Series: Four Ways You Can Be That Lucky Leader People Want to Follow

Link to podcast episode: EL 32: How to Be an Enduring Leader: “Give Me Shackleton Every Time” | Marty Lahey

JESSE LAHEY: Welcome to the show, Leaders! When the going gets tough, will your team stick with you? Or will they abandon ship? Great leaders are able to endure and keep their people engaged through the bad times as well as the good. Today we’ll be discussing the true story of Ernest Shackleton’s endurance expedition, which is perhaps history’s greatest adventure story and has become one of today’s most often cited examples of great leadership.

In late 1914, the already famous explorer Ernest Shackleton set out with a crew of 27 to pass through the South Pole and cross the Antarctic continent. But even before they reached Antarctica, their ship became trapped in a mobile ice flow and eventually was crushed by the ice. They had no radio contact and World War I had just started, so the rest of the world forgot about them and no one came to rescue them. It took nearly 3 years of struggling through extreme cold, including the winter months where they lived in mostly darkness before Shackleton could bring his crew to safety. Yet, he saved all 27 of them.

His enduring leadership was so powerful that when Shackleton later organized another dangerous expedition, many of the same crew members were quick to sign up with him. The conversation you’ll hear on this episode takes place in a much less hostile environment just after a much more enjoyable endurance event.

My dad Marty and I were in southern Florida to race in a half marathon. Afterwards, reflecting on our endurance event led us to discuss the leadership lessons from Shackleton’s endurance expedition. Now as long time listeners of the engaging leader know, Dad and I approach these issues from different perspectives that make for an interesting dynamic. My background is in leadership communication and Dad’s is in finance and operations based on his experience as a CFO for a few organizations and more recently for the past 10 years as owner of a restaurant and catering business.

In this conversation, we discussed 4 lessons we learned from Shackleton about being an enduring leader. Several of the insights we share are from a bestselling book by Caroline Alexander and a podcast interview by Nancy Kane from Harvard Business School. At the end of our show, I’ll show you how you can access those resources.

MARTY LAHEY: The months continued to go by. The winter came and went and even though summer came, the ice didn’t let up. They still were stuck on the ice. Eventually they were able to get to enough open water to get into 3 life boats and were able to set a course for the closest land they could find and ended up landing at Elephant Island.

JESSE: Uninhabited. Completely desolate; very much a blizzardy place – not a place where you could sustain life for very long. In fact, Shackleton realized within the first 36 hours that they had to get off of that island pretty quickly and he informed his men immediately that he was going to choose 5 shipmates who would take one of the lifeboats and make it seaworthy as best they could. So Shackleton sets off in an open boat with 5 other guys at this point – it’s pretty much hopeless; this is a complete hail Mary – but he’s got to do his best to save his men because they’ve been gone for months; they have zero contact with civilization. There’s no radio contact, of course they don’t have GPS. They have basic instrumentation (they’re using a sextant). They were going to try to go attempt 800 miles and land at South Georgia Island which is the closest inhabited island. It’s almost hopeless in the blizzardy weather.

MARTY: This is a 22 foot boat that they’ve stretched and sort of simulated a lower and upper deck so they have some cover underneath so they could take turns “sleeping” if you can imagine. No power other than a single-masted sail and some oars.

JESSE: It’d take a little over two weeks and amazingly, thanks to the whole crew and especially thanks to the captain of The Endurance (Worsley) who became the navigator on this little boat, they made it. They landed on South Georgia Island. The people were on the opposite side of the island and the coastline was too treacherous to sail around and the island had never been navigated by people on foot. There was no trail or anything that people had ever crossed, so Shackleton chose two guys to go with them and they made the first ever crossing of this island. They went over mountain ranges; they got turned back by certain ranges where there was no pass. It took them about 36 hours straight to cross this island and they finally made it to a camp on the other side where they were taken in and fed and brought to health. Then Shackleton immediately started the work of going back to rescue the rest of his crew on Elephant Island.

He tried again and again… It was very difficult to procure ships that could make that crossing and that could go through ice. Most ships and resources were being consumed in World War I so there was not much interest in helping him and he repeatedly was turned back by too much ice in the way. It actually took 5 months to make it to Elephant Island and rescue the remaining 20-some men that were there. But he made it and he succeeded in rescuing all of his men; there was not a single life lost.

