy to upgrade your leadership.

Happy Leading.

1 thought on “Ernest Shackleton: Life and Crisis Leadership Lessons from an Antarctic Explorer (Part 3).”

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