Article By

Rebecca Stephens
Rebecca Stephens
Rebecca Stephens MBE. First a journalist for the Financial Times Group, then a mountaineer (first British woman to climb Everest and the Seven Summits), Rebecca is the author of books, lecturer and coach on the human face of leadership.

“For scientific endeavour, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Sir Raymond Priestly

The above quote is from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration: Roald Amundsen, the first to reach the South Pole, on 14th December 1910; Captain Robert Falcon Scott, close behind him on 17th January 1911, sadly to perish with his four companions on the return journey just 11 miles from a food depot. And Sir Ernest Shackleton, a man affectionately called ‘the boss’, who lived his finest hour over a century ago on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17—an expedition that spectacularly failed in its mission to cross Antarctica, but which Shackleton turned around to be one of the greatest stories of survival ever told.

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His leadership is one from which many have drawn inspiration through the years, but which is particularly pertinent today, in our troubled times of conflict, economic hardship, and the ever-present existential threat of climate change, when, in our darker moments, we might easily believe we are in a ‘hopeless situation’ with seemingly ‘no way out’. 

Shackleton’s story is a perfect illustration of how it need not be a constant – it can shift with life experiences and circumstances

Shackleton’s expedition is well documented. His ship, Endurance, was stuck in the sea ice ‘like an almond in a chocolate bar’ before even reaching land, and his 27-strong crew was trapped nine months on the ship. Then, when the unimaginable happened and the ship was ‘crushed like matchsticks’ before their eyes, they endured a further five months camped on the ice, until, finally, the thaw released them into the open sea and they rowed—frozen, wet and mad for thirst—for seven days, to Elephant Island, a small, dark outcrop of rock jutting from the Southern Ocean. It was relief, surely, to be on terra firma, but still they were a very long way away from any shipping route. Shackleton then took the biggest risk of his life and with five men set sail in a 23-foot whaler, destination South Georgia, 800 nautical miles to the north and east, where they knew there to be a whaling station. The journey wasn’t over even then. They landed on the wrong side of the island and three men out of the six still able to get to their feet climbed over unchartered peaks and glaciers to Stromness whaling station, and life. After immeasurable effort, Shackleton chartered a ship and sailed back to Elephant Island where all 22 of his crew awaited his return. Not a single life was lost.

There is an ebb and a flow to this story which many of us might relate to in our own lives, in which there was a sense of purpose—a meaning to the existence for Shackleton and his men—to be the first expedition to traverse Antarctica, which was then stripped away from them when the Endurance was trapped in the ice. Shackleton and his crew were stuck for weeks that stretched into months, through the long spell of darkness of the Antarctic winter, literally ‘at sea’, unsure of their direction, whether the ice might thaw and enable them to continue their quest, or not.

It is perfectly okay not to know one’s purpose, for periods of time.

That uncertainty ended with the sinking of the Endurance. Shackleton’s hopes, dreams and ambition to be the first to cross Antarctica were dashed. ‘I cannot write about it,’ he said, but in the same instant his purpose—his reason for being—was restored: to survive, and to get his men home alive.

Purpose, knowing why we do what we do, adds meaning to our lives and might be considered an anchor to our well-being. Shackleton’s story is a perfect illustration of how it need not be a constant—it can shift with life experiences and circumstances—and is different for different individuals.

‘Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised,’ wrote Scott’s companion, Apsley Cherry-Garrard. It is certainly not for everybody. Although interestingly, despite the suffering, and the heart-breaking loss of friends, Cherry-Garrard looked back at his time on the ice as the most important and enriching of his adult life, in large part because of the camaraderie—more of which anon.

Launching of the James Caird on its rescue mission from Elephant Island to find help, aboard, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, Frank Worsley, John Vincent, Timothy McCarthy and Harry McNish. Photo taken 24th April 1916

For now, suffice to say that a sense of purpose cannot be faked. It bubbles from within. It requires knowledge of self and often courage to follow one’s true path. And it is perfectly okay not to know one’s purpose, for periods of time. We are all familiar with the teenager who fails to see the point of putting in the effort at school; the middle-aged man who is made redundant; and all too often, people in full employment. Once the mortgage is paid and food put on the table, there are many jobs that fail to satisfy. One woman I worked with declared that her friends considered her the most ‘successful’ of their entire social group, but that she was unfulfilled and deeply unhappy.

Lacking purpose can lead people to question their identity and self-worth even in the most comfortable of circumstances.

During those long winter months on board the Endurance, there was in addition a constant shadow that they might not make it home alive. It is worth mentioning, perhaps, that it was far from unusual in this era for expeditions to crumple under the strain of isolation in the these most extreme of environments.

For expedition members to be lost to starvation, scurvy, or exposure, and for people to dissent, fall into depression, even commit suicide. Yet not only did every one of Shackleton’s crew survive, but to read their diaries is to learn that the majority were, for most of the time, happy.

So how did Shackleton do it? How did he hold everyone together and keep up morale when the opposite seemed much the most likely? First, the nature of the man cannot be ignored. He was both compassionate and optimistic—the latter a characteristic he upheld above all others. There is a degree of irony in that arguably it was an overly generous dollop of optimistic bias—a belief that bad things happen to other people, rarely oneself—that got him and his crew into the mess in the first place. Shackleton had been warned by Norwegian whalers in South Georgia that the ice floes were further north than they had seen in living memory, and that it would be prudent to postpone his expedition until the following year—but he set sail regardless. Today, we need to call upon that same optimism to work in our favour, to endow us with strength and vision to see through the darkness to a shaft of light the other side. Something Shackleton never lost.