MARTY: It’s just an incredible tale of dogged determination and perseverance and he just seemed at many points on the trek home that he really feared one enemy, and that one enemy was loss of hope or any though of quitting. It just seemed like it was always the leadership of Shackleton and the optimism of Worsley and the expertise of all these guys who were some of the best sailors in the world with the technology they had at the time. But against every odd, the one thing they always had in their favor is they had the hope and the leadership to persevere and to make it. This is really a testimony to some great endurance and leadership and we wanted to cover what we thought were 4 major themes that weave through this whole story of The Endurance and Ernest Shackleton.

JESSE: That’s right. The 4 keys to enduring leadership as demonstrated by Shackleton and the first one is actually a repeat of something we talked about last time in episode 031 which is focus on one goal at a time. One of the reasons why this is so important is that, as you mentioned they had one big challenge which was the sense of hopelessness; to have the clarity and the energy to focus on a single goal at a time was extremely powerful for Shackleton.

Of course, when he started the mission, his goal was to pass through the South Pole and cross the Antarctic continent and do it all safely. We saw that he had a history of putting safety first over achievement. Safety was definitely a part of that goal, but he had this grand mission which was all about fame and glory and scientific endeavor, but it was to accomplish that; go through the South Pole and get all the way across the continent.

But then when he realized that they were not going to meet that goal, he shifted over to a new goal but there was always only one goal at a time. The new goal became to save all these men; get all these men home safely and over and over again, he didn’t want to lose a single one. That was 100% his focus and his men totally trusted him to make that happen.

MARTY: Yeah, he almost changed on a dime when he realized that the ice owned the ship and that he realized that the mission had all the sudden changed and his goal of getting men back was almost an extreme way in which he approached it. He was constantly looking out for the needs of the men; a lot of times the emotional needs of the men, other times physical.

JESSE: I think as leaders it’s extremely difficult but necessary to get a laser focus on a single goal and in my coaching of so many business leaders, this is one of the toughest things to do because as leaders we see so many challenges and opportunities and we see that we don’t want to give up or lose that opportunity and we don’t want to let that challenge overtake us. This is important and of course that’s important and of course that’s important and as leaders since we see everything; it’s almost a little bit easier to still recognize but say, ‘Yes, that’s more important,” and there’s, in a nuanced way, this is the priority but it’s less important.

But when you communicate to your people, they don’t see everything that we do and it ends up being a jumble of confusion. Even though Shackleton had one big goal, that’s what he communicated and that’s what he had everybody hoping with. He recognized smaller objectives that needed to happen to meet that goal. That was something that he managed within himself but he made it very clear to his men ‘We’re going to get home safe.’

Everything was subservient to that one goal. So things like managing their food supply – the guy that was in charge of that – to him that molehill was a mountain. That guy was always fussing over how much food they had left and he was counting it over and over again and he would be bothered when Shackleton would say, ‘It’s Christmas! Let’s break open the fun food and make this festive,’ and that really bothered the guy, but Shackleton, although he was mindful of making sure that their food lasted, he recognized the importance of making a special occasion matter. He kept the big goal of getting all these guys home safely and a big part of that was managing this danger of hopelessness. That was the worst thing that could happen is that they would become hopeless.

A second major key that Shackleton understood to being an enduring leader was emotional intelligence. For example, he was afraid of what they were going through. There were some terrifying circumstances that were going on. In addition, a lot of times his men were acting inappropriately; they were raising a potential mutiny against him, questioning his leadership; some of them were becoming fearful or panicky. Instead of reacting to those, he responded in an appropriate way. So he managed the energy. He saw himself as the energy leader for that group.

MARTY: It was almost like a doting father at times. There was a time when he could really see the men pushed to a breaking point and he would just order that they make a bunch of hot chocolate and share it or an extra ration of some special not mixture that was kind of their treat.

JESSE: It sounds simple, but recognizing the importance that food can have and I think that men in particular don’t always appreciate that food can make a difference (not to sound sexist here) and serving appropriate foods, whether to celebrate something or in his case – serving a warm food when everyone was cold and miserable – made all the difference in the world.

