Dennis Perkins on Ernest Shackleton and the Essence of Leadership

The following is a guest post by Dennis Perkins, author of Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, 2nd Edition with Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian B. Murphy, about the leadership lessons of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

As someone who has studied and admired Ernest Shackleton as a leader, I was excited to be following in his footsteps in the Southern Ocean. My Antarctic expedition was not nearly as perilous as his, and I was spared the extreme deprivation and hardship he had encountered. Nonetheless, it was thrilling to travel the waters he had navigated in his 800 mile journey, and to stand on the remote, rocky beaches and islands he encountered almost 100 years ago. (Read about the  timeline of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition.)

One memorable part of the journey was landing on Elephant Island, an isolated, barren spot where the expedition had taken refuge. Though Elephant Island had little to offer Shackleton by way of food and shelter, it was a milestone for the haggard members of the Imperial trans-Antarctic expedition. This was the first time they had set foot on land since their departure from South Georgia Island 487 days before, and it was a welcome sight.

As we made our landing, I watched the small army of Chinstrap penguins waddling in single file down toward the water. I wondered if these penguins could be descendants of the ones that met Shackleton and his crew (which included 27 men, 69 dogs, and a cat called Mrs. Chippy) some 100 years ago. I stood on the rock-strewn, ice-covered shore, and saw our expedition ship in the distance. Then, suddenly, the calm scene was broken by a gale force wind that rocked me back on my feet. The snow, which had been falling gently, now turned into horizontal stripes streaking in front of me.

I shot a glance at the expedition leader, Howard, and watched as he pulled his wool cap as far down over his head as was humanly possible. The look on his face alarmed me. Up to that point, I had been soaking in the history of the island, relatively insulated from the immediate reality of where I was standing. When Howard muttered an expletive and shouted, “We’ve got to get back to the ship!” I realized I had to focus. My somewhat romantic musings about Antarctica evaporated as I jumped into the Zodiac for the trip back.

I lay flat on the deck of the Zodiac to keep the center of gravity as low as possible. But we still found ourselves flying off waves as we bounced from one mountain of foam to another. After what seemed like hours, but what was probably less than 30 minutes, we made it back to the ship. I scrambled back on board with the help of a Russian sailor, and stood on the deck gazing at Elephant Island with new eyes.

I had been there less than an hour, and was forced to make a hasty retreat. I would soon be able to find a warm spot to recover, and some decent food. But Shackleton’s men had been captives on the island for 128 days—and all this while they waited in suspense, wondering if Sir Ernest had made a successful journey to South Georgia Island, and if he would be able to execute their rescue. Each day, Frank Wild—left in charge of the “castaways”—would shout an encouraging “Lash up and stow, boys,” nurturing their hope that “The Boss” may return at any moment. Shackleton did return to bring the 22 castaways to safety. Thanks to his heroic open boat journey and to Wild’s patient leadership, their long ordeal was over.

While my brief visit to Elephant Island was memorable, the most moving moment occurred on South Georgia Island. After visiting Shackleton’s grave at the whaling station of Grytviken, I climbed to a high point overlooking Fortuna Bay. It was aboard a ship anchored in this picturesque inlet that Shackleton died. It was his last expedition, and he was accompanied by many who had endured the hardships of his earlier expedition.

I recall reading the moving words of Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance who wrote: “…when looking at Shackleton’s grave and the cairn which we, his comrades, erected to his memory on the wind-swept hill of South Georgia…it seemed to me that among all his achievements and triumphs…his one failure was the most glorious. By self-sacrifice and throwing his own life into the balance he saved every one of his men.”

Though Shackleton was not a perfect leader, I saw this simple memorial as a symbol of the essence of true leadership. (Find out why Shackleton was an exceptional leader.)  Shackleton was able to mobilize his comrades to accomplish the nearly impossible; his team had worked together to bring everyone safely home with honor and recognition; and, when “The Boss” passed on, those who knew Shackleton best thought of him with affection and loyalty. A leader could hardly ask for a better legacy.

Dennis N.T. Perkins, Ph.D., is Chief Executive Officer of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to effective leadership in demanding environments.  He lives in Madison, Connecticut, and is currently working on his next book,  Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race, to be published by AMACOM in the fall 2012. You can find him on Twitter and Linkedin.

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