Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell
The subtitle to this book is ‘Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer’. I have to confess that I knew very little of the life and exploits of Ernest Shackleton but my interest was stirred by a conversation some months ago with a friend Richard Coles who extolled Shackleton’s strengths as a leader. When I came across this book it seemed the perfect opportunity to find out more about a real explorer and I was not disappointed.
Ernest Shackleton is less well known than his contemporary Scott perhaps because his greatest achievement was a failure, but it’s how he dealt with the situations that the failure threw at him that mark him out as an extraordinary leader, in many ways ahead of his time. The book tells the story of the Endurance expedition to Antarctica which set sail in August 1914. By January 1915 Endurance had come within one days sailing of its planned landing spot when it became frozen in. At first the team holed up in the Endurance to live out the Antarctic winter, itself not a particularly attractive proposition but when in October 1915 the shifting Ice began to crush and eventually sink their ship the story changes from one of exploration to one of survival on the floating ice. The men were more than a thousand miles from any other human beings and hundreds of miles from terra firma.
The book reveals the astonishing story of how Shackleton led his team of 27 men on an incredible journey to safety. It gives a sense of the incredible hardships faced by the men in a truly inhospitable environment. The story is laced with anecdotes and quotes from the diaries of the men which reveal that even in these incredibly difficult conditions Shackleton’s undimmed optimism and leadership skills created the confidence and support from his men that was essential to their survival and a loyalty that lasted throughout their lives. Note that this is not a modern story of sitting it out and waiting for rescue. Only through this inner strength could they have made their own astonishing journey to safety using makeshift lifeboats and an incredible trek across the ice. Their triumph was that not one man was lost.
In telling the story the book is structured to pick out aspects of Shackleton’s leadership to underline the leadership lessons. Divided into nine chapters which follow the phases of the expedition, from selecting the crew through to achieving their goal of reaching safety, each chapter provides a summary list for reference of Shackleton’s approach and then relates the stories of people inspired to use these lessons in a modern situation. These reflections include views from an industrialist, scientist, military leader, educator, internet pioneer and one from Capt, James A Lovell Jr who faced his own challenge of survival as the commander of the stricken Apollo 13 space craft.
Though the Endurance expedition took place in a dramatically different world to ours, and the hardship faced can only be glimpsed through the words of the book, the lessons of leadership have a remarkable relevance to today. This is a good source of practical guidance on leadership but perhaps for me serves to put in perspective some of the challenges that we face today and illustrate the incredible power of effective leadership.
Throughout the book the influence of the then new ideas of psychology can be seen in Shackleton’s thinking and behaviour.
‘Shackleton was frustrated that never got to write a book about ‘the mental side’ of his leadership - what we would call today strategy. “That is the side that interests me the most.” he said.’
I believe that this book goes some way towards writing this on his behalf.
In summary a fantastic tale of an incredible achievement from which we can all extract lessons, encouragement and energy to improve our approach to leadership and change.
Many thanks to Richard Coles for raising my interest in Ernest Shackleton.
Steve Unwin November 28 2003.
View or buy from