December 5, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of one of the most audacious adventures in the 20th century’s “Heroic Age of Exploration,” Sir Ernest Shackleton’s quest to become the first to cross the continent of Antarctica.
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Brian Kenny: Today, we’re remembering a great polar adventure that was a colossal failure. Its participants endured inhumane conditions, frostbite, and near starvation. Yet they, and especially the explorer who led them, were hailed as heroes and they still are today. The adventurer was Sir Ernest Shackleton. On December 5, 1914, 100 years ago, he and his men boarded the aptly named ship, The Endurance. They set out to do what no one had done before, to traverse the entire continent of Antarctica. What happened over the next 635 days was an epic struggle for survival. It’s become the focus of films and books, and a singularly spectacular example of leadership. Ernest Shackleton saw his men through months of privation and desperation, and brought each of them home alive. How he showed his leadership, even amid his flaws, has captivated Harvard Business School professor and historian Nancy Koehn. She has taught and lectured around the world about Shackleton’s leadership, and she has written a case study about it that was recently updated in the form of a Kindle book called “Ernest Shackleton: Exploring Leadership.” We’re happy she came to our studios to talk with us about this breathtaking story.
Nancy Koehn: The last port of call, the last connection to civilization for the expedition was South Georgia Island, a small island many hundreds of miles to the southeast of the tip of South America, where there was a whaling station. And when Shackleton and his men arrived there, the whalers told them that pack ice, floating icebergs, big, big, huge chunks of ice had come very far north, and that the best data, they could give the captain of the Endurance expedition was to hole up and wait through the season for the ice to disperse, so they could sail safely, smoothly southwest to the coast of Antarctica. And Shackleton waits for a couple of weeks and then decides "I am heading south," and so he and his men begin. Really, it was like a jigsaw puzzle in terms of navigating through the cracks and crevices of open water. There were all these bergs. There were amazing photographs taken by Frank Hurley, the expedition photographer, from the mast of the Endurance of what it looked like to snake through this puzzle. And then in January, the ship finds itself—Shackleton and his men find themselves — about 80 miles off the coast of Antarctica, land in sight, and Shackleton makes a very important—although he couldn't have known at the time, decision to sail farther east along the coast in hopes of getting closer to what he thought would be an ideal place to make basecamp. And in that decision lies the fate of the expedition, because overnight, before they get to land, pack ice, bergs surrounding the ship, grab it in a vice and lock it in place, and so the men and Shackleton find themselves in an entirely new game. They can't push themselves out with fuel power, with the power of the ship. They can't hack their way through the ice into open water. They are locked in place by these multi-ton blocks of ice, and suddenly the whole game has changed.
BK: So, this is when things start to go really south, but before we do that, let's talk about Shackleton, the man, clearly an entrepreneur, living in an entrepreneurial time. What makes him tick?
NK: I think he, like other explorers, once the pole had been discovered—he had been twice before to the Antarctic before the pole was discovered, so twice he had tried, put his life on the line to be the first to that compelling, seductive place, and failed. And so I think the drive to be the first at something that would claim the recognition of his fellow men —he was Irish born, from a middle-class family — of elites that sat above him on the social hierarchy. We can't underestimate the power of that yearning, and so I think this is a man of many, many talents, but of a kind of driving, pulsating ambition that made him go south even when there were lots of reasons to hole up.
BK: But at some point, he goes from being blindly ambitious to being the inspirational leader, and that is sort of the core of the case. Take us back to the Endurance and tell us what happened.
