Shackleton and the Antartic - Leadership Lessons


You may think that an Antarctic explorer of nearly 100 years ago is far removed from the modern manager. In fact, this article will describe how an intrepid hero was a fine example of people-centred leadership and of how to lead a team through a crisis. Ernest Shackleton's performance as leader of the Endurance expedition to the Antarctic of 1914 - 1916 helps us to gain insight into what it takes to lead, come thick or thin.

Shackleton turned around a disaster and made it a triumph through team work and leadership.  Do we need the superhuman qualities of an explorer to manage and lead a team successfully?  We don't need to have larger than life qualities - success can come through attention to the way Shackleton managed, a skillful combination of leadership, empathy and nurturing teamwork and team spirit.  That spirit of leadership and dedication can be re-created in a modern-day team through understanding of how Shackleton planned and dealt with adversity and extreme conditions.

Ernest Shackleton led a team of men across the frozen wastes of the South Pole, when his ship became stranded on the ice.  Starvation and death from cold were a real possibility and increasingly a loss of motivation and the will to live.  His crew not only survived but also loyally spoke of the experience in positive terms.  Flexible leadership made a huge difference as new dangers and issues constantly presented themselves. Before the explorers could set foot on the continent, their ship - the aptly named Endurance - was trapped in pack ice leaving them stranded for an agonising and life-threatening 15 months.  Keeping morale, life and limb together required monumental feats of leadership, team work and skill.  In the end Shackleton and a small number of colleagues set off on a gruelling journey, risking frostbite and starvation, to get help and successfully rescued all his crew.  It is this quality which he displayed time and again to powerful effect and it is this exemplary leadership behaviour that makes his journey more than a bold tale of adventure.

His example says a lot about leadership:

• A whole set of complex factors interplay in a changing situation, and the leader must personify a pathway ahead
• Leadership can become the focus of both success and failure
• Emotional, non-rational factors such as morale play an important part in success
• Poor leadership can lead to misdirected effort and often stress, sub-optimal performance, inward focus and mistrust. Good leadership is the mirror opposite: effort and energy focussed on the task and the external environment, high performance  and trust
• For good leadership to take place, trust is a key ingredient which has be nurtured and earned
• Technical skills alone are not enough ? many of Shackleton?s crew were technically able, yet were not able to lead

How Shackleton Set New Goals in a  Crisis

No path runs smoothly from start to finish, but Shackleton's had more than their fair share of crises, and each time, he set new goal and course of action. The first crisis was when the Endurance got completely ice-bound and finally destroyed by the pressure of the ice.  Shackleton redefined the mission of the expedition as survival and set a regular work routine to avoid a collapse of morale and probable death.  He then set out a new goal: rather than wait on the ice to melt, he decided to row a hundred miles in small boats to reach help and safety.

The next major crisis happened after many changes of destination, when the small life boats landed on uninhabitable land at Elephant Island and this required a further dangerous journey in a single boat to get help from a whaling station.  Finally the last stage required trekking a dangerous 20 miles across land for the last part of the journey to safety.

If this were not enough, Shackleton's rescue mission of his men needed four attempts in different boats before he was able to reach the rest of his team whom he had left behind weeks before on a windswept beach.

Blocks and barriers can become impossible mountains to climb when a team is feeling low, yet extraordinarily some teams scale great heights and do this with good spirits. Shackleton's was just such a team. He did this through assiduously building up and maintaining a team spirit and setting clear goals.

He brought on people, encouraging Frank Wild the seaman to become a skilled second-in-command. Every group contains a few individuals whose qualities shine out, but the majority need to be coaxed to make the best of their attributes and minimise those aspects which will divide or  bring down a team.  The effect of Shackleton doing this was remarkable in promoting loyalty and effort under adverse conditions. For example, Orde-Lees, who was violently seasick, bailed water furiously, despite his illness, to keep the small 'James Caird' afloat.

Cushion against the Unpredictable

Any major project needs to get together sufficient resources to cushion against the unpredictable; here Shackleton displayed an outstanding quality.  He influenced and persuaded a somewhat reluctant nation, about to go to war, to stump up the cash to buy and provision the expedition.

Shackleton squeezed every ounce of capability from his team: welding a tight-knit team, with a common culture, is a goal of many managers, but was particularly hard with such a diverse group of different nations, temperaments and disciplines.

He was particularly skilled in balancing capability and targeting resources to good effect.  When the small lifeboats were manned, he carefully selected the crew in each boat.

