100 years on from the voyage of the James Caird: leadership lessons from Shackleton

Exactly 100 years ago today, 9 April 1916, Ernest Shackleton was in the James Caird, a 25 foot boat, attempting the first part of a staggering journey in the tumultuous South Alantic ocean.

Shackleton was an Antarctic explorer who twice came close to being the first to reach the South Pole in 1902 and in 1909, before Amundsen beat Scott in 1912. His Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916, aboard Endurance, also ended in failure, but unlike Scott, who died at the Pole, Shackleton survived.

Lessons have been drawn from Shackleton’s leadership in planning and executing his expedition and subsequent rescue, and how they can be applied to modern business thinking, notably his ability to assemble an outstanding crew and his leadership style. It’s a remarkable story.

Shackleton set out at the age of forty on a self-funded voyage to make what was considered the last great expedition left on Earth – an 1,800 mile crossing of the Antarctic on foot. His ship was the aptly named Endurance, after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer.

The Endurance set sail on August 8, 1914. All was well, until just one day’s sail from its destination on the Antarctic coast, the ship stuck in pack ice in the Weddell Sea on December 7, becoming trapped on January 18, 1915. She was abandoned ten months later on 27 October, and sank 21 November.

Shackleton and his 27 men were stranded on an ice floe 1,200 miles from land, with no means of communication and no hope of rescue. All they had were three small lifeboats salvaged from the ship, just twenty-five feet long. Temperatures were so low that you could hear the sea freeze. They spent four months in the darkness of the long polar winter.

Eventually when the ice began to melt, the men took to the lifeboats. After four months of mind-numbing boredom and danger sat on the ice floe, they were suddenly pitched into an intense battle for survival that brought them to the limits of human capabilities.

It was 100 years ago today that they started their epic journey to Elephant Island, which had no animals for food or fresh water. On 15 April 1916, after seven days at sea in some of the worst conditions imaginable, the three boats landed, reaching terra firma for the first time in 497 days.

A week later, Shackleton took five men to sail 800 miles in the James Caird, over tumultuous seas to reach South Georgia, part of the Falkland Islands, for help. Their journey lasted sixteen days, navigated only with a sextant. When they landed, they had to cross a mountain range to reach civilisation at a whaling station. This climb took another 36 hours.

When they greeted the whaling station manager, Thoralf Sorlle, he looked at them incredulously, Who the hell are you? One of the men stepped forward and replied: My name is Shackleton. Thoraf Sorlle, it is said, turned away and wept. The first remarkable voyage of the James Caird was 9 April to 16 April, the second from April 24 to May 10, 1916.

Having spent four days recovering with the whalers, Shackleton turned round and led the effort to rescue the rest of his crew, on board a Chilean tugboat, The Yelcho. It took him four attempts to do so. Shackleton saved the lives of 22 men left stranded for 137 days on 30 August 1916, ending The Endurance expedition which set sail on August 8, 1914.

A statue of Luis Pardo, captain of The Yelcho, sits on the landing point at Elephant Island. Since that time, only a handful of expeditions have been there, including the Shackleton Epic expedition of 2013 which sought to replicate the journey – here’s the web site link http://shackletonepic.com/ and a video link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoUCLtTXZOI

In 1922 some of the Endurance crew returned to the island when they landed from the Quest, Shackleton’s last expedition, on which he died of a heart attack aged 48. One can well imagine what an emotional experience it must have been for those men.

Arising from this epic encounter, Shackleton’s Way, his leadership philosophy from his Endurance expedition – resonates with themes and messages any business leader can can learn from. His leadership style, primarily to focus on the team, saw them survive against the odds.

His people centred approach to leadership can be a guide for us all. He built his success on camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination and – above all – optimism. There are eight elements to ‘Shackleton’s Way’ as follows:

The path to leadership Fortitudine Vincimus  – by endurance we conquer. The values Shackleton learned from his family helped form his uniquely progressive leadership style. He turned bad experiences into valuable lessons and he insisted on respect for the individual in a climate that demanded cooperation.

Hiring an outstanding crew Shackleton built a crew around a core of experienced workers. He conducted unconventional interviews to find unique talent. His second in command was his most important hire. He looked for optimism and cheerfulness in the people he hired. He gave his staff the best compensation and equipment he could afford.

Creating a spirit of camaraderie Shackleton made careful observations before acting. He established order and routine so all his staff knew where they stood. He broke down traditional hierarchies. He was fair in his dealings with his staff. He used informal gatherings to build an esprit de corps.

Getting the best from each individual Shackleton led by example. He accepted and understood his crewmen’s quirks and weaknesses. He used informal one-to-one talks to build a bond with his men. He was always willing to help others get their work done. He helped each man reach their potential.

Leading effectively in a crisis Shackleton let everyone know that he was confident of success. He inspired optimism in everyone. He put down dissent by keeping the malcontents close to him. He got everyone to let go of the past and focus on the future. He worked to keep spirits high. He sometime led by doing nothing.

Forming teams for tough assignments Shackleton balanced talent and expertise in each team. He ensured all his groups were keeping pace. He remained visible and vigilant. He shored up the weakest links. He got teams to help each other.

Overcoming obstacles to reach a goal Shackleton took responsibility for getting the job done. He often took risks. He found the inspiration to continue. He kept sight of the big picture. He stepped outside his role as leader to personally help others in their own roles.

Shackleton showed the qualities of strong, effective leadership – enthusiasm, confidence, warmth, integrity, toughness, humility – whilst also recognising the importance of a team, and the trust and respect everyone in a team must show to each other whatever their rank.

It is by building a sense of teamwork and community just as Shackleton did nearly 100 years ago that we can overcome the unexpected detours and hurdles encountered on our own business journeys. Shackleton faced many of the problems we encounter today as business leaders:

  • bringing a diverse group of people together to work toward a common goal
  • bucking up the perpetual worries
  • keeping the disgruntled from poisoning the atmosphere
  • battling fatigue and challenge when things aren’t working
  • bringing order and success to a chaotic environment
  • working within challenging time scales and finite resources

Shackleton was a pioneer, but also an innovator in terms of ‘thinking on his feet’ when faced with unexpected challenges. Anyone can innovate once, all it takes is a good idea, some hard work, sufficient resources, and a little bit of luck. However, Shackleton did it time and time again on the Endurance expedition, and this is what is required in today’s business environment, which demands on-going leadership innovation to stay ahead of the pack.

The core of Shackleton’s leadership philosophy was persistence. Shackleton was essentially a fighter, afraid of nothing and nobody, but overall, he was human, overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to all his crew. As we reflect back 100 years ago today on the first James Caird voyage, Shackleton’s personal motto of reach beyond your expectations seems so apt. That’s Shackleton’s Way. You wait, everyone has an Antarctic moment.

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