Hiring an outstanding crew: lessons from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.

I’ve previously written about Shackleton’s leadership qualities in my blog, and the first leg of his epic James Caird voyage in his escape from the South Pole:


Two weeks on from putting to sea and finding respite on Elephant Island, he began the second leg of his journey, 100 years ago yesterday, when the James Caird was launched from Elephant Island on 24 April 1916, headed for South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, a distance of 800 nautical miles.

With five companions, Shackelton’s objective was to obtain rescue for the 26 men stranded on Elephant Island after the loss of Endurance. Polar historians regard the voyage as one of the greatest small-boat journeys ever undertaken.

The James Caird was named by Shackleton after Sir James Key Caird, a Dundee jute manufacturer and philanthropist, whose sponsorship had helped finance the expedition. Surviving a series of dangers in tumultuous seas, including a near capsizing, the boat reached the southern coast of South Georgia after a voyage lasting 16 days.

Shackleton’s choices for the boat’s crew were Frank Worsley and Tom Crean. Shackleton was confident that Crean would persevere to the bitter end, and had great faith in Worsley’s skills as a navigator, especially his ability to work out positions in difficult circumstances. For the remaining places Shackleton took John Vincent, Henry McNish and Timothy McCarthy.

The wind was a moderate south-westerly, which aided a swift getaway, and the boat was quickly out of sight of the land. Shackleton ordered Worsley to set a course due north, instead of directly for South Georgia, to get clear of the menacing ice-fields that were beginning to form. Shackleton established an on-board routine: two three-man watches, with one man at the helm, another at the sails, and the third on bailing duty.

Success depended on Worsley’s navigation, based on sightings attempted during the very brief appearances of the sun, as the boat pitched and rolled. Navigation became, in Worsley’s words, a merry jest of guesswork, as they encountered the worst of the weather. Nevertheless, they were still moving towards their goal, and a dead-reckoning calculation by Worsley on 6 May, suggested that they were now 115 nautical miles from the western point of South Georgia.

On 7 May Worsley advised Shackleton that he could not be sure of their position within ten miles. Late on the same day floating seaweed was spotted, and the next morning there were birds, including cormorants which were known never to venture far from land. Shortly after noon on 8 May came the first sighting of South Georgia.

As they approached the high cliffs of the coastline, heavy seas made immediate landing impossible. For more than 24 hours they were forced to stand clear. On 10 May, when the storm had eased slightly, Shackleton was concerned that the weaker members of his crew would not last another day, and decided that whatever the hazard they must attempt a landing. Finally, after several attempts, made their landing. The voyage of the James Caird would be ranked as one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished.

As the party recuperated, Shackleton decided he, Worsley and Crean would cross the island on foot, aiming for the station at Stromness. Early on 18 May they began. Since they had no map, they had to improvise a route across mountain ranges and gaciers. They travelled continuously for 36 hours, before reaching Stromness.

The advent of the southern winter and adverse ice conditions meant that it was more than three months before Shackleton was able to achieve the relief of the men at Elephant Island but finally, with the aid of the steam-tug Yelcho. commanded by Luis Pardo, the entire party was brought to safety, reaching Punta Arenas in Chile on 3 September 1916.

Lessons have been drawn from Shackleton’s leadership in planning and executing his expeditions, and how it can be applied to modern business thinking. On the Endurance expedition, it was his ability to assemble an outstanding crew that stands out. Shackleton was surrounded by a team of outstanding individuals, each of whom had a key role to play in the voyage.

So, lets look first at the key Endurance personnel, roles and responsibilities on the expedition, and then the recruitment strategy and process Shackleton implemented to form his team.

Deputy: Frank Wild, Second in Command, was responsible for the day to day operations of the expedition plotting routes, actions and decisions on all aspects of the ship, including responsibility for the crew welfare.

Wild was an inconspicuous figure, yet there was something in his presence that inspired confidence. Wild was left in charge of the men on Elephant Island for the 18 months of isolation.

Wild had a rare tact, wrote Shackleton and the happy knack of saying nothing and yet getting people to do things just as he requires them.

Operations: Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance and ultimately responsible for assessing the direction of the ship to the Pole. A native of New Zealand, Worsley ran away to sea at 16, apprenticing on a wool clipper.

Worsley was a master navigator, and the success of the James Caird journey to South Georgia is largely due to his efforts when he navigated 800 miles of dangerous seas. Worsley died in 1943, aged 70 years, his ashes were scattered at sea.

Financial: Tom Crean, Second Officer, and responsible for the expedition’s budget. Born one of ten children in County Kerry, Ireland, Crean was tall and tough as an oak. He had been to the Pole twice ahead of Endurance, with Scott on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions.

For his courage during Shackleton’s 1909 South Polar journey, Crean was awarded the Albert Medal. Crean made the James Caird journey to South Georgia and joined Shackleton and Worsley in the crossing of the island. He returned to Ireland and opened a pub called the South Pole Inn, still there today. He died in 1938.

