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Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance of Values

By nearly any measure, Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 — with the stated aim to be the first to traverse Antarctica — was a failure of

monumental proportions, with one exception: his entire crew survived the nearly two-year ordeal.

It’s a gripping and inspiring tale.

An accomplished explorer with a crew of 27 men set sail for Antarctica from South Georgia Island, the last port of call before Antarctica, on December 5th, 1914. Within a week they entered heavy pack ice in the Weddell Sea and six weeks later their ship, the Endurance, became fully encased in ice like "an almond in chocolate" just off the coast of Antarctica.

For the next ten months, they drifted north with the pack ice until their bruised and battered ship finally sank on November 21st, 1915. Within nine months after the sinking, Shackleton and his crew made it to the small outpost of Elephant Island (shown in the main article image), dispatched a skeleton crew (that he commanded) in a row

boat on the 800-mile journey across the open ocean back to South Georgia Island, and then rescued the remaining crew members from Elephant Island. All returned safely to Punta Arenas in Southern Chile.

The most remarkable part of the story?

Not a single member of the crew perished during the expedition. This is truly incredible. 28 men, in one of the most inhospitable parts of the globe, for 22 months in the early 1900s. Keep in mind, this was when satellite phones and GPS and survival suits were half a century away.

How did Shackleton successfully lead his men through impossible odds and near-certain death? By making decisions and defining priorities based on his steadfast values of optimism and the health and safety of his crew.

Beliefs become values

After leaving school early at the impressionable age of 16 for a life of adventure, Shackleton spent the next ten years at sea with all different manner of people. It was likely during this time that his belief in the importance of the well-being of a ship's crew as a direct determinant of the success of any expedition blossomed. His approachable, supportive, and servant leadership behaviors toward his crew on expeditions prior to the Trans-Antarctic certainly indicate that he placed a very high value on the health and well-being of his men.

Shackleton was also an incredibly optimistic person. On more than one occasion, he won his next lot in life not because of skills, education, or provenance, but because of his infectious optimism.

Impenetrable ice leads to an abrupt change in goals

Upon departing England in August 1914, Shackleton's goal for the expedition was cemented in his mind and the minds of millions of his compatriots: he and his team would be the first people to walk the nearly 3,000 km across the Antarctic continent, from the Weddell to the Ross Sea. Ten months later, when he realized the predicament of the situation they were in as the ship's timbers buckled due to the immense pressure of the surrounding ice, his goals changed abruptly.

There would be no expedition. No continental excursion. And no Union Jack planted at the South Pole. His goal now was even simpler: "ship and stores have gone — now we'll go home."

Decision and priority overload

The sheer number of decisions and the balancing priorities Shackleton faced daily for the duration of the journey must have been staggering. But the value he placed on the health and well-being of his crew led to some pretty remarkable decisions.

He prioritized morale by keeping his confidence and courage high and immediately befriending dissenters. He instructed some of the crew to forgo specimen collection and scientific endeavours and others to polish their banjo playing skills to entertain the crew. He made socializing after dinner, poetry reading, and exercise a priority for himself and every one of the crew. And, he decided when the crew should make a break for Elephant Island at a time when he thought it most likely that they would all survive (which they did).

Most, if not all, of Shackleton's decisions, irrespective of whether or not they were objective and based on facts and data or subjective and based on his intuition, were guided by one value that he placed above all others. His laser focus, beliefs, and actions as a result of what was most important to him could make the case that the Trans-Antarctic Expedition wasn’t a monumental failure but in fact, a resounding success and testament to values-based decision making.

So what does this mean for how you run your business and lead your team? Your values guide you when no one is looking. They guide you when you’re in survival mode. They're what help you make decisions and set priorities when you're too exhausted and overwhelmed to even think about your goals.

This week is the end of the first month of 2021. Right about now, you’re probably beginning to realize just how much work is in front of you if you want to accomplish all of your goals by year-end. To make high-quality and consistent decisions and prioritize the right actions in pursuit of your goal, your value(s) must be clear.

What values will you rely on when survival mode kicks in (which it will)? How will you help your team to recognize and leverage their values when times get tough?


South by Ernest Shackleton

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