A Lesson from Shackleton

 The Endurance trapped in the ice before reaching Antarctica. Photo from scienceonscreen.org

The Endurance trapped in the ice before reaching Antarctica. Photo from scienceonscreen.org

One of my favorite leadership stories ever to be documented is that of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition, which took place from 1914-1916; perhaps you are already familiar with it. It is a success story set inside a spectacular failure. The expedition never actually achieved what it set out to accomplish- to sail to and traverse the continent of Antarctica (2000 miles).

The Endurance and its crew never even reached the continent before it became surround and locked in by sea ice. Eventually, the ship was crushed by the ice and sank to the ocean floor. To condense the story, Shackleton (the expedition leader) and his crew of 27 men abandoned the ship and survived a harrowing 11 brutal months (5 months floating on the sea ice and over 6 months on a tiny barren island) before they were finally able to initiate their own rescue... which involved Shackleton and a portion of his crew navigating a 22 foot long lifeboat through some of the roughest seas in the world over the course of 15 days using only a sextant to find  an island 800 miles away that is only 100 miles wide at its widest point. After arriving on the island, the men had to traverse technical mountain terrain with no mountaineering equipment in order to reach a whaling station on the opposite side of the island. And all of transpired without loosing a single member of the crew.

 The crew makes camp on the ice, their home for 5 months. Photo from coolantarctica.com

The crew makes camp on the ice, their home for 5 months. Photo from coolantarctica.com

This story might, at first seem a little difficult to relate to for our leadership contexts. But when you consider the nature of all the variables, I think we can find an abundance of relevance. For example: the sheer volume of opposition that challenges posed, the complexity of environmental and interpersonal variables, the unfamiliar terrain, limited resources, and the real life stakes of charting a right or wrong course ... just to name a few.

Whether metaphorically or directly, these are all familiar dynamics in today’s leadership landscape- in our homes, our neighborhoods, our social communities, our churches, our local governments, our nation, and our global community.

While there are more specific lessons to be extracted from this remarkable display of leadership, I would like to highlight just one simple value we can mine from this story. And that is hope. The crew of the Endurance faced overwhelming odds- some of them outlined above. Yet, they persisted in the task of coming through it. It is difficult to imagine that level of persistence being possible without deep stores of hope.

We all face challenge and opposition in our leadership roles. At some point, if we are being honest, I think we could all think of a time we considered throwing in the towel when the going got truly difficult. But hope can pull us through. Hope can motivate and empower our faculties towards their fullest potential. Hope can be a defining asset in the midst of great difficulty.

So my parting offering is this: next time you find yourself up against the odds in a leadership role, look out beyond the odds. Seek perspective. Set your eyes on that greater thing towards which you are striving. Let it fill you with hope. Let it draw you forward.


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