Important Aspects of Leadership

Leaders need to be mindful of three important aspects to their role in change:

• Getting results, and therefore understanding and communicating what is expected to be achieved
• Behaviours - what do people do and how do they do it will often be guided by how the leader behaves and deals with others
• Values - the way people think about their work and what will help or hinder change taking place.

Shackleton was very focused in getting results and providing regular motivational communication to keep his team. He knew how to lead from the front and to choose symbolic actions to good effect. He emphasised the supportive and co-operative values he knew were important.

Leadership Lessons

• Be optimistic

Shackleton was unfailingly optimistic. "Optimism is true moral courage," he said, and  "Loyalty comes easier to a cheerful person than to one who carries a heavy countenance,"  Many of his crew must have wondered if they would come out alive.  Shackleton certainly felt this strongly and reflected this in his writings, but he did not let these doubts or anxieties show and he instilled confidence in those around him.

• Be flexible

When under pressure there is a tendency for managers and teams to be paralysed into inactivity, or to proceed inappropriately as though nothing had changed.

When the Endurance first got stuck in pack ice, Shackleton ordered the men to try everything to get the ship free. When this proved impossible, he resolved to weather the winter until the thaw. When this strategy was undermined by the crushing ice, he changed plans again. He reflected: 'A man must shape himself to a new mark, directly the old one goes to ground.'

• Stay calm

Alexander Macklin, the ship's doctor, first noticed Shackleton's ability to handle a crisis when the ship stuck in the ice, "It was at this moment Shackleton...showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did slightest sign of disappointment. He told us simply and calmly that we would have to spend the winter in the pack."

In a crisis it is tempting to panic; what is more, such panic is contagious. Shackleton made sure he headed off any signs of extreme nerves and panic.

• Be open and honest

It is said that the advert for recruits for this dangerous journey read:

'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.'

This set the tone: Shackleton always spoke honestly of risks and dangers, but with a firm conviction that they would come through.

• Only ask others to do what you will do

"If you're a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to," he said, "you've got to keep going." After issuing the order that each man could carry only two pounds of personal gear, Shackleton set the example by removing his gold watch, gold cigarette case and some sovereigns and threw them away.Shackleton was always prepared to lead from the front. For example, when they took to a small boat in freezing, treacherous seas Shackleton spent a disproportionate time standing up at the tiller and braving the elements.

• Nurture your team

One of those close to Shackleton later wrote, "Whenever Shackleton notices that a man seems extra cold and shivering, he immediately orders another hot drink served to all." He carefully minimised individual's negative aspects by always being available and ready to spend long hours listening to problems and attending to their needs.  He noticed changes in individuals' behaviour or mood and encouraged them at the right time, silencing them at others. In Shackleton's eyes, team spirit was crucial to enable everyone to work together, even when the going got tough.  He prompted the men to play football together, take part in singing, organised group competitions such as dog-sled racing, dressing up and having their heads shaved to pose for the camera.

• No 'us and them'

The Antarctic legend Captain Scott, with whom Shackleton had worked on previous expeditions, was aloof and individualistic, maintaining a distance from the ranks. Shackleton saw this as undermining: he ignored social class and insisted motor specialist Orde-Lees scrubbed floors alongside all the other seamen and that everyone ate together. "He led; he did not drive," one of his men said of him.To help his crew get over the shock and distress when first leaving behind their ship, Shackleton served his men in a very caring way: first thing the next morning, he made hot milk and brought it personally to everyone in turn.

• Set clear boundaries and values

Shackleton put great stress on setting ground rules and ensuring everyone mixed together and worked as a team. For example, in the first month he evicted drunken crew and those who would not stick to the rules and values. This paid off in promoting a highly supportive culture - when supplies got really short and desperate, and when one crew member spilt precious hot tea, each tipped in some of their own valuable drink. "Certainly a good deal of our cheerfulness is due to the order and routine which Sir E. establishes where he settles down," Frank Worsley wrote.


Use the following checklist to assess how well you lead your team.

In place Needs development

The team has a common goal

We have established ground rules for the team

The team has the right mix of people

As a leader I make the most of the team attributes

As a leader I demonstrate flexibility in times of crisis

I carefully select team members to take part in projects

I am able to mobilise resources when needed

I am optimistic in the face of setbacks

I show empathy towards the members of my team

I nurture team spirit


Steve Macaulay is a Learning Development Executive at Cranfield School of Management, Sarah Cook is Managing Director of leadership consultants the Stairway Consultancy. They can be contacted on 01628 526535, or email

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