NK: There are a couple of really important inflection points, right, in this journey. This is one of the two of the most important. The ship holds the ice. The game is changed. It is not clear how they will get free. It is not clear if they will get free. So one very, very important aspect of this story is how Shackleton, how he makes this transition from "I will get south", I will be the first to cross the continent in spite of all obstacles to "I will take responsibility for my men and come what may, I will bring them home alive." So one really important lesson that comes out of this story so clearly—I mean the wonderful thing about this story is there is not a lot going on. They are in terribly cold temperatures and there are no landmarks. There is no line on the horizon. So, one thing that we learn very clearly in this case is that when leaders find their backs and their mission up against the wall, they first have to turn inside and figure out how to manage and lead from their own stronger self, from their own core strength in order to pull themselves and their mission out from beneath or in front of the obstacle and move on, and so Shackleton clearly does that here. He figures out how to start creating schedules for the men on the ice locked ship. He figures out how to give them things to do, how to manage their time including things like he requires all the men as soon as the ice locks the ship to start spending an hour after supper in the evening in the state room socializing. So he doesn't want the men separating and giving way to disillusionment that might turn to stronger doubt and then despair. Managing his own energy and then managing energy of his men becomes of paramount importance to him suddenly. Now that everything has changed and the game is a new one, because from this moment he understands very, very clearly if you are going to manage your own energy and then the energy of your men, or your team, in unexpected or turbulent circumstances—again, a lesson for our own turbulent time—you are going to have to learn to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. So, he is very good at figuring out who are the doubting Thomases and keeping those men very close to him. Later on in the last phase of the expedition, once the ship goes down, a second important turning point, and the men are living in tents on the ice. He will keep the doubting Thomases in his tent, because he doesn't want them sowing again, their doubt and their disillusionment among the others. So a second very important lesson is about how you organize your team, in which ensembles and what you do with the people that are prone to default into a negative stance. This phase of the expedition, from the time the ice locks the ship until our late summer in the northern hemisphere, the early part of winter in the southern hemisphere, is characterized by Shackleton still hoping that they will be able to find a way to open water—the ice will crack, the ice will melt. They will figure out a way to power themselves back into open waters and get to Antarctica. And then beginning about August, that prospect becomes increasingly unlikely, because what happens is that the vice-like nature of these ice blocks starts cracking the foundations of the ship and so by September, the ship is actually being crushed, slowly crushed, and it is leaning at an increasingly sharp angle.
BK: Out of the water.
NK: Out of the water. And he knows by early September as he says to his first mate, the person he confides in, Frank Wild, what the ice gets, the ice keeps. He knows they won't be able to keep the ship, and so the next couple of months when they finally abandon ship as the timbers crack and water starts to seep in, they abandon ship and start making camp on the ice with tents and stores, retrieving supplies from the ship including a bunch of negatives that the photographer, Frank Hurley, had taken. We have incredible pictures that were saved, negatives that were saved from the expedition, which is fantastic.
BK: And we can link to some of those on the podcast site, too.
NK: And we can link to some of those, which are fantastic. So to just cut to the next inflection point, in very early November, the men are on the ice, they are living in tents, they have saved the three lifeboats that went on the Endurance, and one day Shackleton sees that the ship is starting to sink through the ice. And he says, "Boys, she is going down," and in the course of about 12 hours, the ship slips through the ice. The mast is the last thing to go, and then the ice closes completely over, and so then, second inflection point. There is nothing but their tents and the lifeboats, empty lifeboats, and their supplies and their dogs, and he has got to get them home safely, and that night he paces the ice unbeknownst to the men and talks to himself, and he writes about this in his journal. A man must shape himself to a new mark once the old one goes aground, and that is Shackleton lesson number three, trying to get access to his own courage muscles and thinking very strategically about how he must show up to his men in order to elicit their support and trust. The next morning, he and Hurley go around to the tents with hot milk and wake the men up. He calls a meeting and he says, "Well, lads, ship and stores gone. We will go home now."
NK: So, an amazing kind of inflection point again. "We will go home now."
BK: So, he is the eternal optimist in the face of complete devastation. Why don't the crew think that he is just crazy at this point? Why do they continue to believe in his optimism?
