Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure black alignment spacer
alignment spacer Shackleton's Leadership Role
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Reenactment image of Shackleton.alignment spacer During the "Heroic Age of Exploration," the period in which Shackleton's 1914-1916 British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition took place, Antarctic expeditions often became ordeals of suffering. At the time, polar explorers were revered for their sacrifices and held up as heroes, albeit often tragic ones.

At this same time, Shackleton distinguished himself as a hero, not only among the masses, but also among the 27 men—officers, scientists and seamen—who were his crew members on the expedition. Shackleton earned the respect of these men, not to mention the respect of millions today, by being a leader who put his men's well-being, both mental and physical, above all else.

Shackleton's extraordinary leadership skills contributed to these 27 men successfully braving the nearly two years they were stranded in the Antarctic, when the expedition ship, the Endurance, was trapped and then crushed in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea.

Shackleton's accomplishment as a leader started with his selection of the Endurance crew. He handpicked some members, including two who had served him faithfully and performed exceptionally on a previous expedition. To recruit the rest, it is said that he posted the following notice:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

Shackleton's recruitment notice was brutally honest about the discomforts and dangers to be faced. When the Endurance crew members indeed encountered all of the above-mentioned conditions, they accepted them as best they could, for they had been forewarned. And they looked to Shackleton, whom they called "The Boss," for guidance about how to survive the elements, both physically and emotionally.

When the Endurance became locked in pack ice, Shackleton ordered the men to pursue every possible means of extricating the ship from the icy jaws of the Weddell Sea, including using ice picks and saws in attempts to reach leads sighted sometimes hundreds of yards away. While these labors were ultimately futile, it was useful to have the men experience this firsthand, so they would neither question their predicament of having to "winter in the pack" nor become bitter with "what ifs," such as "If we had only been allowed to cut our way out of the ice, we'd have reached the Antarctic continent by now."

Shackleton's calm and confidence in the more dire circumstances were heartening to his crew. Commenting on Shackleton's reaction to their inability to free the Endurance from the ice, Alexander Macklin, the ship's doctor, said, "It was at this moment Shackleton...showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not...show...the slightest sign of disappointment. He told us simply and calmly that we would have to spend the winter in the pack."

Shackleton sustained morale and created a unified team by keeping everyone busy—and equal. For example, during the long months in which the crew lived on the Endurance as a winter station, Shackleton ignored the predominant class system of the time and had scientists scrubbing floors alongside seaman and university professors eating beside Yorkshire fisherman.

In addition, Shackleton encouraged more than work-based camaraderie. The men played football on the ice, participated in nightly sing-alongs and toasts to loved ones back home, organized highly competitive dog-sled races—and even collectively shaved their heads, posing for expedition photographer Frank Hurley.

In the few circumstances in which crew members did not subscribe to the teamwork philosophy, such as when seaman John Vincent was reported to be bullying others, Shackleton swiftly reprimanded them, setting an example. Called to Shackleton's cabin, Vincent left it humbled and demoted.

While Shackleton was called "The Boss" by his men, he did not differentiate himself from them. When the crew moved off the debilitated ship to a camp on the ice, Shackleton ensured that neither he nor his officers received preferential treatment.

"There was only 18 skin [sleeping] bags & we cast lots for them," wrote ship's carpenter Chippy McNeish. "I was lucky for the first time in my life for I drew one."

"There was some crooked work in the drawing," able seaman Bakewell wrote, "as Sir Ernest, Mr. Wild...Captain Worsley and some of the other officers all drew wool [sleeping] bags. The fine warm fur bags all went to the men under them."

In addition, in an attempt to help his crew get over the trauma of abandoning the Endurance, Shackleton literally served his men: Rising early in the morning, he made hot milk and hand-delivered it to every tent in the camp.

Shackleton's mantra of unity and show of humanity was infectious. While his men were suffering from the most terrible deprivation, they often rose to his example and showed tremendous compassion for each other. When First Officer Lionel Greenstreet spilled his much-needed milk on the ice, he seemed almost despondent over the loss, and, one by one, the seven men who shared his tent silently poured some of their equally precious ration into his mug, refilling it.

During the brutal, seven-day lifeboat journey to Elephant Island, Shackleton literally stood tall, boosting the morale of his suffering men by standing at the tiller, hour after hour. Later, during the 17-day sail to South Georgia Island, Shackleton monitored the health of his five companions constantly. Captain Frank Worsley later wrote, "Whenever Shackleton notices that a man seems extra cold and shivering, he immediately orders another hot drink served to all." Worsley explained that Shackleton was careful not to single out the man suffering the most, for he would not want to frighten him about his condition.

In the face of changing circumstances and constant danger, Shackleton remained positive and decisive, which buoyed his crew. Further, throughout the 22-month Endurance expedition, Shackleton was able to bring the best in each of his men.

Each crew member contributed to the team's survival, from Captain Frank Worsley, whose exceptional navigation guided the men to both Elephant and South Georgia Islands; to carpenter Chippy McNeish, who reinforced the lifeboats; to cook Charles Green, who created meals day after day with limited resources; to Alexander Macklin and James McIlroy, the two doctors, who saved steward Perce Blackborow from gangrene resulting from frostbite; to second-in-command Frank Wild, who served as leader of the 21 men on Elephant Island after the departure of Shackleton and companions for South Georgia.

Twenty-eight ordinary-turned-extraordinary men, led by Shackleton's example, survived nearly two years of unimaginable hardship at the end of the Earth.

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About the Film
Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition
Shackleton's Leadership Role

Profile of Shackleton's Leadership Example

Interview with Dennis Perkins, Author of Leading at the Edge
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About Antarctica and the Subantarctic
Where to See the Film
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Photo Credits: 1999 WGBH, Photo: Kelly Tyler

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shadow background  2001 WGBH Educational Foundation