The Uncanny Leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton

Endurance Final Sinking

In the book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, journalist Alfred Lansing tells the riveting true story of The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, widely known as the Endurance Expedition.

With the goal of landing on the Antarctic continent and marching coast to coast, Ernest Shackleton led 28 hardy men aboard the ship Endurance in 1914. After being beset in pack ice of the Weddell Sea for six weeks, the Endurance became permanently stuck off the coast of Antarctica in January 1915.

Soon after, the ship was crushed by ice flows and sank. Most of the men’s provisions went with it.

Incredibly, Shackleton led all of his men back to civilization alive, but not without epic hardships along the way. How he did it was through masterful leadership skills.

Even before the voyage, Sir Ernest Shackleton was a revered and accomplished polar explorer. He’d been knighted several years earlier by King Edward VII and was a popular lecturer in England. His performance during the Endurance Expedition only served to raise his reputation of leadership to legendary status.

In 2001, the book Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margaret Morrell and Stephanie Capparell presented Shackleton as a model for corporate leadership.

Shackleton has also been cited as a model leader by the US Navy, among many other institutions.

In my mind, one of Shackleton’s greatest strengths was his level-headedness. In moments of crisis, Shackleton would hold back and observe. Reserve judgment. Wait, and wait and then wait some more, until the situation divulged it’s secrets – and the correct answer.

We often think the hallmark of good leadership is the ability to make hard and fast decisions. Shackleton could do that too, but more often he would calmly hold off the moment of decision… hold off until the answer revealed itself, and then Shackleton would give his orders.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

If you’ve got a chance, read Alfred Lansing’s classic account of the Endurance Expedition. Take note of Shackleton’s decision-making style and see if you agree. The book is an inspiring page-turner you’ll have a hard time putting down.

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