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Ernest Shackleton: Leadership Lessons

Updated on September 18, 2008

Leadership Lessons From An Antarctic Explorer - Sir Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer of the Antarctic in the early 1900s. He is best remembered for his expedition from 1914-1916 in the HMS Endurance.

During this journey, his ship got stuck in the ice near the Antarctic continent. He and his 27 men then survived 19 months before they were rescued. Shackleton organized the rescue personally after he made an 800 mile open-ocean journey in a life-boat to the inhabitated island of South Georgia. He then returned on the rescue mission to the desolate Elephant Island where he had left the majority of his crew under the care of his Executive Officer.

Learn from his example to become a better leader. This lens focuses on the leadership lessons we can take from Ernest Shackleton.

The Timeline of Shackleton's Most Famous Expedition

  • December 5, 1914 - Ernest Shackleton and 27 crewmen depart the South Atlantic island of South Georgia on the HMS Endurance. They planned to make the first overland trek of Antarctic continent.

  • January 18, 1915 - The ice floe traps the Endurance within view of their intended landing site.

  • October 27, 1915 - The Endurance is crushed by ice movement and the ship sinks. All crewmembers survive. They move to the ice to live in tents and under overturned life boats.

  • April 9, 1916 - 3 lifeboats, carrying all 28 men, depart the ice floe for Elephant Island - an uninhabited South Atlantic island.

  • April 24, 1916 - The James Caird, a 23' lifeboat, sets sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia with Shackleton and 5 crew members aboard to seek rescue. This will be an 800 mile, open-ocean journey.

  • May 10, 1916 - The James Caird lands on South Georgia Island at an uninhabited spot directly opposite the whaling station where they had intended to land.

  • May 20, 1916 - Shackleton and 2 crew members complete a 36-hour trek over mountains and ice from their landing point to the whaling station.

  • August 30, 1916 - Shackleton returns to Elephant Island with the help of the Chilean government to rescue all men left behind.

    EVERYONE survived this ordeal.

Five Leadership Lessons We Can Learn From Shackleton

Looking closely at Shackleton's behavior on the trip with HMS Endurance, you can see many great leadership lessons. I'll mention five of them here.

1. He always boosted the morale of his crew

He knew what made his men feel happy and contented, and, as much as he could, he gave it to them. He gave them the best tools and resources he could afford. He encouraged them. He held them accountable. He set realistic goals.

2. He made himself available.

He spent lots of time with the crew. He was not a distant leader. He knew how to connect with and speak with everyone. He made time to listen to their concerns.

3. He knew how to have fun.

No matter what he faced, he always encouraged social activities and fun times when work was done. He knew how to create an environment where his men felt good in spite of their circumstances.

4. He remained optimistic AND realistic.

He managed to maintain what Jim Collins calls The Stockdale Paradox in Good to Great. The Stockdale Paradox is named for Admiral Jim Stockdale, the ranking U.S. officer in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam Conflict. It says this: as a leader, you must maintain absolute faith that you will prevail while recognizing the brutal reality of your current situation. In other words, you can understand the gravity of the situation and, at the same time, remain optimistic that you will find a way to overcome it.

5. He kept troublemakers close to him.

Every leader has troublemakers in his crew. Most leaders distance themselves from troublemakers. Shackleton kept them close so that he:

  • Knew what they were doing
  • Kept them from contaminating the rest of his crew
  • Had some direct influence on what they were doing and saying.

For greater and more in-depth insights, I strongly recommend Shackleton's Way. It's a good read with fantastic insights into how Shackleton accomplished what he did.

"Optimism is true moral courage."

"Leadership is a fine thing, but it has its penalties. And the greatest penalty is loneliness."

"A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground."

"I have often marveled at the thin line which separates success from failure."

"You often have to hide from them not only the truth, but your feelings about the truth. You may know that the facts are dead against you, but you mustn't say so."

"If you're a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you've got to keep going."

Books By Or About Ernest Shackleton

Videos That Tell The Story of Ernest Shackleton

What are your thoughts? What else would you like to see?

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Enjoyed your lens..

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Interesting. Special thanks for the video links.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      A great lens and fantastic inspirational quotes. Thank you and I look forward to others.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice lens.

    • LotusLandry profile image


      7 years ago from Southern California

      I most enjoyed Mrs Chippy's Last Expedition - the story of the famous cat who went along with Shakelton.

      (I like the animal point of view - having created lenses about Parker,the rabbit)

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Another Great lens!

    • BlueStarling profile image


      7 years ago

      Of all the Antarctic explorers, Shackleton, I think, is the most interesting and heroic. Though Amundsen was an impeccable leader and thoroughly admirable, Shackleton is my favorite. Enjoyed your lens, especially the 5 leadership "points" and quotes.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Here is an article on some leadership lessons that you can get from horses. Particularly good if you want to move away from the traditional command and control style of leadership.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Just watched a UK TV documentary on him featuring Kenneth Brannagh as Shackleton. incredible!


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