Leadership against all odds: Every officer should know the story of Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton’s guidance and perseverance under unimaginable conditions can be emulated by all fire officers


History can provide some important lessons for fire service leaders. One name from history that every fire officer should know is Ernest Shackleton.

By 1914, Ernest Shackleton was already a national hero in Great Britain. In 1909, he led an expedition that reached within 100 miles of the South Pole, the closest anyone had gotten to this last great prize of exploration on the planet. Members of the expedition also did the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the highest point on the continent. When Shackleton returned to England, he was knighted for his achievements.          

After Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911, Shackleton turned his sights to being the first to lead a transcontinental expedition across Antarctica via the South Pole. So Shackleton and his crew of 27 men headed south in the latter part of 1914. To say that things did not go as planned is beyond understatement.

Launch of the James Caird from the shore of Elephant Island.
Launch of the James Caird from the shore of Elephant Island. (Photo/Wikipedia)

An unimaginable expedition

Their ship, the Endurance, became encased in pack ice just one day from reaching land. They drifted north in the ice for 10 months through the southern hemisphere winter, still hopeful that they could resume their journey when the ice broke up in the spring. However, the spring thaw led to large ice blocks crushing and sinking their ship.           

They lived on the shifting and diminishing ice pack for more than four months until they were finally forced to put all 28 men into three lifeboats, the largest of which was 22 feet long. They were at sea for six days before finally landing on desolate and uninhabited Elephant Island. Crewmembers were exhausted, hungry and dehydrated, and suffering from illness and injury, including severe frostbite. One member had a heart attack. They were hundreds of miles from any other human being, and no one knew where they were.

Realizing that all would die unless they attempted to self-rescue, Shackleton refitted one of the lifeboats for an open ocean crossing, chose five men to accompany him, and set out to reach South Georgia Island, 720 miles away, where there was a whaling station. The boat journey took more than two weeks across the roughest sea on the planet, in winter. It has never been repeated under similar conditions.

The men landed on South Georgia in a storm, which forced them to the uninhabited south shore. At that point, Shackleton and two others crossed the island on foot, over 10,000-plus-foot glaciated peaks, with no mountaineering equipment and no map. The island was not mapped until decades later, and the next successful crossing of the interior took place in the 1950s by experienced and equipped mountaineers.

Shackleton and the other men reached the whaling station after two days of nonstop trekking over 36 miles and immediately launched a rescue mission for the others left behind. Because of winter ice conditions, it took more than four months for a ship to reach Elephant Island.

In the end, all 28 men survived this ordeal. And not just survived – all the men were in relatively good health and still working together effectively.

Emulating Shackleton’s perseverance, leadership

Their survival was no accident. It was a function of leadership against great odds. Shackleton was not perfect, and he made mistakes, but when it really counted, he knew exactly what was necessary to survive. It was a tribute to his leadership that on his final voyage before his death in 1922, eight of the crew members from Endurance were with him on that last expedition.           

What did Shackleton do that fire officers can emulate?           

Pick the right crew: First, Shackleton knew how to choose and manage a crew. All his selections did not work out as he hoped, but his first officer, Frank Wild, was someone he trusted implicitly and to whom he delegated power and authority. It was Wild’s leadership on Elephant Island that is largely responsible for that group’s survival in extremely harsh conditions.           

Identify skill sets: Shackleton treated his crewmembers as individuals, recognizing diverse needs and abilities. He freely changed up assigned roles as needed. For example, the original ship captain, Frank Worsley, proved to be an ineffective leader but a superb navigator. This became his new function, and he was instrumental in making the successful crossing to South Georgia Island.

Be inclusive: Shackleton insisted on full and equal inclusion of all crewmembers, no matter what. There were some crewmembers that others did not particularly like from the beginning. Shackleton made a point of fully including them, even as he himself did not much like them either.

Allow for ritual and personal moments: Shackleton understood the importance of diversion and ritual even under dire circumstances. When the men had to get into the tiny lifeboats for the open water voyage to reach Elephant Island, each man was strictly limited in what personal effects he could take – no more than two pounds per person. But Shackleton made an exception for personal journals as well as some camera equipment. And he allowed the meteorologist, who was also a skilled musician, to bring his banjo along. Even on the darkest days, he encouraged the men to socialize, to sing, to write in their journals and to engage in bonding activities, such as celebrating the solstice with a small taste of grain alcohol.           

‘Keep your enemies closer’: Shackleton completely understood the wisdom of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Several members of the crew were people he knew well and who were extremely loyal to him. But when he chose the team to make the dangerous crossing to South Georgia Island, he deliberately took along two men who he knew had doubts about him and who could be potentially disruptive if left behind on Elephant Island.

Don’t give up: Shackleton once said, “Optimism is moral courage.” He never gave in, never stopped looking for one more option for positive action. He maintained a clear mission that never wavered: All would survive.

A mentor for all officers

In 1956, one of Shackleton’s contemporaries addressed the British Science Association, saying, “When disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” This is what all fire officers should hope their crews say about them, too.

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