Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (New York, New York Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1959, Third Printing 2005) 280 pages.
How do you keep 27 men in an impossible situation motivated? Somehow, Ernest Shackleton managed to keep the crew of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1916) focused on surviving despite setback after setback. Shackleton’s drive to keep every man alive and bring them safely home is a great study in the psychology of leadership.
Shackleton was not without his flaws. In civilian life, he tried and failed at a variety of money-making schemes. He was unfaithful to his wife. And during the expedition itself, he made some key blunders. But there is still much to learn from the way he led his men.
Below I’ve made observations about Shackleton’s character, decision making, and personality. Most observations are supported with examples. These could be read by a group of leaders (maybe along with Lansing’s excellent book) and discussed together:
- Which of these characteristics is the mark of a good leader? What are their parallels in home group leadership?
- Which ones should be avoided? What are their parallels in home group leadership?
- What battles have you quit? Which ones need to be taken up again?
- What makes you willing to follow a leader?
- What makes you willing to trust a leader?
An overview of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
From Wickipedia.org: “The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set out from London on August 1, 1914 with the goal of crossing the Antarctic from a location near Vahsel Bay on the south side of the Weddell Sea, reach the South Pole and then continue to Ross Island on the opposite side of the continent. The expedition's goal had to be abandoned when the ship, Endurance, was beset by sea ice short of its goal of Vahsel Bay. It was later crushed by the pack ice. The ship's crew and the expedition personnel endured an epic journey by sledge across the Weddell Sea pack and then boat to Elephant Island. Upon arrival at Elephant Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, they rebuilt one of their small boats and Shackleton with five others set sail for South Georgia to seek help. This remarkable journey navigated by Frank Worsley in the 6.7-meter boat James Caird through the Drake Passage to South Georgia in the late Antarctic Fall (April and May) is perhaps without rival. They landed on the southern coast of South Georgia and then crossed the spine of the island in an equally remarkable 36-hour journey.” After three other failed attempts, Shackleton returned to Elephant Island aboard the Chilean ship Yelcho to rescue his crew. 22 months after the expedition started, everyone from the Endurance was on their way home.
Ernest Shackleton’s character traits
“He was keenly aware of social position and the important part that money played in it.” (12) “He was perennially entranced with new schemes…” (13) He was very eager to make a pile of cash.
“Whatever his mood—whether it was gay and breezy, or dark with rage—he had one pervading characteristic: he was purposeful.” (12)
A gifted leader.
- “Shackleton’s unwillingness to succumb to the demands of everyday life and his insatiable excitement with unrealistic ventures left him open to the accusation of being basically immature and irresponsible. And probably he was—by conventional standards. But the great leaders of historical record—the Napoleons, the Nelsons, the Alexanders—have rarely fitted any conventional mold, and it is perhaps an injustice to evaluate them in ordinary terms. There can be little doubt the Shackleton, in his way, was an extraordinary leader or men.” (13)
- “While he was undeniably out of place, even inept, in a great many everyday situations, he had a talent—a genius, even—that he shared with only a handful of men throughout history—genuine leadership.” (13)
Not a quitter.
- Shackleton’s family motto: “By endurance we conquer.” (14)
- A tribute to Shackleton from an unnamed source: “For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” (14)
- For Shackleton, “the thought of quitting was abhorrent.” (97)
- “They (Shackleton and the crew of the Caird) were possessed by an angry determination to see the journey through—no matter what. They felt they had earned it.” (239)
A good judge of men.
- Shackleton attracted men like himself to his expedition. He built his crew from a nucleus of tested veterans.
- “In the matter of selecting newcomers, Shackleton’s methods would appear almost capricious. If he liked the look of a man, he was accepted. If he didn’t, the matter was closed. And these decisions were made with lightning speed. There is no record of any interview that Shackleton conducted with a prospective expedition member lasting much more than 5 minutes.” (17)
- “Shackleton’s intuition for selecting compatible men rarely failed.” (17) They got along surprisingly well throughout the Endurance expedition and grew to like each other.
- The crew was made up of good men who “understood their job and went about it without having to be told.” (63)
- Shackleton liked “willingness” – a can do attitude. He “also put a high value on discipline.” (39)
- The Endurance left England without Shackleton. Under Frank Worsley, the crew of the ship became very disorderly. When Shackleton met them in Buenos Aires, he quickly restored discipline on the ship. Prior to their departure from Buenos Aires, Shackleton showed no tolerance for drunkenness and indifference to the needs of the crew and fired two crew members.
- He maintained strict control of the food supply when food was hard to come by.
