Leadership Lessons from Antarctic Explorers and Adventurers

Thomas Fox

Henry Worsley and Ernest Shackleton are related by more than blood. They are related by their souls. A distant relative, Frank Worsley had accompanied Shackleton on his Antarctic expeditions, including the abortive Nimrod expedition where Shackleton had tried and failed to reach the South Pole coming within 90 miles of reaching his goal until he and his two-man team turned back. Inspired by this event, Henry Worsley and two other men successfully walked unaided to the South Pole and back in 2008-2009.

Shackleton is of course much more famous for his Endurance expedition, which was the legendary 3-year (1914-1917) trip to the Antarctic where his crew was stranded on the ice; Shackleton and a few companions traveled some 800 miles in an open boat to the South Georgia Island whaling station to obtain a rescue craft. He then returned to the Antarctic and rescued all of the stranded men.

Both men provided some interesting leadership lessons from their experiences. Henry Worsley’s journey to the South Pole was recently chronicled in the New Yorker in a piece by David Grann, entitled “THE WHITE DARKNESS – A solitary journey across Antarctica”. Henry Worsley became interested in Shackleton as a child, marveled by his stories of exploring and adventure. For most of his life he was in the British Army, becoming a member of the elite Special Action Services (SAS). After his retirement, he met Shackleton’s grand-daughter who introduced him to Will Gow, the great-nephew of Shackleton who wanted to recreate the trek to the South Pole. They were joined by another relative of the Nimrod expedition Henry Adams who was the great-grandson of the Nimrod expedition’s second in command, Jameson Boyd Adams.

Together the three men trained in Artic treks and cold weather situations for several years, while fund raising for their own expedition. This training regime was couple with meticulous planning. Each man was required to haul a sled weighing some 300 pounds across the ice. Henry Worsley’s pack was emblazoned with two phrases, “Always a little further” and “By Endurance we Conquer”. Henry Worsley drew the following leadership lessons from Shackleton, “His optimism and patience. That the welfare of his men governed all his decision making. His courage. The hope he instilled in others. His romanticism. His ability to hold a team together in adversity. His recognition of the qualities of Frank Wild and his choice to make him his second in command. The depth of affection and respect that his crew members (from all expeditions) had for him. That he never gave up on fulfilling dreams. But above all I believe that in times of deep trouble, when lives were at risk, he was able to instill in his men the confidence that he would get them out of the desperate situation they were in, because nothing was more important to him than their welfare.” The three were able to accomplish their goal by safely trekking across the ice to the South Pole and back.

Shackleton is best known for his Antarctic expeditions failures. In addition to the Nimrod and Endurance expeditions, he was also a member of the failed first South Pole trek attempt by Sir Robert Falcon Scott in 1901. According to Cathy Graham, writing in a Workplace Navigator article, entitled “7 Characters of Leadership I Learned From Sir Ernest Shackleton”, the tale of “how 28 men survived for 21 months after the ship was beset in the ice floes of Antarctica”, in sub-freezing temperatures, no digital equipment, not even a radio, numerous physical obstacles, including climbing for 36 hours over uncharted mountains without climbing gear, is one chock full of a leadership lesson for today’s business leader. She noted seven lessons honed from Shackleton’s leadership.

  1. Honesty. Shackleton was brutally honest in the expectations of the expedition. When he advertised (shown above) for the expedition, he noted that “Safe return doubtful.” Graham believes one should not promote something that it is not, “if the work is tedious, say it. If there is constant travel, be upfront.” Her key lesson learned is “Be honest when you are bringing someone on to your team.”
  2. Diverse Team. Shackleton built a cohesive multi-national team of 28. For instance, “he asked Reginald James if he could sing” and this was the basis of his selection (and indeed it was handy). There were two Surgeons, a Navigator, Photographer, Artist, Seaman, Cook and Carpenter. The team he put together fit “like a puzzle.” Graham believes that great leaders do not seek out “carbon copies of themselves, they look for complementary pieces.” The key lesson is you should have “a diverse team of talent and character with traits that don’t resemble you.”
  3. Be Decisive. When Shackleton made a decision, he stuck to it. There was no waffling. Simply put, “When you decide to get off a breaking ice floe, you cannot turn back.” Yet Shackleton adjusted his goal several times from one island to another. His men knew that Shackleton could be counted on. Graham’s takeaway is that “When you lead, be decisive. Your folks are counting on you.”
  4. Inclusion. He was constantly seeking opposing viewpoints and would listen to other viewpoints. Everyone’s viewpoint was heard when Shackleton made his decision. An interesting example of this inclusion was when one of the men became fatigued he would order hot chocolate prepared for all the crew, not singling out the man who was flagging but using the tactic to give everyone an uplift. Graham’s lesson is “Inclusive leaders have their finger of the pulse of the group as a whole.”
  5. Delegate. Shackleton delegated clearly, definitely and with no regrets. When Shackleton and his eight crewmen sailed to South Georgia Island, “He left Frank Wild in charge of 22 men on Elephant Island. Everyone knew Wild was in charge and Shackleton left him there with full confidence that Wild would succeed.” From this Graham believes a leader should delegate projects with full confidence in your team and with clarity.
  6. Improvise. One thing Shackleton had to constantly perform was improvisation. When his ship, the Endurance, was crushed in the Antarctic ice, wood from the sinking ship was used for shoe bottoms. The crew used blubber from penguins to light the lamps. When trekking across South Georgia Island to the whaling station, Shackleton lashed three men together to slide down a mountain face like a toboggan. Graham derived from these experiences that a leader should not “wait for the next software upgrade or next year’s budget to move the project forward. Improvise with what you have now.”
  7. Keep the Faith. Graham believes “Shackleton had unfailing faith and optimism. He kept the more pessimistic and ornery folks in his tent, lest they infect the others.” Simply put, one cannot survive 21 months in the bleakness of the Antarctic with little more than the clothes on your back, a compass and a stove without optimism.” For today’s business leader, Graham believes “Leadership is all about having undying faith that you can overcome any obstacle.”

David Foster Wallace once wrote that leaders are “people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things that we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Both Henry Worsley and Ernest Shackleton are two such people who truly achieved greatness as leaders. You can take some of the lessons they bring forth and use them today in your business.

For an interesting discussion on Worsley and Shackleton, check out this week’s podcast on 12 O’Clock High – A podcast on business leadership – Episode 82.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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Thomas Fox

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