Leadership Lessons from Ernest Shackleton

December 4, 2014

When Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on the Endurance to be the first man to cross the Antarctic, he knew he could not do it alone. The only way his expedition would be successful was through the hard work of his entire crew. When disaster struck and the Endurance was crushed by ice, he made brave decisions that led the team to safety. It is a testament to Shackleton’s remarkable leadership skills that the crew survived and eventually returned home.

Over the course of this blog series we will be looking at how Shackleton’s leadership style is still relevant today for team leadership and corporate leadership.

A true leader cares for his team

Though Shackleton was called “the Boss” by the crew of the Endurance, he never held himself higher than any member of his team. When the ship was destroyed his first thought was for the welfare of his team.

“Shackleton’s first thought was for the men under him. He didn’t care if he went without a shirt on his back so long as the men he was leading had sufficient clothing.” –Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer

When the men set up camp on the ice after losing their ship, Shackleton rose early every morning, prepared hot milk and bread and delivered it to every tent. When they began their long march across the ice floes, dragging 3 lifeboats with them, he watched his crew to see if any man looked sickly. If someone looked to be suffering, Shackleton would call for a break and give hot milk to all the crew, never letting the the crew member who was most in need know it was for his benefit.

As the men sailed to Elephant Island, Frank Worsley lost his mittens, so Shackleton gave him his own pair, threatening to throw the mittens overboard if Worsley refused. Despite Shackleton’s own hands becoming frostbitten, he never complained.

By putting the interests of his team ahead of himself, they built up a huge devotion towards Shackleton. So much so, that when he asked for two volunteers to accompany him on the treacherous sail to South Georgia Island, all of the men volunteered. Later, Worsley wrote:

“The moment he ceased speaking every man volunteered… On the island was still safety for some weeks. The boat journey promised even worse hardships than those through which we had but recently passed. Yet so strong was the men’s affection for Shackleton, so great was their loyalty to him, that they responded as though they had not undergone any of the experiences that so often destroy those sentiments. They were as eager to accompany him as they had been on the first of August, 1914, the day upon which we had sailed nearly two years before.”

By truly caring for the needs of his crew, Shackleton ensured that every one of the 27 crew members returned home safely after two years on the expedition. His leadership skills and selflessness not only saved their lives but also caused the team’s loyalty to grow at the most precarious phase of the expedition.

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