Leadership Lessons from Sir Ernest Shackleton

“Difficulties are just things to overcome” – Sir Ernest Shackleton

Sir Ernest Shackleton

The book “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing is probably one of the most profound books I have read, and even though the book is about an explorer, the real value in the story is the great leadership lessons that it imparts. These lessons are as true today as they were then and the world is certainly blessed to have had such a great teacher, through his example, as Sir Ernest Shackleton. Many people today look at modern leaders for inspiration, when in fact the leaders of yesteryear endured significantly more challenges and difficulties than we can ever imagine. The leadership borne from such trials and tribulations is far more genuine and sincere and therefore so much more inspirational.



Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, CVO, OBE (15 February 1874 ? 5 January 1922) was an Anglo-Irish explorer who was one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. His first experience of the polar regions was as third officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition, 1901?04, from which he was sent home early on health grounds. Determined to make amends for this perceived personal failure, he returned to Antarctica in 1907 as leader of the Nimrod Expedition. In January 1909 he and three companions made a southern march which established a record Farthest South latitude at 88°23’S, 97 geographical miles (114 statute miles, 190 km) from the South Pole, by far the closest convergence in exploration history up to that time. For this achievement, Shackleton was knighted by King Edward VII on his return home.

After the race to the South Pole ended in 1912 with Roald Amundsen’s conquest, Shackleton turned his attention to what he said was the one remaining great object of Antarctic journeying?the crossing of the continent from sea to sea, via the pole. To this end he made preparations for what became the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914?17. Disaster struck this expedition when its ship, Endurance, was trapped in pack ice and slowly crushed, before the shore parties could be landed. There followed a sequence of exploits, and an ultimate escape with no lives lost, that would eventually assure Shackleton’s heroic status, although this was not immediately evident. In 1921 he went back to the Antarctic with the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, intending to carry out a programme of scientific and survey activities. Before the expedition could begin this work Shackleton died of a heart attack while his ship, Quest, was moored in South Georgia. At his wife’s request he was buried there.

Away from his expeditions, Shackleton’s life was generally restless and unfulfilled. In his search for rapid pathways to wealth and security he launched many business ventures and other money-making schemes, none of which prospered. His financial affairs were generally muddled; when he died, he owed over £60,000 (more than £1.5 million in 2008 terms). On his death he was lauded in the press, but was thereafter largely forgotten, while the heroic reputation of his rival Scott was sustained for many decades. At the end of the 20th century Shackleton was “rediscovered”, and rapidly became a cult figure, a role model for leadership as one who, in extreme circumstances, kept his team together to accomplish a survival story which polar historian Stephanie Barczewski describes as “incredible”.

read the rest of the Wikipedia article

  • Lesson 1

Be flexible in setting goals. Be prepared to revise and reset objectives as the context changes. Sir Ernest Shackleton was able to give up his long-sought-after goal of reaching the pole and focus on survival by building a foundation for:

  1. Camaraderie
  2. Loyalty
  3. Responsibility
  4. Determination … and above all
  5. Optimism …
  • Lesson 2
Cultivate a sense of compassion and responsibility for others. You have a bigger impact on the lives of those under you than you can imagine.
  • Lesson 3
Find a way to turn setbacks and failures to your advantage. This would be a good time to step forward on your own.
  • Lesson 4
Learn from past mistakes – yours and those made by others. Sometimes the best teachers are the bad bosses and the negative experiences.
  • Lesson 5
Never insist on reaching a goal at any cost. It must be achieved at a reasonable expense, without undue hardship for your staff.
  • Lesson 6
Create a work environment comfortable enough to entice professionals to spend the greater part of their waking hours there. Allow for some personal preferences.
  • Lesson 7
Match the person to the position. Be observant of the types of people who are working for your and what jobs might best suit their personalities as well as their experience.
  • Lesson 8
Give consistent feedback on performance. Most workers feel they don’t get nearly enough words of praise and encouragement.
  • Lesson 9
Be tolerant. Know each employee’s strengths and weaknesses, and set reasonable expectations.
  • Lesson 10
When crisis strikes, immediately address your staff. Take charge of the situation, offer a plan of action, ask for support, and show absolute confidence in a positive outcome.
  • Lesson 11
Plan several options in detail. Get a grasp of the possible consequences of each, always keeping your eye on the big picture.
  • Lesson 12
Defuse tension. In high-stress situations use humor to put people at ease, and keep your staff busy.
  • Lesson 13
Let go of the past. Don’t waste time or energy regretting past mistakes or fretting over what you can’t change.
  • Lesson 14
Be patient. Sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing but watch and wait.
Shackleton Quotes
– Optimism is true moral courage.

– Leadership is a fine thing, but it has its penalties. And the greatest penalty is loneliness.

– A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.

– I have often marveled at the thin line which separates success from failure.

– You often have to hide from them not only the truth, but your feelings about the truth. You may know that the facts are dead against you, but you mustn’t say so.

– If you’re a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you’ve got to keep going.



Lansing, Alfred. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1959.
Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure (April, 2009)  http://main.wgbh.org/imax/shackleton/about.html
The Leadership Institute

Marthinus Strydom

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