Leadership in Troubled Times

Leadership in Troubled Times
There’s no better place to start than at the top. You may have already heard the story of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, the British Antarctic explorer who led three expeditions to the Antarctic. The most famous of those expeditions being the one where Shackleton set sail on the Endurance in 1914. The saga of determination and survival is regaled in leadership turning everywhere. And for good reason. It’s lessons apply across time and domains. It’s an inspirational story.

Having already been beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen, Shackleton decided to land on Antarctica and cross the entire continent over land. A journey of over 1,800 miles. He named his adventure the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. 

After securing funding, Shackleton acquired a 300-ton ship called the Polaris, originally built for the Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache. Reflecting his family motto, “By endurance we conquer,” Shackleton renamed her the Endurance. 

Next Shackleton went about building his “team.” Legend has it Shackleton posted an ad in a London newspaper stating: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.” Reportedly, the ad resulted in more than 5,000 applicant; including “three sporty girls” who offered to “don masculine attire.” 

With the expedition underway, a support ship sailed to the other side of the continent to lay supply caches. Shackleton and his crew of 28 hand-picked men sailed from Buenos Aires to South Georgia Island, and finally to the Weddell Sea.

Upon entering the frozen Weddell Sea, the Endurance encountered pack ice. After two months of trying to navigate through the ice, the Endurance became completely icebound. Shackleton‘s expedition was over and the plan now was how to prepare for a winter spent on the ice. The sled dogs were moved off the ship to igloos and the Endurance was converted to a winter home. 

“This ice is rafting up to a height of 10 or 15 feet in places, opposing floes are moving against one another at a rate of about 200 yards per hour. The noise resembles the roar of heavy, distant surf.” Shackleton

Shackleton knew an even more ominous danger than facing the elements was the morale of the crew. He had the crew play games and musical instruments to pass the time. The crew played soccer on the ice; on Saturday evenings they held toasts to “sweethearts and wives.” 

The Endurance continued to drift in the ice floes, and by October 27, 1915, she was squeezed to the breaking point; forcing Shackleton to give the order to abandon ship.

“After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope bear high and times when the outlook was black indeed we have been compelled to abandon ship which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted.” Shackleton 

We are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the expedition. It is hard to write what I feel.” Shackleton 

Endurance finally sand on November 21, 1915. The crew settled in for a more than three month stay at “Patience Camp.”

With supplies dwindling, the remaining dogs were eaten. Land was visible in the distance, but inaccessible through the ice. Earlier the men had christened the lifeboats after their financial backers: James Cairo, Dudley Docker, and Stancomb Willis. When the floe they were living on began to break up on April 8, 1916 the 28 men loaded into the three lifeboats and began navigating through a hazardous combination of sea and ice towards what they believed to be a whaling outpost.

After about a week in the lifeboats, the 28 men made landfall on Elephant Island; their first time on dry land in 497 days. 

“They were laughing uproariously, picking up stones and letting handfuls of pebbles trickle between their fingers like miners gloating over hoarded gold.” Shackleton 

Shackleton prepped the lifeboat James Cairo for the dangerous open ocean crossing to South Georgia Island, 920 miles away. He set our on April 24, 1916 with five men and a month of provisions. 

“We knew it would be the hardest thing we had ever undertaken, for the Antarctic winter has set in, and we were about to cross one of the worst seas in the world.” Frank Worsley 

The remaining men stayed behind on Elephant Island. Frank Wild took command of the party and built and improvised shelter by turning the remaining two lifeboats, along with canvas and other materials, into a crude but effective shelter.

After enduring mammoth waves and gale-force winds for 14 arduous days, the James Cairo finally made it to the south end of South Georgia Island. Exhausted, Shackleton and his men set off on a 36-hour non-stop march across treacherous terrain to the human settlements on the north side of the island. They finally reached civilization on May 20, 1916. Three months later Shackleton returned to Elephant Island aboard the Yelcho, and on August 30, 1916, the remaining men were finally rescued. 

The lesson here is profound yet simple. As the leader, Shackleton set the tone

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