Shackleton's Way

  by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell

Books on Tape Library Edition

The story is amazing, thrilling, and inspiring.  The lessons in leadership are timeless, clear, and inspiring.

As a true adventure story, I suspect the voyage of the Endurance in Antarctic exploration from 1914 to 1916 has few peers and no superiors.  Sir Earnest Shackleton led a group of 27 men on a voyage that saw their ship become ice locked before reaching the continent, forcing them to spend the antarctic winter on the ship.  Then the ice flows began crushing and eventually sank the ship, forcing them to camp on the ice flows with what supplies they could salvage.  

As spring began and the ice started to melt, they had to attempt to reach land in the life boats,  After eight days in freezing spray and sleet and a hurricane, and cold so severe that one man froze in position and had to be massaged by his mates before they could move him, they had to abandon other, more promising goals, and land at desolate, remote Elephant Isle.  From there, they were unlikely to ever see a ship or be rescued.  

Leaving most of the men under his second-in-command, Shackleton took a handful in the best of the boats and set out to sail across 800 miles of antarctic ocean, again battling cold and storms, to reach a whaling station.  Upon reaching the island where it was located, they were forced to land on the opposite side.  Shackleton and two companions then hiked across the unmapped, ice covered interior in a grueling 30-hour ordeal.  They succeeded.  The Norwegian whalers were so overcome, that one reported turning his head and weeping at the sight of their condition, and that night, every one of the men rose and filed by Shackleton's table to shake his and his men's hands.  Without a common language, they managed to express their respect for what these men had accomplished.

Shackleton immediately began attempts to rescue the remainder of his crew from Elephant Isle.  Begging and borrowing ships wherever he could, he launched three attempts.  The first two were thwarted by ice, but the third made it.  He found every one of the crew alive, and, such was the spirit and culture of optimism he had created and nurtured, they were still in good spirits.  Their diaries from the period record observations of appreciation of the beauty of their surroundings, musings on how they were likely better off than the poor in England, enjoyment of rituals and celebrations marking special days, and even a judgment by one that a day was, "the best day of my life"!

Amazing enough standing on its own, the tale of this adventure is even more so when set against the history of Antarctic exploration in those years:  unnecessary deaths through poor leadership, expeditions falling apart in bitter conflict, depression, suicide, and even hints of cannibalism.

This book is more than just an adventure story; it's a look at Shackleton's way of leadership.

C  - Caring

It's been said, "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."  And that would be the first principle of Shackleton's way of leadership.  He cared for the men he led and he showed that caring constantly and personally.  He got to know them individually and constantly thought of the effort from their point of view (see It's Your Ship); put them in the jobs for which each was best suited or that met an individual's needs and anxieties.   He made allowances for their weaknesses, treating each one differently according to his needs (see First Break All the Rules), and personally showed genuine affection and concern for their health and safety.  Whether it was bringing an ill sailor into his cabin, giving him his bed, and personally nursing him back to health, or visiting every tent, every day, even during blizzards to check on how the men were doing, his care and concern for the men was so constant and copious that, in some cases, they began to take it for granted.  But none ever doubted it, and this was the foundation for the trust they gave him, the trust which served as the basis for his leadership.

O - Optimism

Shackleton believed in optimism, lived it, selected the crew for it, talked about it, and praised crew members when they showed it.  Optimism became the culture so that the men continued to keep their spirits up through five months on Elephant Isle.  It had become the culture of the group and, I suspect, a source of personal strength and hope for each man.   Shackleton noted that the two pessimists in the group, whom he took with him in the boat to the whaling station, at least partially to keep them from "poisoning" the group left behind, were the two who ended that trip incapacitated and unable to help themselves, much less others.

C - Comfort

Perhaps this was just a part of the "caring", but it occupied such an important place in Shackleton's dealings with the crew that I think it deserves separate emphasis.  He focused on their comfort, and especially on their food.  He did not see special treats as a luxury, much less plenty of nutritious, well-prepared food.  Rather, it was necessary for their health, mental condition, and optimum performance.  He encouraged them to make the ship, then their huts on the ice, then tents, as comfortable (and personal) as possible.  And, when they had to abandon nearly everything to get off the ice in the boats, he encouraged one man to keep the banjo on which he was particularly gifted and which all the men appreciated to use to keep up their spirits.

Shackleton's concern for the comfort of his crew extended to the equipment he purchased.  He always got the best he could.  He wanted their jobs to be as easily accomplished as possible.  Rather, he tried to supply the best tools available.  Again, this was part of his caring and respect for his crew, but it took a special role.    

O - Organization

Finally, Shackleton led through organization.  And, again, he cared through organization.  He made sure to establish a routine and tasks for each man that he made sure they understood were important to the ultimate goal.  Even as the goal of the expedition was first delayed, then ultimately became simple survival, Shackleton was always thinking ahead, with multiple plans and options, and even the details considered.  And at each transition, he established a new routine, gave important tasks to each man that fit his strengths.

Application to Schools and School Systems:  

Taken broadly, to include political and community leadership as well as the more formal employer/employee relationship (Shackleton was called "the Boss"), school systems are full of leaders.  Teachers lead students to engage in work.  Coaches lead teams.  Principals lead faculties, parents, and students.  Central office administrators lead (and serve) principals and teachers, community participants, and parents.  School board members lead the superintendent.

How are you caring for those you attempt to lead?  How do you show it?  Do they know you care?  Are you providing special nurturing for the ill or hurting?  Do you lead with a deep awareness of the idiosyncratic needs and foibles of your followers, and do you adjust accordingly?

Are you optimistic?  Why should you be optimistic?  Do you look for, talk about, and promote optimism in those you lead?

Are you caring for the comfort of those you lead?  Are you making their environment as comfortable and cheerful as possible?  Do you supply the best tools possible to make their work as easy and productive as you can?

Are you organized?  Do you provide structure and meaning to the work you assign to those you lead?  Do you make sure they understand the importance of that work to the overall task?