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Making the difference between life and death

  • January 2017

Making the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death

The inspired team lead­er­ship of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton


Sir Ernest Shackleton ranks among the most famous explorers of the heroic age of polar expeditions. He rose to fame as the leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 to 1916, in which he aimed to become the first to cross the Antarctic on foot by way of the South Pole. The fate of the expedition hung in the balance when their vessel, Endurance, was trapped and crushed by pack ice, but thanks to Shackleton’s inspired leadership, everyone lived to tell the tale. Shackleton’s decisive gift as a leader was the ability to form the best teams to meet each new hazard – setting a valuable example for modern-day crisis managers.

by Stephanie Capparell

Corporate leaders now often feel a sense of crisis as the pace of everyday business and the need for change accelerate. Even the best-performing companies in the healthiest economies of the world cannot look to the future with certainty.

A workplace in crisis changes dramatically: Divisions that seemed unimportant turn into chasms; hierarchies of authority are necessarily flattened, leaving middle management with less power; specialization becomes a luxury, forcing the rank and file to abandon the work in which they had become expert. In such situations, the ability to set up productive teams is essential.

For some top executives the current business environment may well feel as hostile as the Antarctic storms once did to the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. And Shackleton’s example can perhaps teach them how to survive the dangers by composing strong teams.

A series of deepening catastrophes

In 1914, Shackleton had set out aboard the Endurance to undertake a spectacular crossing of the Antarctic on foot. But one day’s sail from the shore, Endurance became trapped in the ice. What followed was a series of deepening catastrophes. First, the ship was dragged along in the pack ice for ten months. Then, his crew of 27 men – seamen, scientists and other professionals with widely varying experience at sea – were forced to abandon ship and set up camp on unstable ice floes. Shortly after, they watched in horror as their ship was crushed and sank. When, after four months, the ice under their feet broke apart, they boarded their three lifeboats and set sail. After a perilous week-long voyage they reached dry land, only to find themselves on a narrow spit of land so inhospitable that they had to live under their overturned boats. Ultimately, a team of five sailed 1,800 miles over a storm-roiled sea to reach civilization and organize a rescue. Everyone survived – in remarkably good mental and physical health.

That his team emerged unscathed was largely Shackleton’s achievement. He was a talented leader in the best of circumstances and a brilliant one in a crisis. Central to the success of his leadership style was his ability to form competent teams. Shackleton first set up teams to establish order, discipline and camaraderie aboard ship while training his men for the expedition. For long assignments, he let the men pair off naturally, allowing friends to work with friends, and adding similar personalities as necessary. For the daily chores, he set up work rosters that mixed and matched the crewmen. To obtain random pairings he used the simple tool of an alphabetical list.

That way, everyone learned every task on the ship: Scientists hauled supplies and seamen took scientific readings. Soon, the ship’s chores fell into a smooth routine. Everyone pitched in to help the others, and there was socializing when the work was done. The men developed a strong sense of unity, and grew confident and secure in the ship’s leadership.

Focus on personalities

After the expedition was forced to abandon Endurance and move onto the ice, teams were formed to maintain morale. Shackleton knew it was critical to tamp down dissent and quash despair. When he had to assign men to the five tents that would be their quarters on the ice, he focused solely on personalities. He let friends stay together, but also carefully balanced the cheerful and the gloomy so that they could help each other pull through the ordeal. Most important, Shackleton took the smallest tent and kept close to him three key personalities: the disgruntled photographer who was setting himself up as a rival leader, the most argumentative of the crewmen, and the most fearful crew member. For ten months, Shackleton succeeded in keeping despair and pessimism at bay. The men were kept busy working for their survival, and even had some fun.

When the time came to take to the lifeboats, the selection of the three crews made the difference between life and death. Shackleton had to make sure each team was capable of surviving on its own, as well as be able to help the others survive. In each boat he balanced experience, talent and temperament, and showed respect for rank. Each crew had an excellent navigator, a strong leader and someone who could administer medical care. The remaining half-dozen were selected by ability and temperament. Shackleton took the best lifeboat, James Caird, and, once again, the weakest men – the troubled and the trouble makers – to keep them safe and to keep them from burdening the others. He trusted the captain of each lifeboat to lead his crew, but also kept an eye on every individual. And they all arrived safely on land – cold, hungry and battered, but alive.

In the end, Sir Ernest selected a crew of four to attempt the heroic voyage to a distant whaling station. He took, logically, the best navigator, a cheerful crew member who would help keep the navigator at ease, the man who most wanted to go, and the two pessimists. And as history relates, they succeeded in reaching the isles of South Georgia in the South Atlantic and organized the rescue of their crewmates. Shackleton’s thoughtful management of his men helped him create order, unity, loyalty, camaraderie – and ultimately success – out of chaos. His key formula? Optimism and teamwork.


STEPHANIE CAPPARELL is the author of Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer. A business journalist, author and filmmaker, she lives in New York City.


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