Sometimes when Shackleton became excited he forgot what he was doing.
- When the men were still camping on ice floes, one of the crew members spotted land. Shackleton became so excited that he forgot to make his men follow through on an order to kill some of the sled dogs.
- When they finally landed on Elephant Island, he put a crew member into the water to wade to shore, but forgot that the man’s frostbite made him unable to walk.
Shackletonto a stowaway who was discovered en route to Antarctica: “If we run out of food and anyone has to be eaten, you will be first. Do you understand?”
Careful to model optimism.
- After the Endurance became trapped in ice, “he was careful… not to betray his disappointment to the men, and he cheerfully supervised the routine of reading the ship for the long winter’s night ahead.” (34)
- He disliked men who worried outwardly about the future for fear that their attitude would spread to others.
- Prior to crossing South Georgia: “Shackleton wanted to get away with the least possible fuss in order not to emphasize the significance of their leaving in the minds of those who were staying behind.” (263)
Able to “set someone straight.”
His talks with men who adopted an attitude usually resulted in a quick turnaround.
He identified with his men…
- He joined them in various diversions: card playing, shaving their heads, participating in silly parties, etc. He spent hours, for example, teaching the men in his tent to play bridge. Soon, the entire expedition was addicted to bridge. “Those who didn’t join in found themselves almost ostracized.” (86)
- Despite being an absolute authority, “he wanted to appear familiar with the men. He even worked at it, insisting on having exactly the same treatment, food, and clothing. He went out of his way to demonstrate his willingness to do the menial chores, such as taking as ‘Peggy’ to get the mealtime pot of hoosh from the galley to his tent. And he occasionally became furious when he discovered that the cook had given him preferential treatment because he was the ‘Boss.’”(86)
…but his roll as “Boss” inevitably separated him from the crew to some extent.
“He was simply emotionally incapable of forgetting—even for an instant—his position and the responsibility it entailed.” (86)
Attentive to morale.
Shackleton “suffered an almost pathological dread of losing control of the situation.” (73)
“Of all their enemies—the cold, the ice, the sea—he feared none more than demoralization.” (89) He used several strategies to avoid this:
- He tried to counter the effect of men who might cause strife.
- He often sought the input of potential troublemakers when making key decisions. He also stayed close to them. He shared a tent with Hurley, “which appealed to his snobbishness and kept him from gathering malcontents around himself.” (73)
- “Several other tent assignments were made with an eye to avoiding trouble.” (74)
- “He was intensely watchful for troublemakers who might nibble away at the unity of the group.” (73)
- When he had to pick a crew to sail the James Caird with him to South Georgia, he made a point to take the carpenter and another grumbler, because they had been troublesome in the past. He didn’t want to leave them on Elephant Island with the others.
- He understood that keeping his men occupied “contributed much to their sense of well-being.” (87)
- He was careful to exude confidence in their survival. At one low point in the expedition, Shackleton put a note in a corked bottle that explained their situation to anyone who might come across it. “He refrained from leaving the note until after the party had left Ocean Camp for fear that the men might find it and interpret it as a sign that their leader was not sure they would survive.” (92)
- “Shackleton strove… unceasingly to imbue (the crew) with a basic faith in themselves—that they could, if need be, pit their strength and their determination against any obstacle—and somehow overcome it.” (100)
- He occupied the men with parties and diversions. When prospects for survival were looking very bleak in February 29, 1916 “he seized the feeble excuse offered by (leap year) to boost the men’s morale. The celebrated a ‘Bachelor’s Feast’…” (116-117)
- He spent time with men who were in low spirits.
Able to defend his decisions.
When the ship’s carpenter challenged Shackleton’s right to command the crew off the boat, he sat the entire crew down and read the articles they had signed. The articles clearly stated that if the boat was lost, the leader of the expedition could still command the crew on shore.
When criticized over his management of food, Shackleton snapped back ferociously.
A long memory.
At one point, when they were making slow progress dragging sledges across pack ice, the ship’s carpenter had a meltdown and refused to go any further. Inwardly, Shackleton never forgave the old carpenter’s insubordination because it threatened the safety of the entire crew.
Heightened awareness and good instincts.
