Explorer’s celebrated tale defines meaning of a team

By Cecil Johnson
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Feb. 26, 2001

 “Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer”

By Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell  (Viking)

Wed a captivating adventure story to an innovative how-to book on getting subordinates to give their best as individuals and as a team, and the result will be an important addition to any leader’s library.

Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell have produced such a gem in their analysis of the biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a celebrated Antarctic explorer who rose from cabin boy to knight.

Most Americans today have never heard of Shackleton, who died in 1922 and whose greatest adventure took place in a far-flung, uninhabited part of the world while Europe was caught in the throes of World War I. Shackleton’s most celebrated expedition to the Antarctic, on the Endurance, began just as the guns of August were barking out the start of the war.

Shackleton considered canceling the expedition because of the general mobilization. He requested and got permission from his men to place the Endurance at the disposal of the British Admiralty. Then came a telegram from First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, declaring it unnecessary to interrupt plans made by “the highest geographical authorities.”

The king blessed the expedition. Shackleton had already been knighted because of an expedition on the Nimrod, which reached the magnetic South Pole and came closer to the true South Pole than any previous expedition.

Shackleton had distinguished himself by his ability to motivate his men to great exertions without oppressing them. They called him “Boss,” and he paid for that distinction.

He led by example, treated his men fairly and made it clear that their safety and well-being was just as important as the mission. He risked his life to retrieve some of the men who otherwise would have perished in the Antarctic desert.

The Nimrod expedition made Shackleton famous. It also made it easier for him to raise funds and assemble a team of seamen, scientists and other professionals for the Endurance expedition, which turned out be a magnificent failure. Shackleton’s leadership prevented it from being a disaster.

The Endurance became trapped in the ice of the Wedell Sea in the Antarctic winter of 1914. It eventually was crushed by the expansions and contractions of the ice, leaving the 27 men stranded on a floe 1,200 miles from human habitation and without any means of communication.

They spent two years in the frozen waste, eating seals and penguins and weathering temperatures as low as minus 180 degrees. Their ultimate escape over turbulent, frigid seas and through perilous expanses of drifting ice makes T.E. Lawrence’s trek through the Nefud Desert seem like child’s play. But all 27 survived, and credit for that goes to Shackleton’s leadership.

Morrell and Capparell say he did the following:

  1. Picked people whose skills, talents and personalities complemented each other and who could be depended upon to be loyal to him and to the mission.
  2. Democratized all work, making the professionals pull their weight in menial tasks and give up their share of the available necessities and luxuries.
  3. Disciplined misconduct fairly and proportionately to the offense.
  4. Assured that the men had state-of-the-art equipment and supplies and paid special attention to nutrition.
  5. Provided entertainment and other diversions to keep up morale during trying times.
  6. Led by example, doing the same work and exposing himself to the same dangers, and then some, as the other men.

The list goes on. At the end of each chapter, the authors single out the leadership qualities and techniques exhibited by Shackleton during that part of the story.

They also give examples of how today’s business leaders are putting Shackleton’s leadership principles to good use.

It is easy to envision “Shackleton’s Way” being used in a classroom, the instructor presenting the adventure story in segments and having the students reflect upon what Shackleton did that can be applied to today’s turbulent, rapidly changing business climate.