Make Shackleton’s Way Your Way

Book review of Margot Morell and Stephanie Capparell’s Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antarctic Explorer. N.Y.: Viking, 2001.

On difficult days, I remind myself that I am not a doctor or a police officer; nobody’s life depends on my work; relax. (An important note: I don’t work in a medical or legal library. A colleague who worked at the AIDS Library, on the other hand, was once asked over the phone how to clean a hypodermic needle.) No matter the job, we all have challenges that may require all of our wits and grace.

In 1914-1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton led his crew to safety after being shipwrecked in Antarctica without any means of communication or rescue. Many of his contemporaries fared far worse. Captain Charles Hall’s North Pole expedition was so contentious that his crew poisoned him. Arctic explorer Aldolphus Greely lost nineteen of twenty-five men to starvation, and the crew of North Pole explorer Admiral Robert Peary accused him of brutality that led to two suicides. Shackleton, in contrast, maintained the morale, health and lives of his entire crew in an unexplored, hostile and desolate environment. Shackleton regretted never writing a book about leadership; here authors Morell and Capparell do an excellent job in describing his challenges and solutions.

Some days, our own work places may feel hostile or desolate. In these times of thinly stretched budgets, every day can bring new crises. Since Shackleton led his crew to survival in the Antarctic, we can use his advice to navigate own ice floes, shipwrecks and bitterly cold journeys. There are many parallels between his challenges and our own.

Staffing

Long before it was fashionable, Shackleton understood the importance of hiring for character traits like optimism and a strong work ethic. “Science or seamanship weighs little against the kind of chaps they were,” he said. Like many of our workplaces, there were personality conflicts. The crew was diverse in social class, occupation and temperament. He wittily described two rival factions as “the A.B.s and the B.A.s”: the able-bodied seamen and the Bachelors of Arts who conducted scientific research. Each faction thought itself superior to the other. By demonstrating scrupulous fairness, leading by example and personally completing difficult and less desirable tasks, Shackleton was able to bring his crew together. Getting to know his workers personally, as well as rotating teams so people worked alongside different colleagues, proved to be essential for thriving in the harrowing conditions they faced.

Morale

So you think you have morale problems? Try being at the bottom of the world, in a nearly dark Antarctic winter, with a cold so bitter your clothes freeze to your skin. In February 1915, one day away from their destination, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was immobilized in ice. Several months later, huge ice floes shifted against the ship, cracking its beams. The team fled the floundering ship for the only shelter available: three lifeboats. Shackleton ordered the men to abandon non-essentials, and set the example by dumping into the snow his watch and 50 gold sovereigns. He brought the banjo, however, deeming it “vital mental medicine.”

Riding an ice flow like a giant raft, the crew dragged their lifeboats across its slippery cold terrain, sleeping in tents pitched above the lifeboats and trekking toward open water. Food was rationed and in time, the alcohol ran out. Yet “The Boss” (as his men called him) knew the importance of humor and celebrations. He acknowledged birthdays and holidays. Every Saturday night, they kept a traditional sailors’ custom, toasting their wives and sweethearts: “To our sweethearts and wives, may they never meet!”

Fairness

For Shackleton, leading meant fairness and self-sacrifice. He once offered his own gloves to the bare-handed photographer. The photographer at first refused the offer but relented when Shackleton threatened to throw the gloves overboard. Shackleton nursed a difficult crewman to health with the same dedication he showed to his team-players and leaders. He rotated the seating beside the stove so everyone had his turn at the warmest seat. Toward the end of their journey, he took the late night watch, refusing to wake the assigned crewman: “You boys are tired and need all the sleep you can get.”

Following each chapter of Morrell’s and Capparell’s riveting history is a section called “Working It In.” Each “Working It In” profiles an industry leader who followed Shackleton’s example. Astronaut James Lovell shares the distinction of commanding another “successful failure”—the scrapped moon visit on the disastrous Apollo 13 flight. “I think [Shackleton] took the same attitude we took on Apollo 13: You have to look forward as long as there is a chance,” Lovell reflected. Eric Miller is senior advisor for an investment bank. Shackleton’s Endurance saga inspired him in his own workforce, where he admires Shackleton’s team-building: “He was able to join in and participate in both fun and labor without the sacrifice of authority and respect.” Harvard Business School graduate Luke O’Neill named his nonprofit school network Shackleton Schools. In a Wall Street Journal interview, he summed up the approaches he had adapted from Shackleton: “Never give up, don’t be afraid to lead, follow your gut and remember, it’s about people.”

Additional inter-chapter sections called “Shackleton’s Way” include bulleted lists of leadership concepts from each preceding chapter. These reminders dot my office: “Create a work environment comfortable enough to entice professionals to spend the greater part of their waking hours there” and “Most workers feel they don’t get nearly enough words of praise and encouragement.” The authors skillfully distill Shackleton’s attitude into tips we can all learn from.

Shackleton called the ordeal “the most nightmarish of nightmares.” The trials and triumphs of each step in their two-year struggle are best discovered by each reader. Whether you are looking for quick management tips, leadership examples from many fields or a thoroughly engrossing adventure yarn, Shackleton’s Way is the book for you.