Ernest Shackleton led a team of 28 explorers to Antarctica. Their plans went horribly wrong, and they found themselves stranded in an ice flow. Through his remarkable leadership, Shackleton rescued his entire team and returned them safely home. What convictions drove his tireless leadership and eventual success? What propelled him to take such risks in the first place?
Let’s take a look…
Spirit of Adventure
In 1914 when Shackleton and his crew set sail for Antarctica, British culture buzzed with interest in scientific exploration (Koehn, 2010). Numerous companies set out in search of uncharted oceans and lands. These trips were extremely dangerous, but a successful return could mean fortune and glory for the crew and for their country (Koehn, 2010). This kind of promise inspired many leaders to go, and it likely inspired Shackleton.
In addition to the tugs of fame and fortune, Shackleton had also imbibed the poetry of adventure and a love for the sea. He was fond of reading stories of “naval lore” and he fancied the writings of Robert Browning on the subjects of manhood and heroism (Koehn, 2010, p. 2). The cultural promptings of his time and upbringing led him to a life of adventure and exploration. His various travels and expeditions may seem like overly risky and daunting leadership projects to the modern person, but in his cultural context, these efforts made perfect sense.
The Focus of Shackleton’s Leadership
The elements of context mentioned above explain why Shackleton led in the first place, but they do not fully explain how he led the expedition. So, how exactly did he lead his team? Shackleton emphasized two key things.
By the time Shackleton commanded the Trans-Antarctic Expedition, he had already experienced two previous polar expeditions (“Antarctic explorers”, n.d.). These prior experiences no doubt shaped what he felt was the essential characteristic of a good adventurer, namely, optimism. Shackleton believed optimism was the key to a successful expedition. He believed the spirit of man could overcome great challenges. Shackleton once said, “Optimism is true moral courage” (cited at NOVA online, n.d.), and he assembled and led his team with this conviction. While he was certainly mindful of what expertise and levels of competency his crew brought to the trip, he valued a positive attitude just as much. In fact, if all other factors were equal, it was the presence of a positive attitude that could tip the scale for one’s acceptance to the team (Koehn, 2010). On one occasion, he selected a crewman for his clever and humorous response to a question (Koehn, 2010).
This belief in the necessity of a good attitude led to his second main conviction that leadership is largely about managing morale. Managing morale can take on a number of forms. As Koehn (2010) makes clear, Shackleton employed a variety of means to manage his team’s morale. He ordered hot milk for cold nights. He kept the more problematic crew members in his own tent. He assigned lively members to head up the other tents. He talked often and intimately with the crew, constantly checking the pulse of their morale. He recited poetry. He exuded confidence in the face of uncertainty and danger. He guaranteed continued pay after the sinking of the ship. Regardless of the means used, the goal was the same: to manage morale. Planning and preparation were certainly parts of his leadership (Koehn, 2010), but with the unpredictable and uncontrollable variables of the trip, the need for good, optimistic morale proved preeminent.
Learning from Shackleton
Both the adventurous spirit of Shackleton’s culture and his emphasis on an optimistic worldview can inform modern leaders about the heart and task of leadership. Let’s consider some takeaways from his story.
Risk Is Right
Shackleton’s willingness to risk highlights a key aspect of leadership. Our current culture has a low tolerance for ambiguity (Plueddemann, 2009). Clarity is not necessarily a bad thing to value, but leadership involves moving to new places and embracing new ideas, and in the face of uncertainty, this entails a certain level of risk (Read and Shapiro, 2014). Furthermore, our organizations are experiencing more volatility, and this climate of change demands greater boldness (Kotter, 2001). Without the spirit of adventure and the willingness to risk, little can be achieved.