Another example of things that he did that maybe a lot of leaders wouldn’t have thought to do was to create certain activities. One thing, for example, every crew member every single day had certain tasks that they were responsible for. They were just in a camp on the ice, surely those chores weren’t all that important, but he found chores for them to do every day and held them responsible so they had to be active. They also felt that their work was important to the team and so they felt needed. There wasn’t anybody – again, this was just keeping people from falling into that trap of hopelessness.

MARTY: Give them a purpose in every day of their life there.

JESSE: Right. In addition to those daily tasks that they had to do, he organized recreational activities. There were sports that were going on; they played soccer out on the ice. He had guys that were out exploring the ice. He had guys that were responsible for taking care of their dogs. They had skits in the evenings; he had certain guys that were responsible for playing music. So he organized a lot of those types of events that I think many of us leaders are so focused on ‘let’s get this done; let’s get this done’ that we forget that we also need to be responsible to be the energy leaders and that just required emotional intelligence.

One other aspect of emotional intelligence, I think: he recognized some of the pitfalls that were happening. You know the old phrase, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” He didn’t just keep his friends around him; he recognized certain people that were potential trouble makers. There was one guy who was a bully; Shackleton made sure he kept that guy close to him. There was the guy that we talked about earlier who came very close to a mutiny who was a carpenter and he, from then on, kept that carpenter very close to him once he won the initial confrontation that could have been a mutiny. He kept that guy close to him and he gave him special assignments to sort of manage that guy’s energy and diffuse any potential negative energy.

The third key we want to talk about is perseverance. We know from the name of his ship, The Endurance, that this was a concept that was important to him, in fact it was his family motto. When he found a worthy goal he just wouldn’t give up.

MARTY: He was a – just dogged pursuit – again, and other than the feared enemy of hopelessness, it almost seemed that there was no obstacle that they just didn’t ultimately overcome when you just thought that the odds were so against them. When I think of when they were the first humans to cross south Georgia – 3 or 4 times they would advance up this very slippery slope for a long time only to get to the top and realize they had to backtrack because there was nowhere to go after that, and when you think that surely after the second time that they were just going to lay down and die. These guys were pushed beyond anything you could possibly imagine, yet they just keep going on. There’s really nothing that can stop them other than hopelessness and they’re not going to allow that to happen.

JESSE: Put yourself in the place of the 22 men who were left back on Elephant Island. It’s practically impossible that they would even make it to Elephant Island and yet here they are and now their leader has gone off and said, ‘I’m going to travel in an open boat for 800 miles in the treacherous stormy wintery sea in darkness and I hope we’re going to land on this tiny dot of an island and we’re going to bring back help for you guys.’ Now I would think that was an entirely hopeless situation that, most likely ‘the 6 guys in the boat are going to die, or if they do make it, they’re going to save themselves… they’re not going to put themselves back in the danger and come get me… they’re going to forget all about me because most guys would.’

But at this point Shackleton had already proven himself again and again and again to persevere, to endure, to keep going after that one goal. So these 22 guys still trusted him. They did not lose hope. They waited month after month after impossible month. 5 months goes by – it was only a 2 week trip, and yet they didn’t give up hope. When he finally arrived, they were still looking for him on the beach every day; they were watching for him. It’s just amazing. Think what would happen if in our businesses and our non-profit organizations and the other teams that we lead… if people knew that once we had identified and communicated a worthy goal that we were not going to give up no matter what.

MARTY: They couldn’t even conceive of him not making it, probably, because they know the guy was just so absolutely determined and focused to do what he said he was going to do – just an amazing guy. What’s the fourth key?

JESSE: The last key we’re going to look at today is the courage to change. It almost sounds like a contradiction to what we just said about persevering and enduring.

MARTY: There were so many times that people had hope because they believed that Shackleton knew the right thing to do next. That he had an idea of how this was all going to work out. He’s the leader; he sees all of the variables, so they trusted him. There would be times when he would be going down a certain path and he ultimately realized it was a mistake, now some leaders are going to sit there and think, ‘Wow, if I go… I’m going to try to make this somehow work so people don’t lose confidence in my ability.’ It takes a certain amount of courage to say, “You know what? We’re going to backtrack here. I figured this wrong. This is not the right way to go; we’re going to go over here,” and still be able to pull off that confidence that your men have to have in you because, once again, the enemy of hopelessness is just lurking.

