During my recent trip, I got the chance to read a book called Shackleton’s Wayby Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell. This is a book about an explorer named Ernest Shackleton who some have argued was the greatest leader that the world has ever seen, but he was broke, he failed at almost every goal he ever set, and he never lead more than 27 men. That definitely challenges our perception of what a successful leader looks like.
Shackleton was one of the early explorers to Antarctica. His third expedition was on a ship called Endurance, and his goal was to cross the continent on foot. Before the ship even made it to their landing site on the Antarctic, their ship got frozen in the icepack and they were unable to move. Eventually, they had to abandon ship and camp on the nearby ice and after being frozen in the ice for nearly a year, the ship was crushed and sank. At this point, Shackleton’s goal was no longer to reach the pole but to return to safety with all 27 of his men. After watching their ship sink, they spent the next four months trying to make it off the ice to solid ground. Some days they would drag their lifeboats across the ice only advancing an average of half a mile. How discouraging that must have been! They finally made it to Elephant Island, but they were still 800 miles from the nearest civilization, so their leader, Shackleton, set off in a lifeboat with five others to cover 800 miles of unforgiving ocean in hopes of hitting a small island where there was a whaling station. Against all odds, they made it to the island then his team trekked for 36 hours straight across glaciers and merciless terrain and collapsed at the whaling station. Then, Shackleton turned around boarded a boat and went back for his men. In all, the crew was lost in the Antarctic for two years and not one man died! This summary hardly does justice to the incredible feat of leadership that he accomplished, and I recommend that everyone pick up a copy of this book.
Hope of crossing the Antarctic was lost
I think what most amazed me about Shackleton’s leadership was his unwavering optimism combined with his ability to move past negative events and failures. It was integral to his success as a leader in circumstances that always looked dire and impossible to overcome. He knew that hope could dispel discouragement, desperation, and even mutiny. So, Shackleton fed his crew warm meals during particularly hard times, held regular concerts on the ship, but most importantly, he never let his own morale down. Everyone watches the leader! As he watched the ship Endurance break apart in the ice, a ship that he had taken on much debt to purchase, spent a year of his life living on, and might have been his last hope to achieve a great victory in exploration, he said, “Ship and stores have gone, so we’ll go home now.” It would have been much harder for me to cope with a setback of that magnitude.
A characteristic of great leaders I have observed is their ability to forget about the things that they can no longer affect and focus on what can be done. It is what allows leaders to turn obstacles into opportunities. Many people have a very low tolerance for failure, and it only takes one to put them out of the game. No one ever achieved anything great without experiencing some degree of failure. So, once we can accept that it is a natural part of leadership and is necessary for progress, we can move past failures in healthy and productive manner.
The rescue after two years
I have often struggled with the fear of failure in my own leadership, and it can be paralyzing when it comes to making decisions about vision, strategy, investments, or hardest of all, people. I am inspired by Shackleton’s example to always maintain an optimistic outlook despite challenging circumstances, to be bold but discerning in my decision-making, and when failure does occur, to learn from it and move on.
This is not the last you will hear of Shackleton. I look forward to unpacking more of his leadership with you in the months to come.