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Ernest Shackleton: High-Stakes Leadership

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Ernest Shackleton: High-Stakes Leadership

The topic of this leadership case study is Ernest Shackleton. This paper will identify the development of Shackleton's leadership skills, provide examples and reflections of his abilities, and relate how he played an essential role in one of history's greatest survival stories. This study of Shackleton's leadership is set loosely within the framework of the five practices of exemplary leadership set forth in The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, and will focus on the benefits produced by his management of team morale and unity (13).

Kouzes and Posner remark that leadership experiences are "voyages of discovery and adventures of a lifetime...[and] they are challenging explorations under rigorous conditions" (174). While this may be true, it is often in an extreme crisis situation that leadership is ultimately tested. This is the circumstance that Shackleton faced with his crew of twenty-seven, while stranded in the ice floes off the Antarctic Continent. Credit is due to the leadership of Ernest Shackleton; every member aboard the Endurance survived, and was finally rescued after six hundred and thirty-four days. Shackleton said of leadership, "If you're a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you've got to keep going" (qtd. in Morrell and Capparell 215).

Synopsis of the Endurance Expedition--See Appendix (Pages 19-21)

The Endurance, the vessel carrying the men and the title of the expedition, was named by Shackleton after his family motto--Fortitudine Vincimus (By endurance we conquer) (Perkins 41). To relate the significant factors of Shackleton's leadership during the Endurance expedition, it is necessary to summarize the timeline of the events. A chronological timeline of the expedition is included at the end of this paper.

The saga of the Endurance has relevant lessons for today's leaders concerning the vital nature of team unity and interdependence, risk taking, optimism, and selfless leadership. Shackleton, known as "The Boss" to his men, was at all times responsible for fostering and developing these dynamics, and thus provides an example of the remarkable achievements that are possible in even the direst of situations. The expedition failed in its attempt to be the first to transverse the Antarctic, yet the ultimate success is judged by the safe return of all the crewmembers.

The events of the Endurance expedition were well documented by the crewmembers through detailed diaries and photographs. From their reflections and subsequent interviews with biographers, the crew's feelings toward their leader are apparent (Morrell and Capparell; Perkins). The following sections provide specific examples and are based on the five exemplary leadership practices as outlined by Kouzes and Posner: Challenge the Process, Inspire a Shared Vision, Model the Way, Encourage the Heart, and Enable Others to Act (13). In all of the instances subsequently noted, it is acknowledged that the examples should not be confined to any one of the categories. Shackleton's practice of these strategies demonstrates that an effective leader blends all of the elements into a unified theme.

Shackleton Challenged the Process

The search for opportunity begins when leaders take on meaningful challenges, and thus experience conditions that test their capabilities. Leaders should be able to assess and take risks. From those experiences, they can learn to lead a team to accomplish extraordinary achievements (Kouzes and Posner 17).

Shackleton's yearning to explore the Antarctic was born out of his desires to achieve the improbable and attain fame and notoriety (Morrell and Capparell 32). Both the Artic and the Antarctic remained unexplored in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the promises of celebrity, honor for one's country, and possible wealth were the romantic rewards for the explorers of the day (28, 55).

The path that led Shackleton to a position of leadership was a natural progression of ever increasing roles of responsibility aboard various ships. He began his life at sea by joining England's merchant marines in 1890. Not every crewmember was destined to lead a voyage, but Shackleton used every opportunity to advance his career (Morrell and Capparell 21-25). His first assignment was a four-year apprenticeship filled with difficult and laborious duties. His early travels exposed him to intolerable crewmates and uncompassionate captains. After the four years, Shackleton began to complete a series of qualification exams, and by the age of twenty-five he had attained his master's certificate which allowed him to serve as captain aboard any ship in the merchant marine (21-23).

Life aboard the ships gave Shackleton his first opportunities to take initiative and challenge the status quo. The typical behavior exhibited by crewmates often created a vulgar and miserable environment. Additionally, the harsh discipline imposed by the officers often led to a demoralized crew (Morrell and Capparell 22). In Leading at the Edge, Dennis Perkins describes the early climate of England's Royal Navy as victim of the "success syndrome." This term is described by Perkins as the behavior of a dominant culture in which subordinates find it in their interest to follow the established procedures. People who work in this type of situation do not accept change and they become risk-averse (220).

In this environment of rigid hierarchy, where authority was categorized by arrogance and complacency, Shackleton realized the importance of fostering positive morale. He took the initiative to create positive diversions for the men, including teaching them nautical signaling and organizing games and concerts (Morrell and Capparell 26). These morale boosting practices would prove to be invaluable throughout the voyage of the Endurance.

When the news of planned polar expeditions became popularized, Shackleton began to position himself for a career change. He joined the Royal Geographical Society and developed his scientific skills (Morrell and Capparell 28). In 1901, he was chosen to accompany Robert Falcon Scott for an expedition to the South Pole aboard the Discovery. Scott's leadership style represented the antitheses to that of Shackleton's. Scott's behavior was indicative of the success syndrome and created anger, resentment, and depression among the crew (Perkins 88).

Although the team had to return short of their goal, the Discovery expedition reinforced Shackleton's views about what type of leader he did not to want to be. He was inspired to set out again on his own (Morrell and Capparell

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