JESSE: One of his big mistakes was he moved their camp on the ice. They had set up for themselves a pretty safe, comfortable camp that would have allowed them to continue to exist for months and at some point he just got really antsy and thought “let’s make a go of it” even though they had already proven themselves that they were unable to move their gear because, even though they had brought sled dogs with them, they had not actually prepared.

One of his even earlier mistakes was he didn’t actually have any crew that was truly trained in managing sled dogs, so the dogs were just worthless and ended up being pets, which was helpful to a certain extent, but basically they were consuming resources.

They had proven that they couldn’t actually move their gear; they tried and tried for a few days and only managed to go a couple miles, so they set up camp, made themselves comfortable. Several weeks went by and for some reason Shackleton said ‘You know what? I think that the conditions have shifted and now we can make a go and we can push on and get to land ourselves by pulling all these sleds over ice and our life boats over ice.’ So they tried and tried it for a couple days. Again, they only went a few miles and now they were farther away from all their gear that they had left back on the original camp and it was too far to go back and it was too far to get that prior gear, so now they were stuck in a less favorable spot with less gear. It was a big mistake; the men knew it.

They knew it was a mistake when they were leaving; half of them were against going, but he was their leader. So he made mistakes and all leaders make mistakes. But, number one, he owned his mistakes; he owned the situation and he owned the outcome. He didn’t let himself dwell in that failure. He said, ‘Ok, well that didn’t work… now we’re going to do this.’ He wasn’t just taking off in a direction thoughtlessly. He was a man of thoughtful action, but he had the courage the change when it was necessary and so they trusted him to do that.

When they landed on Elephant Island, there’s a phrase called “showing the math” that gets talked a lot about. Do you remember back in your algebra years of school – they would teach you how to solve an algebra problem and if you took a test and you got the answer wrong, but if they saw that you were on the right track when you worked it out they might give you partial credit. So that became known as “showing the math.” When a leader does that to a certain extent and, in other words, you’re communicating ‘I think we’re going to go this way; I’m still kind of working out the details, but these are the factors that we’re thinking about. But I’ve got these emotional issues and you probably are thinking the same thing’ it increases your credibility as a leader.

Basically within 24 hours of landing on Elephant Island he acknowledged, ‘Boys, we’re not in a very good spot here… we’re going to move over there’ and they got over there and they found that it really wasn’t any better and he said ‘well boys, then we’ve got to get off this island, so here’s what I’m thinking’ and he started to outline this plan of 6 of them going off in a life boat. It took a couple more days to get that plan fully together and get the boat ready, so he kept sharing with them ‘this is what we’re currently planning’ so he had the courage to change and he had the courage to show the math as he went along and so his men trusted him. They got the context. They didn’t feel like he was making changes just on the spot or without proper strategy behind it.

MARTY: Well, Jesse, as far as the whole journey goes, I think another thing that Caroline writes about that shows a lot of insight: she says, “The mystique that Shackleton acquired as a leader may partly be attributed to the fact that he elicited from his men strength and endurance they had never imagined they possessed; he ennobled them.” One of the things they say about a good leader.

JESSE: Absolutely. His expedition was a failure to meet its original goal of getting to the South Pole and then crossing the Antarctic. He did meet his primary goal of saving all the men, however, there was not a single life lost. A few years later, he organized another expedition to Antarctica and it’s noteworthy that many of that crew came from this very crew that was on The Endurance with him. So these men, even though that expedition was such a flop, they saw him as an enduring leader and they wanted to be a part of what he was doing. That type of legacy that Shackleton left was known far and wide and even known to the crew of other expeditions.

In fact, one of Scott’s team (we talked about Scott on our last episode) on the Terra Nova expedition, which was not the one where Scott died but a prior one, his name was Apsley Cherry-Garrard, he wrote this: “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.” If you want to make a leader who is going to do everything it takes for the sake of the team, not just meeting the goal, but who actually cares about the team, Shackleton is the guy you want.

These were the 4 keys that we looked at today for how to be an enduring leader.

#1 Focus on One Goal at a Time

#2 Emotional Intelligence

#3 Perseverance

#4 The Courage to Change

Link to podcast episode: EL 32: How to Be an Enduring Leader: “Give Me Shackleton Every Time” | Marty Lahey