Leading Through Crisis – What Ernest Shackleton Can Teach Us About the COVID Pandemic
In January 1915, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship became trapped in ice near Antarctica. For the next two years, he kept his crew of 27 men alive on a drifting ice cap, before leading them to safety. In this article I will walk you through Shackleton’s leadership during their struggle to survive. I will also highlight some key lessons in team building and cultivating empathy that might help us navigate the current crisis we are in. As I was growing up, Ernest Shackleton was one of my childhood heroes. My interest in historical adventures, including Shackleton's, is a natural result of my mother being a history teacher and my father (who is also my best friend) an eager sailor. Today I want to focus on Shackleton’s leadership traits that are particularly relevant to our pandemic times. In 1914, Shackleton had a bold and potentially history-making goal: he and his team of 27 would be the first to walk across the continent of Antarctica. It would be the ultimate adventure in polar exploration. Unfortunately, they never made it to mainland Antarctica. After a six-day gale in January 1915, Shackleton's ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice in the Weddell Sea. It would then drift stuck in the ice for ten months — with Shackleton and his men living aboard. Shackleton instinctively understood the importance of teamwork, and threw a protective cloak around his men. All were treated equally and he took particular care with anyone struggling to cope. When winter clothing was distributed, Shackleton ensured the crew was supplied before the officers. Everyone shared supplies, sailors took scientific measurements and scientists would share cleaning duties with the crew and with Shackleton himself. Shackleton feared the potential effects of idleness and despair among his men more than he did the ice or cold. The picture below was taken mid-February 1915, after the men had tried to release Endurance from the ice one last time, but had to finally accept they were stuck as the cold and dark Antarctic winter approached. To maintain morale, Shackleton had the crew exercise on the ice, play soccer, and participate in indoor games. After dinner, the sleeping quarters in the hold — which they mockingly called “The Ritz” — were used to stage parties, games, and some other unusual competitions. In April 1916, after Endurance had finally been crushed by ice, Shackleton decided to set out in search of help. He made a dangerous 800-mile journey north using one of the lifeboats and taking three of his most experienced sailors. After almost sinking the lifeboat due to the weight of the accumulated ice, he finally reached inhabited land and in August that year was able to save all 28 men (himself included). When fame and glory called, Shackleton put his crew's safety first. On returning home from one of his first attempts to reach the South Pole, when his wife Emily asked why he had turned back with the Pole so close, Shackleton simply said: “I thought you would prefer a live donkey to a dead lion.” — an answer I always found fitting.