Shackleton was very aware of his immediate environment and seemed to know instinctively what to do when an opportunity or crisis arose. For example:
- During the polar spring, when the Endurance briefly broke free from the ice, “Shackleton was on deck immediately, followed by the rest of the crew. Swiftly, he saw what was happening…” (49)
- When they could sense ocean swells causing and ice floe they were on to rise and fall, Shackleton “gave orders that the watchmen should be especially alert.” (129)
- On the return voyage to South Georgia, Shackleton noticed that ice was weighing down the Caird. “In the failing light of dusk he saw that it would be dangerous to let it go until morning. He ordered Worsley, Crean, and McCarthy to go with him up onto the pitching deck.” (230)
- A typical night: “Before he turned in, Shackleton took one final look around the camp to satisfy himself that the tents and boats were not (too) close together…” (119) “Toward eleven o’clock, Shackleton became strangely uneasy, so he dressed and went outside.” (145) “Throughout the night, Shackleton on board the Caird had kept watch for the Docker (two of the three small ships).” (171) Prior to leaving with 5 others to sail to South Georgia, “(He) spent almost the whole night talking with Wild about a hundred different subjects, ranging from what should be done in the event that a rescue party failed to arrive within a reasonable length of time to the distribution of tobacco.” (191) After their exhausting voyage to South Georgia, “Shackleton instructed all of them to turn in, saying that they would stand one-man watches over the Caird. He agreed to take the first.” (257) Prior to hiking across South Georgia: “Shackleton could not sleep, and he went outside repeatedly to check the weather.” (263) Exhausted from their trek across South Georgia: “Worsley and Crean fell asleep, and Shackleton, too, caught himself nodding. Suddenly he jerked his head upright. All the years of Antarctic experience told him that this was the danger sign—the fatal sleep that trails off into freezing death. He fought to stay awake for five long minutes, then, he woke the others, telling them they had slept for half an hour.” (269)
- He didn’t sleep much. He often paced around while the men slept.
- He was always looking for ways to improve their situation by studying maps and charts.
- He worried that his men were developing a false sense of security and made them practice striking their tents, breaking camp, and loading the sleds and boats.
Very attentive to the needs of his crew.
- He ordered rest to be taken and food to be eaten when the men were fatigued.
- After a few of the crew members heroically recovered their third boat. On their return, “Shackleton and Hussey went out to meet them with a pot of hot tea.” (111)
- During a grueling voyage to Elephant Island, “Shackleton searched (the faces of his crew) for an answer to the question that troubled him most: How much more could they take?” (159)
- Prior to his journey across South Georgia, “Shackleton felt the men were not yet equal to it, so they spent two days recuperating and eating sumptuously.” (259)
Set an example.
Just after abandoning ship, Shackleton had to persuade his men that they must leave all and only take the barest essentials on their journey across the ice. To illustrate, he emptied his pockets of gold sovereigns and threw them to the snow at his feet.
A creature of routine.
He played “patience poker” every day for an hour with Hurley.
Deeply concerned about the survival of his men.
- Just prior to departing from their crushed ship, he wrote, “I pray God I can manage to get the whole party safe to civilization.” (65)
- When four men, including Shackleton, were stranded on part of an ice floe that broke free from the camp, “Shackleton waited until the others were safe, but by the time it was his turn, the pieces had drifted apart again.” (145)
- On the journey to Elephant Island, Shackleton’s boat, the James Caird, towed the Wills through a terrible gale. The Wills had an inexperienced skipper and was not very seaworthy. If the line between the boats broke, the Wills would almost certainly be lost in the storm. As the wind raged, “Shackleton sat in the stern of the Caird… with his hand on the line between them and the Wills.” (173)
- When they Elephant Island after being on water or ice for 497 days, “he felt a profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to be standing at last on land, surrounded by his men.” (179)
- After three failed attempts to rescue his men on Elephant Island, “Shackleton’s anxiety had risen to such an extent that Worsley said he had never seen him so on edge.” (277)
- When he finally succeeded in returning to Elephant Island, his first question was, “Are you alright?”
If you can’t find a way, make one.
- When they were dangerously low on water and men were dehydrated, “Shackleton suggested they try chewing seal meat raw in order to swallow the blood.” (165)
- When they encountered 10-meter-high walls of ice between compressed ice floes, Shackleton ordered the men to cut a pathway for the boats.
- When ice threatened to encase the Caird in a storm, “He took a small knife and cautiously crawled forward. With extreme care so as to not puncture the decking, he began to knock the ice away with the back side of the axe. Periodically a wave burst against the boat and swept over him, but he kept at it for nearly 10 minutes while the others anxiously looked on.” (232)
- Once Shackleton was stuck with Crean and Worsley on a high mountain ridge in South Georgia. It was late in the day, fog was rolling in, and he had to get down to a lower elevation quickly or freeze to death. Walking down would take too long so “he suggested they slide.” (266) As soon as the men with him agreed to the idea, he “did not permit any time for reflection. When they were ready, he kicked off.” (267) They slid down a glacier into the fog below and somehow survived.
