Jeffrey Bunn

Shackleton's lessons on leadership

February 08, 2018

Earnest Shackleton was an Irish explorer that led three expeditions to the Antarctic between 1901 - 1921.

Earnest Shackleton

His 1914-1917 expedition was a disaster, with his ship Endurance getting stuck in the ice floes and eventually crushed. For over two years he and his crew survived on the ice floes until the floes eventually disintegrated, forcing Shackleton and his team to take their three salvaged lifeboats into the open sea. Against all odds, every single member of Endurance survived their ordeal, with life-threatening situations playing out almost constantly.

Shackleton has become renowned for his leadership skills, detailed in-depth in several books written about the expedition. I read Endurance - Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, and it completely sucked me in. It contains diary entries from the crew and Shackleton himself, photos of the crew and doomed ship, and a stranger-than-fiction true story that kept me on the edge of my seat.

I dog-eared many pages of this book and extracted lessons that I added to my commonplace book. The following are three key lessons on leadership that stuck with me.

Shackleton’s lessons on leadership

1 - Sacrifice total preparedness for speed

Launching the James Caird Endurance

The work of packing the sledges continued the next day, and in the afternoon Shackleton called all hands together into the centre of the circle of tents. His face was grave. He explained it was imperative that all weight be reduced to the barest minimum. Each man, he said, would be allowed the clothes on his back, plus two pairs of mittens, six pairs of socks, two pairs of boots, a sleeping bag, a pound of tobacco—and two pounds of personal gear. Speaking with the utmost conviction, Shackleton pointed out that no article was of any value when weighed against their ultimate survival, and he exhorted them to be ruthless in ridding themselves of every unnecessary ounce, regardless of its value.

After he had spoken, he reached under his parka and took out a gold cigarette case and several gold sovereigns and threw them into the snow at his feet.

Then he opened the Bible Queen Alexandra had given them and ripped out the flyleaf and the page containing the Twenty-third Psalm. He also tore out the page from the Book of Job with this verse on it:

Out of whose womb came the ice?

And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it?

The waters are hid as with a stone.

And the face of the deep is frozen.

Then he laid the Bible in the snow and walked away. It was a dramatic gesture, but that was the way Shackleton wanted it. From studying the outcome of past expeditions, he believed that those that burdened themselves with equipment to meet every contingency had fared much worse than those that had sacrificed total preparedness for speed.

Whether it’s a life and death situation like Shackleton found himself in, or just simple business, speed is of vital importance. From Mark Zuckerberg’s famous early Facebook slogan, “Move fast and break things”, to Reid Hoffman’s “If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late”, to General George Patton’s “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan executed next week”, one should always seek to avoid getting bogged down (by too many decision-makers, a lack of focus, or in Shackleton’s case - too many supplies) and moving too slowly. Get your idea/product/plan out into the world and iterate quickly based on feedback/changing conditions.

2 - Understand your team & sacrifice for unity

Crew of the Endurance

The presence of Frank Hurley at this high-level meeting about the food situation had special significance. He was invited, not because of his Antarctic experience—there were several others, such as Alf Cheetham or Tom Crean, who were much more knowledgable—but because Shackleton did not want to antagonize him. The incident revealed one of Shackleton’s basic traits.

Though he was virtually fearless in the physical sense, he suffered an almost pathological dread of losing control of the situation. In part, this attitude grew out of a consuming sense of responsibility. He felt he had gotten them into their situation, and it was his responsibility to get them out. As a consequence, he was intensely watchful for potential troublemakers who might nibble away at the unity of the group. Shackleton felt that if dissension arose, the party as a whole might not put forth that added ounce of energy which could mean, at a time of crisis, the difference between survival and defeat. Thus he was prepared to go to almost any length to keep the party close-knit and under his control.

This reminded me of a recent article by Dharmesh Shah, titled What Elon Musk Taught Me About Growing A Business. It’s excellent. The gist is that the skills of your team (obviously) matters, but just as important is the direction they’re heading. Are they committed to the mission? Do they know what they’re working for, and do they have the same goals? And most importantly, are the members of your team all going in the same direction?

When trying to solve hard problems, interpersonal unity matters. As a leader, pushing for unity and solving problems that get in the way of a unified team of a key part of the role.

3 - Perpetual friction > rare ‘blow-ups’

Endurance Crew playing soccer

There was, on the whole, an astounding absence of serious antagonisms, considering the conditions under which they were attempting to exist. Possibly it was because they were in a state of almost perpetual minor friction. Arguments rambled on the whole day through, and they served to let off a great deal of steam which might otherwise have built up. In addition, the party had been reduced to an almost classless society in which most of them felt free to speak their minds, and did. A man who stepped on another man’s head trying to find his way out at night was treated to the same abuse as any other, regardless of what his station might once have been.

Whether it’s in short, harmless bursts, or a long, harmful explosion, the steam will come out. Problems will always make themselves known. It’s vitally important to have open communication and for everyone to feel that they can say what they need to say. And that communicating issues and problems won’t be met with punishment; rather, that being honest and seeking to solve a problem - even if it’s tough to say - will be encouraged and met with appreciation.

This goes for work relationships, romantic relationships, familial relationships and friendships. Constant communication is the key to depth, and depth is a prerequisite to a meaningful relationship.


Shackleton was an incredible leader - there’s no doubt about it. But the stress of leading his crew to safety took a toll on his health. He seemed to be always stressed, always calculating, always in charge. He earned the respect of his men and the glory of leading them to safety - as it’s him I’m writing about; not any of his (mostly) admirable crew. But he earned these accolades at a great personal cost, and I can’t help but wonder if the price he paid could have been less.

Is a top-down leadership approach, like Shackleton’s, the best? Was it the only leadership strategy that could have worked in such desperate straits? Was any other approach even feasible for a 1914 Royal Navy sailor?

Top-down is celebrated even today; we glorify single leaders that raise up companies and movements almost single-handedly. But I recently read another true-story book on leadership that suggests a different approach - leader-leader instead of leader-follower. I’ll write about this approach in a future post.

For now, here’s a pithy, fitting quote from the man himself, Earnest Shackleton:

Difficulties are just things to overcome after all.