Shackleton’s Way

Stranded in the Antarctic with his ship’s crew 1,200 miles from civilization, he fought hunger, desperation and mind-boggling cold for nearly two years to get all of his men to safety. A thrilling survival story and an inspirational guide for business leaders today.


A Brief Introduction

He has been called “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none,” yet he never led a group larger than twenty-seven, he failed to reach nearly every goal he ever set and, until recently, he had been little remembered after his death. But once you learn the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his remarkable Antarctic expedition of 1914 you’ll come to agree with the effusive praise of those under his command. He is a model of great leadership and, in particular, a master of guidance in crisis.

That’s because Shackleton failed only at the improbable; he succeeded at the unimaginable. “I love the fight and when things [are] easy, I hate it,” he once wrote to his wife, Emily Dorman. He failed to reach the South Pole in 1902, when he was part of a three-man Farthest South team on the Discovery expedition of the great explorer Robert F. Scott. But the men turned back only after walking their scurvy-ravaged bodies to within 460 miles of the Pole in a terrifying cold experienced only by a handful of human beings at that time. Six years later, commanding his own expedition aboard the Nimrod, Shackleton was forced to stop a heartbreaking ninety-seven miles short of the Pole, but only after realizing it would be certain death by starvation had his team continued. He was forgiven that failure in light of the greatness of the effort; he was knighted by King Edward VII and honored as a hero throughout the world.

His greatest failure was his 1914-1916 Endurance expedition. He lost his ship before even touching Antarctica. But he reached a new pinnacle in leadership when he successfully led all the members of his crew to safety after a harrowing two-year fight for their lives.

Sir Ernest set out at age forty on an independent voyage to make what he considered the last great expedition left on earth: a 1,800-mile crossing of the Antarctic on foot. The expedition ship, named the Endurance after the Shackleton family motto “Fortitudine Vincimus,” “By Endurance We Conquer,” set sail in August 1914 at the dawn of World War I and made its way to Buenos Aires, South Georgia island, and eventually to the Antarctic Circle, where it plowed through 1,000 miles of ice-encrusted waters. Just one day’s sail from its destination in Vahsel Bay on the Antarctic coast, the ship got stuck “like an almond in a chocolate bar” as it was later described, in the polar ice of the Weddell Sea.

The men were stranded on an ice floe more than 1,200 miles from the farthest outposts of civilization. Whenever it seemed the situation couldn’t possibly get worse, it did. The pack ice precariously dragged the ship north for ten months. Then, the Endurance was crushed and the men were forced to camp on the ice. They watched in horror one month later as their vessel sank to the bottom of the sea. They were beyond the range of their radio and no one knew anything had happened to them. All they had to rely on were three rickety lifeboats salvaged from the ship. Shackleton allowed each crewmember to carry only a few items necessary for survival. The first things tossed: gold coins and a Bible; saved were personal diaries and a banjo.

When the weather was its most brutal, the men endured temperatures that were so low they could hear the water freeze. The bitter cold froze their garments solid and burned their hands and feet. They slept in tents so flimsy they could see the moon through them. They spent nearly four months in the frigid darkness of the long polar night. When the Antarctic summer finally brought warmer temperatures and the promise of some relief, the men awoke every morning in cold puddles of water as their body heat melted the ice under them. They subsisted on a diet of mostly penguin, seal, and sometimes dog, fare that left them feeling weak and blubbery.

In the end, Shackleton took five men and sailed 800 miles over tumultuous seas to reach the inhabited island of South Georgia in the remote South Atlantic. When by some miracle they made their destination, they found they had to cross a nearly impassable frozen mountain range to reach civilization: a whaling station.  The whalers, who had seen so much in their own hard lives, were in awe of the invincibility of the men, by then horribly ravaged by the elements. Immediately, Shackleton turned around and led an effort to rescue the rest of the crew on Elephant Island. Amazingly, every single one had survived.

Every chapter in the book is followed by modern-day examples of leaders who admire Shackleton and have put his strategy to use in the real world.

 “Dr. Danzig particularly admires what he identifies as Shackleton’s thoughtfulness, in every sense of the word: “In the emotional-commitment way and in the cognitive way,” he explains. “That is, he was thinking all the time.”

 “If I hadn’t been schooled by Shackleton, I would have given up,” Cramer says. “It was the worst year I ever had. He got me through it because everybody, everybody tells you to give up. But I came back in a style that was unbelievable and proved the pessimists were wrong.”

Anyone can benefit from these lessons: a teacher, a parent, a leader of a community organization, as well as the corporate manager. Shackleton’s wisdom is by no means simple or obvious. Much of it is counterintuitive, especially for those schooled in more conventional management tactics. Shackleton served tea in bed to the ship’s crybaby, flattered the egomaniacs, and kept close to him the most abrasive personalities. Often, he made great personal sacrifices. Sometimes he led by not leading at all.