Shackleton and other explorers of the time risked much for the benefit of receiving an earthly reward in the shape of fame and fortune. For the Christian leader, the math runs differently. We do not lead for financial gain or for earthly praise. In fact, such motives can jeopardize our mission and undermine our leadership (James 4:1). Instead, Christian leaders work as ones who will be held accountable (Hebrews 13:17) and as ones who have a secure treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:20). Furthermore, Christian leaders have a very different understanding of risk. We recognize that in the sovereign power and care of God risk does not exist. God controls all things, and as such, no circumstance or action falls outside of his purview (Matthew 10:29). Certain tasks may be risky in the sense that they are dangerous or the outcome is unknown, but in either case, any given situation still falls under the scope of God’s sovereignty. Armed with this understanding of the necessity of risk from Shackleton and the biblical perspective on such risk and subsequent reward, Christian leaders should be all-the-more bold in their leadership, knowing that God’s will shall be done and a secure reward awaits them in heaven.
Shackleton’s emphasis on optimism and his relentless efforts to manage morale show the importance of serving others for the purpose of encouragement. Shackleton knew well the vagaries of expedition life. Such uncertainty demands a positive outlook (Read and Shapiro, 2014), and Shackleton was careful to maintain it. Personally, I have found that when stressful times come in leadership, I become more autocratic and dictatorial. I feel burdened to make decisions and act quickly. In survival mode, I think there is no time for feelings, and I assume others agree. But Shackleton took such solicitous care of his crew even in the most dire circumstances, and he often did so at his own expense. Though his actions to manage morale took no one form, one could say the underlying principle was one of servant leadership. He led as a servant for the sake of morale. One man said Shackleton would give the shirt off his own back so that another would not go cold (Koehn, 2010, p. 12). Such self-sacrifice greatly encouraged the men. Kool and Dirk (2012) have confirmed the positive relationship between servant leadership and a sense of optimism in the face of change and uncertainty. It seems Shackleton intuitively knew this role of servant leadership in engendering good morale.
Jesus commended this kind of leadership when he instructed his disciples to care for one another as servants (Matthew 20:26). The Apostle Paul likewise insisted that spiritual leadership should be gentle and seek to restore those who were stuck in sin (Galatians 6:1). At one point, Paul even warns against being overly harsh with a church member caught in sin. The Apostle Peter also insists on caring for others with gentleness and for their encouragement. For Peter, it is the image of the shepherd that best captures this dynamic (1 Peter 5:2). In all these ways, Jesus, Paul, and Peter insist on the humility of a servant for the purpose of building up others. This kind of leadership is reminiscent of Shackleton’s approach. However, one glaring difference remains.
For Paul and other New Testament leaders, the source of their servant’s heart and optimism was in the Lord. Over and over they appealed to their hope in the Lord (e.g., 1 Peter 5:6). This enables them to serve even harsh masters (Ephesians 6:5), and it renews their inner hope when their outer bodies are wasting away (2 Corinthians 4:16). In contrast, it is unclear where Shackleton’s source of strength rested. If it was not anchored in God and eternal realities, then it rested on shaky ground.
Shackleton’s approach to leadership was shaped by his culture and worldview. His culture imbued him with a sense of adventure and risk-taking that birthed his leadership in the first place. His perspective on the human spirit and the need for optimism shaped the his understanding and practice of leadership, causing him to focus on morale. In both cases, Shackleton gives the modern leader much to consider, and we would do well to heed the example of such an exemplary leader.
Antarctic explorers: Ernest shackleton. Retrieved from http://www.south-pole.com/p0000098.htm
Kool, M., & Dirk, v. D. (2012). Servant leadership and commitment to change, the mediating role of justice and optimism. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 25(3), 422-433. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/09534811211228139
Kotter, J. (2001). What leaders really do. Harvard Business Review, 79, 85-96. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/227781121?accountid=34777
Koehn, N.F. (2010). Leadership in crisis: Earnest Shackelton and the epic voyage of the Endurance. Harvard Business Review Case Study 9-803-127. May be ordered and purchased from http://hbr.org/product/leadership-in-crisis-ernest-shackleton-and-the-epi/an/803127-PDF-ENG?referral=00161.
NOVA online | Shackleton’s voyage of endurance | Meet the team | PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/shackleton/1914/team.html
Plueddemann, J. (2009). Leading across cultures: Effective ministry and mission in the global church. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic
Read, J. H., & Shapiro, I. (2014). Transforming power relationships: Leadership, risk, and hope. The American Political Science Review, 108(1), 40-53. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S000305541300066X