NK: First, the way he shows up every single day, so a really important lesson that I talk to leaders about is what do you look like as you walk in the office each day? Who do you make eye contact with? What is your presence like? What is your posture like? What kind of energy are you summoning up? So I think that Shackleton was not always optimistic, but he always appeared very certain to his men that he would deliver on their mission. I mean if he had walked out of his tent one day and said, "Hey guys, I couldn't sleep. I am so worried about what is going to happen, can you help me get right with this anxiety?" The whole game would have been up. So, he had this incredible ability to manage his emotions in front of his men in service to his mission, so I think that that was incredibly important. A second thing was that Shackleton was always improvising, so he always had a plan. So as soon as the ship goes down, only a few days pass before he gets his idea that we will walk across the ice flows to try to get to dry land, and then we will get the life boats in the water and we will sail and see if we can make contact with a trading ship. So he has always got a plan, so it is not like Shackleton allows tons and tons of time or energy to dissipate, because he is not focused on what we are going to do next. He always has the next move, and he is laying out to his men, and I think a very important part of them believing in him was that ability to always have the next move ready, even like Lincoln during the Civil War, when he didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. So this ability to kind of navigate point-to-point is incredibly important, and I think there is, if you will, a fourth reason that the men believe so strongly in him, and that is that he spent time among them on a regular basis, and they had a sense of who he was, even if blind or at times reckless ambition powered a lot of his early moves in this expedition. By the time they are stranded on the ice, this is someone who is dealing one-on-one with them, listening well, understands how to connect in a very, very real way with his men, and so they had a sense of who he was as a human being, and that connection was also very important to keeping their trust even in the face of doubting Thomases who at times threatened to sabotage that energy and turn the tide of his men against him. And so Shackleton was able to mitigate that and in some cases just dial it way down in the moment, but I think the sense of this is a guy who really believes in us and who is responsible for us was enormously important.
BK: Let's go back also to some early decisions he made. He was pretty careful about who he selected to go on this, and he somehow managed to avoid the culture clash of scientists and sailors and—
NK: Enlisted men and officers.
BK: Privileged class and enlisted men.
NK: That was enormously important. Every time I teach this, particularly with executives, they point to that—that he assembled his team not as a group of "Well, I need an engineer and I need a scientist and I need this many officers." He assembled his crew as much by what he thought made his men tick as he did by their resumes, so he starts off—he did not know at the time how much he would need the attitudinal attributes that he had hired for, but he starts off with a group of men that were answering that ad or something like that ad. It is going to be dangerous. It is going to be tough. We are ready for it. And that was enormously important. So the sourdough starter, if you will, of the expedition is the men's temperaments, and P.S. he doesn't just hire them for a group of temperaments, he hires them as an ensemble. He assembles an ensemble of men that he thinks will work together well, not unlike a theater troupe, and so he has that going for him as well. Nonetheless, we are still talking about odds that are enormously high and stacked against him once that ship goes down.
BK: So they are stuck on the ice. What happens?
NK: They are on the ice flows for almost another six months before the ice starts to break up, and they are living on a combination of stores from the Endurance. It's canned meat, it's canned milk, and killed fresh seal and penguin meat, which Shackleton was adamant that the men must eat. This is early, early years of nutrition. We didn't know then anything like what we know about nutrition now. But Shackleton knows from his previous expeditions on the ice that fresh meat is a prophylactic against scurvy, so he is insistent the men eat lots of fresh meat. Eventually, they will have to kill their dogs because they are running out of food for the dogs, and they kill them, and they eat the dogs as well. That is very, very hard for the men, because the dogs were their companions.
BK: And they have some power bars, right?
NK: They have these power bars, these nutritional bars that Shackleton, again based on his experience in two previous expeditions, had had made before they went south. These were densely packed, protein-rich and carbohydrate-rich bars that really resemble energy bars of our time, and that he had in a sense engineered himself and had made, and they are eating those. And so amazingly, it is not 'till the very, very tail end of this complicated, very, very difficult tale that there is any danger that the men are going to starve, although they don't know that at the time. They are on the icebergs, living in tents on the pack ice until March of 1916, and Shackleton nonetheless keeps his men—
BK: They are still going.
NK: They are still going. They are still getting up and going through a daily duty roster. The tents are clean. The camp is neat. The men eat. The men socialize.
BK: Temperatures are 20 below at night.