He constantly evaluated their food situation and planned their rations accordingly.
- While waiting for the weather to improve at a whaling station in South Georgia Island, Shackleton learned what he could from local captains.
- He often sought the counsel of the wiser crew members and leaned on their insight to make decisions.
Optimistic/ took failure very hard.
- His journal entry after the Endurance finally sank: “I cannot write about it.” (85)
- “He was a man who believed completely in his own invincibility, and to whom defeat was a reflection of personal inadequacy. This indomitable self-confidence of Shackleton’s took the form of optimism. And it worked in two ways: it set men’s souls on fire; as Macklin said, just to be in his presence was an experience. It was what made Shackleton so great a leader. But at the same time, the basic egotism that gave rise to his enormous self reliance occasionally blinded him to realities.” (103)
- He expected the people around him to share his optimism.
Willing to admit defeat.
When treacherous conditions made it impossible to make progress in their little boats, Shackleton ordered a retreat back to the protection of the ice pack.
- He didn’t want his crew taking unnecessary risks. “This earned him the nickname ‘Old Cautious’ or ‘Cautious Jack.’ But nobody ever called him that to his face.” (85)
- Although many on the crew disagreed with him, Shackleton was unwilling to risk camping on an iceberg for fear that it might become upset.
- When the three small boats from Endurance finally set sail, Shackleton did everything he could to keep them from being separated.
- While under sail in their small boats, he was constantly afraid of collisions with the ice.
- When the ballast rocks were causing the Caird to pitch wildly, Shackleton refused to throw any of them overboard, since they could never be retrieved. (224)
- When they were just 2 miles from South Georgia, Shackleton refused to land immediately because it was too treacherous.
Once decided on course of action, impatient.
Once an idea entered into Shackleton’s mind, he acted on it quickly and decisively. When he decided to take 5 men with him in the Caird and attempt to reach South Georgia, he “was terribly anxious to get away.” (195) He was just as eager to depart for his journey across South Georgia and to leave South Georgia to rescue his men on Elephant Island. “Less than seventy-two hours after arriving at Stromness (in South Georgia) from across the mountains, Shackleton and his two companions set out for Elephant Island.” (277) “Shackleton was in no mood to stand idly by and wait.” (277) Even when he returned to Elephant Island to rescue his men, he would not get out of the boat. “He was quite noticeably anxious and wanted only to be away.” (280)
He valued keeping his crew together.
He did everything he could to keep the party together: During their trek across the icepack, he never let his men become widely separated. When the three boats sailed for Elephant Island, he insisted they stay close, only letting Worsley separate from the other two boats when it was absolutely necessary. While hiking across South Georgia, “he thought it would be best if they roped themselves together for safety.” (263) Before their fateful slide down a glacier to safety below, he demanded that they hold onto each other.
- Lansing says he frequently climbed ice bergs and plateaus to get a better view of possible escape routes through the ice.
- When the ice showed signs of thinning around the Endurance, “Shackleton decided… that the opening tendency of the pack justified getting up steam on the chance that they could force their way through.” (33)
He sometimes “lost it.”
At times he longed for rest and relief from the burden of leading the men to safety. During his voyage to South Georgia, “more than anything he was dreadfully tired, and he wanted simply for the journey to be over.” (221) About 90 miles from South Georgia, the weather was so bad they had to lower the sail on the Caird. An annoying bird fluttered around the boat and Shackleton lost his temper, swatting and batting at it furiously. He immediately felt foolish and knew he was setting a bad example. When Crean then asked what they should do about a cask of bad water on the boat, Shackleton snapped, “there’s nothing we can do.”
He had moments of self doubt.
Lansing on Shackleton during his voyage to South Georgia: “It was obvious that the burden of responsibility (he) had borne for sixteen months had nibbled away somewhat at his enormous self-confidence. He wanted to talk (to Worsley) and to be assured that he had acted wisely.” (220) “Worsley replied that he was sure that they would make it, but it was evident that Shackleton was far from convinced.” (221)
- “Utterly self-reliant, romantic, and just a little swashbuckling.” (11)
- Energetic and imaginative.
- Hungry for adventure.
- “Few men could be more forbidding than Ernest Shackleton in a rage.” (23)
- Shackleton gave disgruntled men time to cool off.
- A daily journaler.
- He sometimes took important matters into his own hands. For example, when food stores became low and some men were stealing bits of meat, he had the rations stored right next to his tent.