Wisdom//

Leading Like Shackleton

How leaders create a culture of loyalty & courage

Alicia Llop/ Getty Images
Alicia Llop/ Getty Images



The men, each seasoned explorers, lay in their battered tent. Outside the Antarctic winds lashed at
them with gale force. They were still days away from their boat, and
they were close to starvation. It was 1908 and Shackleton was the
leader of this daring exhibition to reach the South Pole, then entirely uncharted territory. They had
gone further than anyone before them but had to turn around within
100 miles of their goal. It was suicide to go any further. But the
return trek was just a brutal. They had traversed thousands of miles in
the world’s most inhospitable landscape. Now, they lay in their
tents weak, beaten, and starving. So desperate was their plight they
were had to limit their rations to just one biscuit a day.

One of Shackleton’s men, Frank Wild, was in the worst shape. He
could hardly move. He had eaten his biscuit earlier that day, but it
was not enough. He was in the throes of death by starvation.
Shackleton had not eaten his biscuit that morning, saving it for the
evening, and equally starved. He took it out of his pocket, looked at
it a moment, then at his teammate, and he handed the biscuit to Wild.
It was an act of supreme sacrifice, dedication to his crew, and
acceptance of the duty of true leadership.

Wild would later write in his diary that, “All the money
that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit and the
remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me.”

When team members experience loyalty first, they
give willingly in return

Wild would later join Shackleton on his next exhibition, the
ill-fated Trans-Antarctic Expedition (The Endurance) which is more
remembered and acknowledged by the public, where Shackleton and his
crew were trapped on the ice and fought against the elements for two
years before finally reaching civilization again. Wild was
Shackleton’s second in charge, devoutly loyal, and played a crucial
role in ensuring all members of the crew survived and lived to tell
the tale.

Shackleton was respected greatly as a leader — but it was not
because of his capacity to achieve; instead, it was his willingness
to put his team’s well-being above all, including himself, while
also never giving up his optimism, determination to act with courage,
and perseverance against the odds. He earned loyalty and had the most
capable of explorers and seamen ready to follow him anywhere, no
matter the dangers. He fostered a spirit of loyalty and courage, not
by demanding it, but by demonstrating it through his leadership
first.

Success is not about reaching goals, but how you
play the game

Ernest Shackleton is remembered as the most significant figure of
the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, even though he failed in all
his exhibitions. He never reached any of the ambitious goals he set
out to achieve.

Yet, is success only in the attaining of a goal? Perhaps much more
it is in how one deals with the inevitable setbacks that take place
in the pursuit of a goal. It has been that, “Shackleton
failed only at the improbable; he succeeded in the unimaginable.”

Shackleton himself once explained what was most important to him,
saying, “Life to me is the greatest of all games. The danger
lies in treating it as a trivial game, a game to be taken lightly,
and a game in which the rules don’t matter much. The rules matter a
great deal. The game has to be played fairly or it is no game at all.
And even to win the game is not the chief end. The chief end is to
win it honorably and splendidly.”

Something that all of Shackleton’s crew said of him was that he
was the greatest leader they had served under, bar none. In other
words, Shackleton won the game of life on his terms, honorably and
splendidly. He wasn’t a perfect person — none of us are — but he was an
honorable leader who exemplified loyalty and courage, empowering
those who followed his lead to do likewise.

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