NK: Temperatures average about 20 below Fahrenheit during their winter months, a little bit warmer during their summer months, so we are not talking about a long vacation. It is very, very difficult. When the ice starts to break up in March of 1916, the men take to their lifeboats. They have now drifted way west. Shackleton hopes that by taking the lifeboats and literally rowing their way up the west coast of Antarctica and then the archipelago of islands, he will get far enough north to find a trading ship so they can be rescued. He knows they are way up, northwest of the continent, from other expeditions. And they take to the boats, three boats, 28 men, and it is a grueling, gruesome journey. The barrels of fresh water that they have made by melting fresh ice over small stoves start to leak, so the men don't have fresh water to drink. Many of them contract dysentery, so they are terribly, terribly ill. The sea is very rough. One of the sailors, his hands freeze to the oars, and his hands have to be chipped off the oars. I mean every which way you look, it is a desperate journey, and after almost a week of this, Shackleton realizes he can't keep the men going. He has to pull in to land, to one of these islands. So he can't get as far north as he wants 'cause his men are going to die in the boats. And so they with great difficulty against high winds and great waves, they tuck in at a big rock called Elephant Island, not nearly as far north as Shackleton wants. There is nothing there. They are barnacles. Right? There is a very, very small rocky beach. There are penguins and a few seals, but he has to stop, and the men stagger out of the boats. They stagger. It is the first time they have been on dry land again for 15 months. There is fresh water, so they can drink, and even before they make camp and they start to turn the lifeboats over to create shelter and heat up milk, even before they do that, Shackleton is plotting his next move.
BK: Of course.
NK: And so the story takes another turn now because Shackleton is sure they won't be found there. They are too far south. There are no ships that will find them. They can't hope for an outside source of salvation, and he has decided he and five other men will sail for South Georgia, the whaling station which was their last—
BK: Back to where they started.
NK: —port of call, and he knows it is about 800 miles as the crow flies. I have taught this case to sailors. I have taught this case to executives and MBAs that have been on the sea. They will all tell you, these are some of the most difficult seawaters, ocean waters to navigate in the world, and he is proposing to take a 26-foot-long lifeboat, rig it up with a mast, and head northeast 800 miles through these seas with nothing more than basically like a chronometer, a very, very primitive kind of navigation instrument that requires readings from the sun and some kind of steady state position to get those readings.
BK: So this is a desperation play. This is the last ditch.
NK: It is a last card to play, and Shackleton never displays anything like any knowledge of such difficulties. He is like, well, we will go. We will get our carpenter to put some rocks in the bottom of the boat and kind of build sides on the boat. We will put a mast on it. We will put some tarp across it. We will put our sleeping bags in, some barrels of fresh water and food and off we go. Not a whit of doubt, not the whisper of doubt observable in anything that he does for the next week while they prepare to do this. Interestingly, he takes three of his doubting Thomases.
BK: With him.
NK: With him, because he doesn't want them left on that island sowing doubt and despair 'cause he is basically saying we will come back and get you guys. So he takes those three, and then he takes Thomas Green who had been on other expeditions and who was strong as an ox, and he takes Frank Worsley, the navigator, and off they go. They leave, I believe on April 20th, 1916. Imagine you are waving them off and you are on Elephant Island. You have no idea if they are coming back.
BK: Oh my goodness.
NK: And they set sail. And about 20 days later, May 10th, they actually get to South Georgia Island. It is a long, complicated story. It is a tremendous act of navigational skill. It is a tremendous act of courage on the part of Ernest Shackleton, because the ship is almost overwhelmed by huge waves, and the men start to flag. Every time a man flags, Shackleton makes hot milk for everyone.
BK: Flags meaning?
NK: Meaning his energy looks low or he seems to be physically ailing. Shackleton makes hot milk or tea for everyone because he doesn't want to signal or point out who is suffering. He doesn't want to embarrass the men, and he wants to keep the energy levels high. He was always –this is another lesson that I stress to the male executives and male students I have. He, just like every woman, uses food as a leadership tool.
BK: So clearly when the chips were down, Shackleton had a way of figuring out the right thing to do and adjusting in the moment. But the chips wouldn’t have been down if he had listened to the advice he was given at many point along the way. He made some pretty bad decisions that got them in that place, in the first place.
NK: He sure did. One of the interesting things is, he made all of these interesting decisions, a bunch of them were short-sighted. Some of them I think we could even call reckless, or speedy, or not very well thought out. My own read of this is that he knew he was responsible in some real measure for this. One of the interesting things I think we forget as we are drawn to this story is, when a lot of very public figures do not say as Harry Truman would say, the buck stops here. I own it. I am responsible. So Shackleton never said to his men, I got you in the mess; I will get you out. He never said that, but I think every single day he said that to himself. I own this, and I am going to clean it up. It doesn’t exonerate Shackleton in any way, shape, or form. It does say, I did something wrong and I’ll make it right. Anyway, they get to South Georgia on May 10th after an astounding journey, against all odds. Because the ship is damaged, they have to sail into the island on the wrong side of it. It’s completely uncharted, there are no maps. And then begins an astounding several days' journey, on foot, and they march across the island. Up and down and round and round, trying to get across the mountain range, that is.