Creative: Frank Hurley was the Endurance photographer. An independent-minded Australian, he gained a reputation for stopping at nothing to secure a memorable photograph.

His stunning photographs of the Endurance expedition are largely what his reputation rests on today, but he was also a noted WWI photographer. His Paget process photographs of the war are among the only known colour images of the conflict. One evening he came home complaining of feeling unwell. He sat in his chair, had a cup of tea, fell asleep and never woke up.

Special Resources: Charles Green was the Endurance cook. Food played an important role with special diets essential, but Shackleton also used the gathering of the crew at meal times as a key part of his leadership, creating a spirit of camaraderie.

Green joined the Endurance at Buenos Aires, replacing the ship’s original cook, who had been sacked. He cooked imperturbably on the ice floes, and on Elephant Island. When he finally returned to England in late 1916 found that his parents had cashed his life insurance policy and his girlfriend had married someone else! Green died in 1974, aged 86.

Communications: Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer responsible for the official log of the journey and communicating with the crew. He had experience in the merchant service before joining the expedition on the spur of the moment, 24 hours before Endurance sailed, when her original First Officer elected to volunteer for war duty.

Greenstreet saved the log of the Endurance and carried it with him at all times until the subsequent rescue. During WWI he served as captain of a Royal Navy tugboat, and during WWII, served on rescue ships. He died in 1979 at the age of 89 – he was the last survivor of the Endurance expedition.

Human Resource: Dr. Alexander Macklin was the doctor and brought many new ideas to the medical care and attention of the crew using new equipment and technology. In medical school he discovered Nansen’s Furthest North, which ignited in him the desire to become an explorer.

During WWI, Macklin served as a doctor during which he won the Military Cross for bravery in tending the wounded under fire. Macklin joined Shackleton for the Quest expedition and was with Shackleton when he died; to him fell the duty of performing a post-mortem on his friend.

Staffing: Alfred Cheetham was Endurance’s Third Officer. Born in Liverpool, he was a long-time sailor, and had served aboard Morning, one of the vessels sent in relief of Scott’s 1902 expedition. After serving as Third Officer of the Nimrod, he served aboard Terra Nova during Scott’s fatal 1912 expedition.

A small, cheerful man, he was an integral part of the Endurance epic, keeping the sometimes troublesome trawler hands crew under control. After the Endurance expedition, Cheetham served in the Royal Navy, and was killed just weeks before the Armistice. Cheetham had been south of the Antarctic Circle more than any other man, spending nearly four man years there – still a record today.

So that was the oustanding crew, what about Shackleton’s recruitment strategy and process? Shackleton’s initial advertisement in The Times set the tone: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.

Life on polar expeditions isn’t for dreamers. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest place on earth, covered by a layer of ice three miles thick. The mean annual temperature is -70°F, what type of men wanted to go there? Shackleton was clear in his mind the sort of men he wanted for his crew:

The men selected must be qualified for their work to meet the special conditions. They must be able to live in harmony for a long period of time, without outside communication. It must be remembered that men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality. Character and temperament are as important as ability. I have to balance my types, their science or seamanship weighs little against the sort of chaps they are.

Clear in his mind the sort of men he wanted, what were the key elements to his recruitment strategy?

Build your crew around a core of experienced men Recruit experienced workers to establish a professional environment, they will support younger staff when the going gets tough. Recognise the value of expertise, whatever the age of the individual, and balance your team’s experience and age.

Chose the best management team Surround yourself with the best people you can in senior positions, who share your views of leadership and with whom there is absolute mutual trust, respect and loyalty. Pick people who compliment your management style without being yes-men.

Loyalty, cheerfulness, strength and experience are key qualities for your leadership team. They will have more contact day-to-day with your staff than you, and whilst handling issues and providing advice to the staff, are also your eyes and ears.

Recruit people who share your vision Shackleton made a mistake on his first polar journey by hiring individuals who didn’t fit the bold, risk-taking culture of exploration. For the Endurance he recruited a captain with bravado in spades, he was bold, a little eccentric – a mad-hat just right for the job.

Be different. Shackleton conducted unconventional interviews to unearth unique talent. He sorted applications from candidates into three piles – mad, possible and hopeless. His interviews were freewheeling exchanges, brief but intense. Shackleton believed the touchstone for a man’s spirit was his personality, and his interviews went deeper than experience and expertise, asking questions that revealed a candidate’s personality, values, and perspective on work and life.

Recruit those who had the expertise he lacked Shackleton was not a scientist but that was the purpose of the journey, so he recruited people with superior education and expertise. He liked his key men to be tough, clever and inventive. Hire those with talents and expertise you lack, don’t feel threatened by them as they will help you stay on the cutting edge.

Shackleton built and sustained his crew by constantly reinforcing a personal connection with all his crew individually. His approach to recruiting and leading people provides food for thought we can adopt and apply to business today, offering guidance for hiring your own outstanding crew.

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