Subject:  Leadership – The Shackleton Expedition 

Event:  Ernest Shackelton dies, 1922

In 1914 the polar explorer Ernest Shackelton set off for Antarctica with a crew of 28 men.  Their goal was to be the first to walk across the continent.  The men of the expedition not only failed in reaching their goal, they never even set foot on Antarctica.  And yet the story of the Shackleton Expedition lives on as one of the most successful failures in history.

Shackleton statue by C.S. Jagger outside the Royal Geographical Society (Wikipedia)

Shackleton and his crew set off for Antarctica in their ship, the Endurance, in August 1914.  In January 1915, they came in sight of Antarctica’s coast, but because their ship became trapped in the ice, they were unable to reach the shore.  The only option was to remain immobilized in the ice until the summer thaw.  To combat the fear and disappointment of the unfortunate circumstances, Shackleton kept his men busy, establishing a strict daily schedule that included gathering scientific specimens from the ice, hunting for seals and penguins, and socializing after dinner. 

After spending months on the ice, the crew’s hopes were further frustrated in October 1915 when the ice began to weaken the hull of their ship, causing water to pour in.  Shackleton knew at this point that there was no hope for the Endurance nor was there hope for accomplishing his original mission.  His new mission was now to survive.

After recovering what they could from the ship, including three lifeboats, the crew established a camp on the ice. 

In April 1916, the ice broke up enough so that the crew could attempt to reach dry land in their lifeboats.  Finally, after a week at sea, the crew arrived at uninhabited Elephant Island.  Still a long way from civilization and safety, Shackleton put together a plan to reach South Georgia Island, the location of the whaling settlement where the crew had begun its expedition.  Using one of the lifeboats — the James Caird — Shackleton and a small crew set out for South Georgia.

After more than two weeks at sea in stormy and icy conditions, the lifeboat finally arrived at South Georgia.  Although they had reached shore, the men landed on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station.  The next desperate step was to trudge on foot over mountainous terrain to reach the whaling station.  Finally, after 36 hours of arduous hiking, Shackleton and his two companions reached civilization.

Next, Shackleton’s task was to rescue the rest of the castaways on Elephant Island.  After failing in two attempts to reach the island through icy seas, he finally succeeded on August 30, 1916. One hundred and twenty-eight days after leaving for South Georgia in the James Caird, the entire crew was reunited without the loss of a single man.

Today the Shackleton Expedition is viewed as a case study in leadership.  No leader is perfect, but Shackleton’s perseverance in the face of repeated setbacks, his ability to adapt, and his unwavering determination and commitment to save his crew serve as a model for modern leaders.

In 1921, Shackleton planned another expedition to Antarctica where this time his plan was to circumnavigate — rather than trek across — the continent.  Unfortunately, he never completed the expedition. On January 5, 1922, he had a heart attack while preparing to begin the expedition at South Georgia Island, the same place where he had begun his expedition 1n 1914.   

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: How did Earnest Shackleton transform failure into success?

Challenge – Failure Before Success:  So often we view success as the opposite of failure rather than realizing how failure and the lessons gained from it can create a path for future success.  Research some quotations that deal with the relationship between failure and success.  Pick one that you like, and write an explanation of why you think the quotation conveys necessary wisdom for life.

Today’s Word Day: Happy List Day


1- “Leadership Lessons from the Shackleton ExpeditionNew York Times 25 December 2011.

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