BK: Ironically, this becomes the first new land that he will chart in this expedition.
NK: Absolutely, this is the first new land. Right? He is the first to cross South Georgia Island. There are amazing moments of improvisation. I will give you two here. One is, they get very, very high and night falls, and he realizes that they are so high, they will freeze to death. They don't have any tents. They have nails from the lifeboat that they have made into crampons on the bottom of their boots. They have a coil of rope. They have a small stove, a stove to heat up milk, and axes. He realizes, we are so high, we are going to freeze to death, and he says, "Men, let's coil up the rope and sledge down," and they just sail into the darkness, down from this plateau they have reached. And then the second astounding moment of improvisation is the next day Green and Worsley are ready to give up the ghost, they are so tired. They keep doing all of these switchbacks. They can't seem to find a way across the mountains, and they are ready to just drop, and he says, "Let's take a nap. We are tired." He says, "A brief kit boys," and they start to fall asleep. And Shackleton realizes that if he falls asleep they will freeze to death. No one will wake up. They are exhausted, and so he wakes them up in five minutes and says, "Well, we have had a good 30-minute nap, haven't we, lads? Let's keep going," and they do. And they get to the whaling station. They haven't shaved or bathed in months. They are unrecognizable in their tattered clothes when they knock on the captain of the whaling station's door. And Shackleton says it is Captain Ernest Shackleton. No one had heard from him—
BK: They presume he is dead. Right?
NK: —in 16 months. They presume he is dead. And he said, when did the war end? The captain says it hasn't. The world has gone mad. And that marks the beginning of the final phase of the expedition, which is how does Shackleton now get to Elephant Island and get his remaining 22 men home to London. It takes him four attempts to get a ship that can get back to Elephant Island and rescue his men. It takes him months. He arrives at the whaling station in May of 1916. It is not until mid-August of 1916 that he actually gets a ship that can get through, guess what, more pack ice, and rescue his men, and there is this wonderful scene that Worsley who stays with him throughout this time reconstructs. He is standing on the deck counting the men on the island 'cause they are all waving 'cause they see a ship. They don't know initially it is the boss. That is what they called him—the boss. And he counts the men and he says, there are 22. My God, they are all alive. And this enormous sense of satisfaction and gratification that his mission was about to be completed successfully, and then he gets back to London. And amazingly, just to add an astounding postscript—there are two astounding postscripts. The first one is that most of the men enlist 'cause the war is still going on, and tragically, two of them are killed very quickly on the battlefield, so to have endured all of that and then to die in machine gun fire seems again just a tragic postscript. And then the second astounding postscript is that in the early 1920s Shackleton gets the idea that he will go south again. I mean, I guess it was so much fun. On the Endurance, we would all go back, and amazingly, a large number of his crew signed up to go again with the boss.
BK: So this ill-fated trip that history could have written off as an abysmal failure turns out not to be that just by the sheer force of this person's leadership.
NK: By the force of his leadership and its ingredients, right, his commitment, his persistence or endurance, his access to his own muscles of moral courage, the way he showed up every single day in front of them, no matter what he was thinking or feeling inside, no matter his doubts, his ability to improvise, his ability to keep his focus on the future. So all of the things that didn't work—he didn't get trapped in blaming himself or his men for what didn't work. He kept moving forward, and I think finally, he had great reservoir of humanity and of humor that were incredibly important. They were the seasoning in this recipe, and they kept him and his men going through astounding odds.
BK: Lots of lessons. Still highly relevant. Nancy Koehn, thank you so much for joining us.
NK: A great privilege.
BK: Historian Nancy Koehn of Harvard Business School. We’ve got some great photos from the Shackleton adventure on our website, take a look. We’re already lining up guests for The Business podcast for 2015 and we’d like to know who you want to hear from. Post your thoughts at #HBS.
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