  1. W. Richards, a scientist on the Ross Sea party of the Endurance expedition, said simply, “Shackleton, with all his faults, was a great man, or should I say, a great leader of men.”

Shackleton made his men want to follow him; he did not force them to do so. In the process, he changed the way his crewmen saw themselves and the world. His work continued to inspire them for as long as they lived, and to inspire others around the world long after that. There is no greater tribute to a leader. His tools were humor, generosity, intelligence, strength, and compassion.

That’s Shackleton’s Way.


Table of Contents

Preface by The Honorable Alexandra Shackleton

Shackleton resonates with executives in today’s business world. How his people-centered approach to leadership can be a guide for anyone in a position of authority. How some of today’s leaders are successfully applying Shackleton’s methods to their own work situations.

1 / The Path to Leadership
The values Shackleton learned from his family helped form his uniquely progressive leadership style. He worked his way to the forefront of a new field. He turned bad experiences into valuable work lessons. He insisted on respectful competition in a business climate that often demanded cooperation.

U.S. Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig sees Shackleton’s broad cultural interests as a main ingredient of thoughtful leadership.

2 / Hiring an Outstanding Crew
Shackleton built a crew around a core of experienced workers. He conducted unconventional interviews to find unique talent. His second in command was his most important hire. He looked for optimism and cheerfulness in the people he hired. He gave his staff the best compensation and equipment he could afford.

James Cramer credits Shackleton’s optimistic example with saving his hedge fund and from an early demise. 

3 / Creating a Spirit of Camaraderie
Shackleton made careful observations before acting. He established order and routine so all workers knew where they stood. He broke down traditional hierarchies. He was fair in his dealings with his staff. He used informal gatherings to build esprit de corps.

Eric Miller, a senior adviser at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, sees Shackleton’s strategy as fitting well into today’s workplace.

 4 / Getting the Best from Each Individual
Shackleton led by example. He understood and accepted his crewmen’s quirks and weaknesses. He used informal one-on-one talks to build a bond with his men. He was always willing to help others get their work done. How he helped each man reach his potential.

Luke O’Neill runs Shackleton Schools in New England to put into practice Shackleton’s message about individual achievement.

5 / Leading Effectively in a Crisis
Shackleton let everyone know that he was in charge and confident of success. He inspired optimism in everyone. He put down dissent by keeping the malcontents close to him. He got everyone to let go of the past and focus on the future. He worked to keep spirits high. He sometimes led by doing nothing.

Jeremy Larken of Octo Ltd. uses Shackleton as a model for intelligent leadership facing a crisis.

 6 / Forming Teams for Tough Assignments
Shackleton balanced talent and expertise in each group. He ensured all his groups were keeping pace. He remained visible and vigilant. He shored up the weakest links. He got teams to help each other.

Apollo 13 commander James Lovell sees similarities in how Shackleton and he led their crews through crises.

7 / Overcoming Obstacles to Reach a Goal
Shackleton took responsibility for getting the whole job done. Even “Old Cautious” sometimes took big risks. He found the inspiration to continue. He kept sight of the big picture. He stepped outside his work to help others.

Jaguar’s retired chief of North American operations, Mike Dale, used Shackleton’s story to spur his sales crew to new heights.

8 / Leaving a Legacy
Shackleton’s leadership had a lifelong impact on his crew. His appeal spans generations. He made lasting contributions to leadership. His influence on a pioneer project in space. Using his example to promote social change. How we view Shackleton’s success today.

To be a survivor, think far beyond the bottom line

By Carlo Wolff, Globe Correspondent
Boston Sunday Globe
March 25, 2001

The lesson at the core of Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell’s eloquent and instructive “Shackleton’s Way” is this: Good managers know that morale, cohesiveness, and continuity are at least as critical to an organization as the bottom line.

It’s not always what you achieve, it’s how you achieve it, suggest the authors of these variations on the theme of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the greathearted British explorer whose inspiration kept his men not only alive but in generally high spirits under the most extreme conditions.
Read More…

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.
Read More…

Book review: The icy calm of a great leader

By Hamish Mcrae
The Independent – London
March 8, 2001

Shackleton’s Way

by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell

(Nicholas Brealey books)

MOST BUSINESS books shy away from the issue of leadership, except those written (or ghost-written) by business leaders. Instead, they theorise about the changing nature of management or peddle a set of “What-to-do- to-be-a-success” rules. But three years ago an American journalist wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal about the career of the Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton as a fine example of supreme leadership.
Read More…

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