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Shackleton’s leadership has a message for our times

“I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During 26 years experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic.

“It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted, ‘For God’s sakes, hold on! It’s got us!’ ” — Sir Ernest Shackleton, “South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage”

The account of how Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27-man crew of Antarctic explorers survived being trapped on the ice for nearly two years in one of the most inhospitable regions of the world is a remarkable story of survival, seamanship and leadership.

If you haven’t read the story or viewed the stunning photographs of the 1914-1916 expedition, I suggest you find one of the several excellent books on this grand adventure gone wrong and dig in. It’s more improbable — and riveting — than fiction.

And Shackleton’s desperate 800-mile journey with five others from desolate Elephant Island to South Georgia Island aboard a tiny 22-foot whaleboat is hands-down one of the most noteworthy small-boat passages in maritime history. Click play below for a documentary about the Endurance voyage.

It’s true that Shackleton led his men into this mess at the gale-swept bottom of the world, a region that sparked the old sailor’s adage that “below 40 degrees south there is no law, below 50 degrees no god.”

But rather than a colossal tale of failure, the Shackleton saga has become an almost archetypal story of courage, survival and incredible leadership. Against long odds, not a single man was lost.

Shackleton was able to hold his crew together and adapt to changing conditions — attributes of an effective leader, according to Nancy F. Koehn, a historian and professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.

Koehn reports that the case study she wrote about Shackleton has drawn more interest from executives than any other she has taught. In an essay in The New York Times, Koehn says she was impressed by the explorer’s ability to change and adjust to ever-changing circumstances.

“When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals,” Koehn writes. “He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival. This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.”

She concludes: “Shackleton’s sense of responsibility and commitment came with a great suppleness of means. To get his men home safely, he led them across ice, sea and land with all the tools he could muster. This combination — credible commitment to a larger purpose and flexible, imaginative methods to achieve a goal — is increasingly important in our tumultuous times.”

Koehn’s piece makes for good, instructive reading. The Shackleton story provides a glimpse of the indefatigable, unadorned human spirit at its best. Click here to read Koehn’s piece.

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