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Leadership in Practice: Sir Ernest Shackleton

By Dr. Maureen S. Andrade, HCI Research Associate

One of my favorite real-life examples of leadership is the story of British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The story goes that in 1914, he put an ad in the paper to form a crew for his trans-Antarctic expeditions. It read:

Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

That sounds completely intriguing to me – it was a different world back then. A very brave and adventurous world!

Shackleton selected 27 men out of 5,000 applicants who responded to his advertisement. Shortly after leaving the whaling station on South Georgia island, their ship, the Endeavor, got stuck in ice; they waited for the spring thaw, hoping the ship would be freed, and hunted seals and penguins to supplement their food supply. Shackleton focused on sustaining morale by involving the men in games and activities, encouraging them to care for each other, and being open and transparent. His motto was “strength lies in unity.” He conveyed this in his actions and example. His goal changed from being the first to cross the Antarctic to “save every life.”

After 10 months of waiting, the ice started shifting and began to crush the ship. The men had to abandon the ship and camp on the ice. The ship was smashed to pieces and sunk. There was no chance of rescue. The crew made several failed attempts to cross the ice to a supply station. Finally, since the ice they were camped on was breaking up, they embarked to the open sea in three lifeboats and made it to Elephant Island but were low on supplies. Their lives were in danger.