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Leading in Adversity

In order to successfully lead in adversity, managers need to have a set of very diverse qualities. The two most important ones are a strong focus on ever-changing goals and a high degree of empathy.

Launching the lifeboat carrying Shackleton to South Georgia [1]
We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.

Those words by Ernest Shackleton, an early 20th century polar explorer and native of Ireland, still send chills down my spine every time I'm reading them. Rarely has a group of men experienced such frustration, such hardship and so many seemingly insurmountable obstables like in Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition that started in 1914. Although the men never achieved their ultimate goal of crossing the Antarctic continent, their long and perilious journey toward the safety of civilisation is an inspiring example of how to lead in adversity.

No Stranger to the Challenges of Antarctic Exploration

In early 1914, Shackleton, who was about to turn 40 at that time, was already an accomplished polar explorer.

His famed Nimrod expedition from 1907 brought him and his party within 100 miles of the geographic South Pole - as close as no one before them. Already during this expedition, his team of four had to endure incredible hardships: their march of roughly 2600 kilometres from the shores of McMurdo Sound to the polar plateau and back was accompanied by hunger, sickness and the heavy psychological burden the surrounding desolate polar landscape placed on them. Faced with these brutally adverse conditions, Shackleton already back then showed the inspirational and determined leadership that he later on became famous for. According to a member of the party of four. for instance, "the worse he felt, the harder he pulled". On another account, Shackleton handed over his daily biscuit ration to his expedition member Frank Wild, who was at the time struck by disentery, The latter was compelled to write in his diary:

"BY GOD I shall never forget. Thousands of pounds would not have bought that one biscuit"

Although the goal of the expedition - the conquest of the geographical South Pole - was ultimately not met, Shackleton returned a hero and was even knighted by king Edward VII. The final conquest of the geographical South Pole in 1911 by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen urged Shackleton to set sight on the final goal in Antarctic exploration: the crossing of the Antarctic continent.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Source: [2]

Qualifications: Good Teeth, No Varicose Veins and Able To Sing

Throughout most of the first half of 1914, Shackleton was occupied with raising funds and recruiting members for his so-called Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which he had made public in December 1913 in a letter to the The Times.

Many myths surround Shackleton's recruitment methods, which would appear rather odd by modern standards, especially when considering the fact that choosing the right crew is a matter of life and death in a polar expedition. All roughly 5'000 applications that Shackleton received for a crew of 56 were, for instance, sorted into the three piles "Mad", "Hopeless" and "Possible". Only the latter were invited for an interview - at least. Shackleton also did not require any of his potential candidates to fill out forms and he also did not compile any shortlists - rather odd, as I said.

In the interviews that followed, Shackleton did not pay much attention to any prior qualifications and seemed to pick men seemingly random because they "looked funny" or could sing. Reginald James, a scientist that later on went to join the expedition, could, for instanc, only remember the following about his interview:

All that I can remember of it is that I was asked if I had good teeth, if I suffered from varicose veins and if I could sing.

In spite of this oddballish way of selecting expedition members, Shackleton was very good at picking individuals that would serve well together in a team and fulfill the very diverse roles required during an expedition in such an adverse environment. Even the seemingly irrational question of whether James could sing might have well had a reason behind it, as we will soon see.

The Order from Churchill Simply Said "Proceed"

The main ship of the expedition, the Endurance, set sail from Plymouth in August 1914. Shackleton, who was not yet on board, was caught up by expedition business and later on joined the Endurance in Buenos Aires. As the Great War had recently broken out, it was the First Lord of the Admiralty himself, Winston Churchill, who sent Shackleton a telegram to Buenos Aires containing a single word only: "Proceed".

The Endurance started its journey south towards the Wedell sea and its ultimate goal Vahsel Bay, from where it was planned that the so-called transcontinental party consisting of six men (including Shackleton) would start their push towards the South Pole with 69 sleigh dogs and two motor sledges. Shackleton originally envisioned the crossing of the Antarctic continent to take place in the first season from 1914 - 1915. Ignoring warnings of heavy pack ice that were raised to Shackleton in South Georgia (an island in the South Atlantic housing a whaling station at this time), the Endurance soon encountered more and more ice and was finally stopped altogether at the beginning of 1915.

Long, Strenuous Months Trapped in Pack Ice

What followed were long and strenuous months, during which the ship was fully trapped in pack ice, its only movement resulting from the drift of the ice shelf. To the consternation of Shackleton and the crew, the ship now drifted to the north, away from the bay where they wanted to land. As the Antarctic winter approached, they soon realised that they were now doomed to wait until the following spring, when the melting pack ice would hopefully again allow them to reach Vahsel Bay by ship.

The darkness and cold of the Antarctic winter are said to be extremely challenging, both physically and mentally. Shackleton understood that maintaining fitness and morale during those dark times would be paramount to ensuring achieval of his mission, which is why he took special care to establish a daily routine for his men. Additionally, theatrical events, competitions and festivities on special occasions were meant to hold spirits high.

In spite of all of these efforts, nature held a different plan: toward the end of winter, ice floes have been increasingly pushing against the ship's hull, making the wood bend and splinter across the entire ship and the ice cold sea water pour into its hull. On 27 October 1915, Shackleton needed to make one of many hard decisions: he gave the order to abandon ship. From now on, the expedition's goal of crossing Antarctica was not valid anymore. From now on, it was all about survival.

The Endurance shortly before it sank. Source: [3].