Building trust and talking frankly and openly, were keystones of his leadership

Shackleton had many flaws, something he would readily admit of himself, ‘yet,’ he said, ‘I hate to see a child suffer, or to be false in anyway’, a quality others recognized in him as well. ‘A Viking with a mother’s heart,’ is what his second-in-command Frank Wild called him. He learned compassion through personal suffering, ill health, and homesickness as a young apprentice in the Merchant Navy and was far from being a fan of the rigid, hierarchical order of the day. His style was less formal. Building trust and talking frankly and openly, were keystones of his leadership. In today’s parlance he might have been regarded as a guru in emotional intelligence. ‘There are a lot of good things in the world, but I’m not sure that comradeship is not the best of them all,’ he said. For Shackleton, teamwork was more than an ingredient for success; it was a goal in itself.

When the Endurance was well and truly wedged in the ice, Shackleton didn’t outwardly display the slightest disappointment. Rather he spoke to his men calmly, told them what must have seemed obvious, that they must winter in the pack ice, explained its dangers and possibilities, remained optimistic and prepared for winter. The best Shackleton could hope for was that the ship would withstand the polar winter and be freed in the spring thaw. Meanwhile, the men found themselves without a job, and Shackleton’s role, as leader, was to find a way to tackle their crushing disappointment, boredom, and fear, and sustain a shred of hope that the ship would indeed be released, and they would continue their journey.

More than anything, he dreaded the effects of boredom on a crew with no responsibilities or routine

More than anything, he dreaded the effects of boredom on a crew with no responsibilities or routine. His answer was to maintain structure, for the crew to feel secure. Set meals and Saturday night sing-alongs. Ordinary duties maintained, as closely as it were possible on an immobile ship. To fill the vacuum, he ensured each man had challenging and meaningful work, even if the work might not have been considered a priority in the normal run of events. Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish, the ship’s carpenter, for example, was asked to make furniture for a hut yet to be built at a future base camp (still hoping their mission was only delayed); the scientists among them were set to collecting specimens from the ice and studying atmospheric, ice and water conditions; while training the dogs became something of a sport.

He was also a stickler for a nutritious diet and exercise in the belief, as is evidence-based knowledge today, that physical and mental well-being are inextricably linked. Perhaps the most important lesson from Shackleton, though, in these troubled times, is the deep understanding and empathy that he had for his men. For Shackleton they were not just staff, but fellow human beings. He invested tremendous effort in developing personal relationships with each one of them, even with those with whom he had little in common. He loved his books, kept the ship’s library in his cabin, not only for his own pleasure but also to read up on subjects that were of interest to others, so that he might always have a point of conversation. He was particularly concerned as the Antarctic winter drew close, the sun to set and not rise again for a further four months. For many it was their first experience of such a long spell of darkness, and he took pains for them to be in the right frame of mind. His was always an open-door policy, listening to his men’s concerns and keeping them informed about the ship’s business.

He was also remarkably sympathetic of the stresses and strains and odd little obsessions that showed themselves. On the Endurance, there was a character, Thomas Orde-Lees, who by all accounts irritated everyone with his surly, condescending manner and selfishness. He became obsessed with the possibility of running out of food, and if food items went missing, they would invariably be found squirreled under his pillow. The crewmen grew only more irritated, but Shackleton, generally tolerant of people’s quirks and foibles, put him in charge of the food store and in so doing successfully allayed his anxieties.

There is so much to learn from Shackleton’s approach, for those supporting a friend or colleague who has lost their way, or who feels adrift themselves. Make sure to have structure in your life: regular meals, exercise, enough sleep. Find some meaningful work, even if it is not true to your core. Stay calm—questioning one’s purpose is natural, maybe even necessary—and optimistic, that if it is your wish, if you explore the world around you while staying true to yourself, you will find a powerful purpose. But the most important message, surely, is that of empathy, connection, and compassion. We are primarily social beings. We exist in relationships with others, and it is our commitment to these relationships which is the deepest and most motivating force.

It seems unlikely the crew would have held it together without Shackleton, but equally Shackleton needed the crew

This is so obviously apparent with parent and child, but reaches beyond, to the wider family, friends, and community. Not to forget our colleagues at work as well—human beings do not stop being human when they walk through the door into the office. It was Shackleton’s love of his men, his determination that not a single life would be lost, that empowered him with the strength to endure, to stay positive, to take the toughest of decisions, and ultimately risk all and sail the most audacious of journeys, 800 nautical miles across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia in a tiny little wooden boat, the James Caird, now forever recorded in the annals of polar exploration.

It seems unlikely the crew would have held it together without Shackleton, but equally Shackleton needed the crew. In the literal sense, McNish the carpenter shored up the James Caird to withstand the violent storms of the Southern Ocean, and there is little chance they would have safely reached South Georgia without Frank Worsley’s remarkable navigational skills. But it was the very fact that they were there that really mattered, to have another human being for whom to fight.

To take for granted the motivating power of the bond between us as human beings is to very seriously miss a trick; it fails to acknowledge who we are and what is our reason for being – our purpose – and the productivity that arises from this truth. The more difficult the challenge, the more important it is for us not to turn inward, but to reach out to those around us, to forge friendships, to act for others as well as ourselves. Then we are committed; then we have purpose. It is only through recognition that connection is where our deepest energy lies that we can hope to resolve the economic crisis, the gaping poverty gap, and climate issues we face.

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