Leadership Insights from the Endurance


“This isn’t what we signed up for”

In considering the plight of the Endurance, it’s astounding just how well the crew fared in the most desolate of conditions. Not a single crew member died, and upon rescue they were reported to be in good spirits. Weather, few supplies, and a bleak outlook would have greatly accelerate the attrition of their spirit and willingness to push on. So, what made them and their experience different?

What leadership insights can we gain from their experience? In spite of their losses, the crew of the Endurance had a strong sense of unity, vision, and purpose – much of it instilled by their captain, Ernest Shackleton.

While most organizations would never find themselves literally stranded in the Antarctic, few would argue that they’ve never encountered hardships that evoked similar feelings. Low engagement, hostile teams, lack of vision, or an inability to produce meaningful results would all make for a desperate and uncertain organizational future.

Here are two leadership insights that we can pull from Shackleton’s experience with the Endurance.

Leadership means creating your team, even if you didn’t choose them

Shackleton was looking for people who not only had specific technical skills but also had demonstrated personal characteristics to endure the physical hardship. He sought individuals who had innate qualities to endure personally, and fostered an environment for others to work together in any situation. Traits like a sense of humour, inspiration, awareness of others — a connectedness that helps moderate one’s self and others to ensure the team continued working regardless of the circumstances. He sifted through 5000 applications to find a crew that met and exceeded his expectations, and who demonstrated the character required for such a journey. The time they spent stranded was an experience few would ever share, and Shackleton invested even more time in those relationships, and encouraged the crew to do the same. The initial investments he made paid huge dividends when their circumstances shifted dramatically.

As leaders, we don’t always get to choose the team we’re journeying with. By getting to know each member of our teams, personally and professionally, we can become better equipped to coach, mentor and develop our team’s skills and results. In business, there is always a team, so we must choose wisely. When you can’t choose, invest.

Leadership means confronting and jettisoning baggage to reduce drag.

With the loss of the ship, all thoughts of the transcontinental journey had to be abandoned and the focus of the Expedition shifted to one of straightforward survival. Shackleton illustrated his leadership by dumping his most-prized possessions. His grandfather’s gold pocket watch, the ship’s log, and his personal cache of gold coins were all dumped onto the ice. Doing so signalled the importance of dumping baggage to the team. The material possessions that were discarded stood for very important aspects of their lives – family, the crew’s past, and wealth – but these aspects would prove inessential to their new imperatives.

As leaders, we must, distinguish the essential from the trivial, and take the necessary steps to discard that which does not help us achieve our goals. Taking steps to ensure the baggage doesn’t return promotes our forward movement, and prevents a slippage into old priorities that can prove worthless in present circumstances.

Leading with focus

Shackleton embodied a focus-driven leadership style that was able to distinguish between that which was essential, and what was peripheral. By crafting a cohesive team and identifying baggage, he was able to keep the crew invested in the goals they had set out to accomplish.

What investments have you made in your team relationships lately? What baggage do you carry with you, and what can you part with? What leadership insights have you gained?



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