Through the Screaming Sixties

Shackleton's new plan was to march westwards toward the Antarctic peninsula, on which several depots and a whaling outpost were located. In December 1915, it became clear that due to the surface of the ice, the expedition was moving way too slow, or as Shakleton put it:

It would take us over three hundred days to reach the land

The decision was made to hunker down and to wait for the drift of the pack ice to aid them in their journey - their encampment tellingly became known as Patience Camp. After a mere three months of waiting in place, the group's supplies were already running low and needed to be supplemented by the hunting of seals. Although the drift had taken them westward so that the Antarctic peninsula was now in sight, they had also ended up too far up north in order for their original destination to be attainable.

Shackleton designated two small islands north of the Antarctic peninusla, Deception Island and Elephant Island, to be the next targets on their journey. On 8 April 1916, they readied the three lifeboats they had salvaged from the Endurance and embarked on the next leg of their arduous journey. Not making it to Deception Island, their preferred destination, they finally landed on Elephant Island, which can be best characterised as rocky, windswept and uninhabited - except for penguin colonies of course, which proved to be a vital source of nutrition for the expedition.

Upon arrival, Shackleton already needed to plan for the next step. Due to the remoteness of their new "home", their only realistic way to civilisation was to summon help from the whaling stations in South Georgia, which lay roughly 1'300 kilometres up north. It was decided that one of the three lifeboats, the James Caird, would be used for this incredibly dangerous journey. The group of six that sailed up north consisted of Shakleton, the former captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley, and four other men.

Their undertaking was basically a suicide mission, as finding South Georgia across such a large distance was like finding a needle in a haystack and they only took limited supplies with them. Additionally, the latitudes below 60 degrees are known as the Screaming Sixties, as, at those latitudes, there is virtually no landmass in the southern hemisphere to slow down the prevailing westerly winds, which results in literally giant waves.

In the ensuing 16-day open-boat journey through the dangerous waters of the Drake Passage, the crew needed to evade sea ice, were hit by storms and towering waves, had to navigate by catching only short glimpses of the sun and, upon their arrival at the windswept southern shoreline of South Georgia, nearly escaped from crashing into cliffs several times.

The Race to Bring Everyone Back to "Civilisation"

After the men briefly recuperated from their journey, Shackleton needed to come up with an idea on how to reach the whaling stations in the north of the island. Due to the bad physical state of three members of the party, he decided to cross the mountains by foot with two other crew members to get help. Ill-equipped with only 50 feet of rope and a carpenter's adze, they managed to cross the island within 36 hours, taking incredible risks at times.

At one point, for instance, they needed to quickly descend from greater heights at nightfall due to the plummeting temperatures. They chose to take a gamble and use their rope as a makeshift sledge to quickly slide down a mountain flank, not seeing what lay on the far end of the slope. Shortly before their arrival at Stromness whaling station, they even had to descend through a waterfall. Finally, on 20 May 1916, the group of three entered Stromness whaling station by foot, much to the bewilderment of the Norwegian whalers that crossed their path and the station manager, who was the first person to receive them back in civilisation.

In the days and months that were to come, Shackleton would first set out to rescue the three men that were left on the other end of South Georgia and, after four attempts that were thwarted by - who would have guessed - pack ice, finally managed to rescue the remaining men on Elephant Island on 30 August 1916. Although some of his men have sustained injuries and were, naturally, exhausted beyond compare by their harrowing ordeal, Shackleton managed to keep his promise of bringing everyone back home safely.

What Can We Learn from Shackleton?

Ernest Shackleton was certainly a great man that was, at the same time, haunted by his own demons - like all of us. He made several wrong decisions over the course of his expedition that may have resulted from sheer arrogance, such as the choice to sail further south from South Georgia, not heeding the warnings of the whalers that would later on save his life. Nevertheless, whenever Shackleton was encountered with a new situation, regardless of whether it was caused by a "wrong decision" or by a change in circumstances, he adapted his thinking and set a new goal, which he obsessively followed.

The quality of following a goal until his own mental and physical exhaustion was, indeed, a great quality of Ernest Shackleton that made him lead his men by example. Whenever action needed to be taken, Shackleton himself took the initiative and led his men to accomplish seemingly impossible feats only with the power of their will, fitting to the Shackleton's family motto "by endurance we conquer". What proved to be crucial was his ability to, in spite of this obsessiveness, quickly devise and focus on a new plan once the old one became unattainable.

Often, far-sighted leaders battle with a lack of emotional intelligence that lets them disconnect from the people that realise their vision. For Shackleton, that did not seem to be the case. Indeed, it seems that during their first Antarctic winter, his push to establish a daily routine, assign roles to all of his crew members that were outside of what they were initially recruited for and, additionally, his initiative to still hold celebrations and "cultural" events were vital to keeping the group together.

Now, hopefully, many of us will never face the adversities that Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had encountered. The obstacles that present themselves in a corporate environment, such as unrealistic goal-setting or fierce resistance to change, may, however, also often appear to be insurmountable and, frankly, frustrate the hell out of you and your team. In those times, you should keep Shackleton's lust for decision-making, willingness to adapt his own previously set goals, and emotional intelligence in mind to help you overcome those obstacles.

And, maybe sometimes, it even pays off to a bit "nutty", i.e. think outside the box. Do you remember Shackleton inquiring about Reginald James' singing abilities? One thing that they salvaged from the Endurance's wreck was a banjo, which was later on played by the remaining party on Elephant Island in order to keep morale high. Can you guess who was one of the men left back on Elephant Island? You probably guessed correctly - it was Reginald James.

Image Sources:

[1] By Probably Frank Hurley, the expedition's photographer - This photograph was published in the United States in Ernest Shackleton's book, South, William Heinemann, London 1919., Public Domain,

[2] By Creator:G.C. Beresford - National Library of Norway, Public Domain,

[3] By Royal Grographic Society -, Public Domain,

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