Sir Ernest Shackleton was an Irish polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic.
He is best known for what is now called the Endurance Expedition. The expedition more than justified its name. It was a true test of endurance.
In August 1914 Shackleton set sail with a crew of 28 men and 70 dogs on their ship Endurance for the Antarctic. The mission of their expedition was to cross the Antarctic on foot – something never done before. To select his crew, Shackleton interviewed 5,000 applicants. It is said that these applicants came in response to this advertisement:
Men Wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.
Whether there is any truth to his placing the ad, is unknown. There is certainly truth to the kind of expedition it was to be.
Five months into the expedition, the Endurance became stuck in the heavy ice floes near Antarctica. It was a common enough occurrence and Shackleton believed that the ice would eventually recede and free the ship. However, in the next three weeks the ship became solidly frozen in the ice. Attempts to free the ship failed.
By end of February, 1915, the crew prepared the ship to become their camp for the remainder of winter. Shackleton was compelled to abandoned his goal for the expedition and turned his focus towards returning to England. The expedition was a failure.
By October, eight months after being stuck, the pressure created by the ice finally took its toll on the Endurance. The ship began to come apart and sink. The ship was abandoned and the crew salvaged the sled dogs, food, gear and three lifeboats and moved their camp to the ice floe next to their sinking ship.
The temperatures were brutal; reaching -15°F on average. They had little food. In April, the ice floe they were camped on broke apart. Shackleton and his crew took to the life boats and traveled seven days by sea to the barren Elephant Island where temperatures reached -20°.
For the next nine months, under Shackleton’s leadership, the broken expedition remained loyal, optimistic, focused and faithful to their leader’s belief that they would survive. Ultimately, Shackleton knew that their survival depended upon his ability to reach a whaling outpost that was more than 800 miles across the most treacherous ocean seas in the world.
Determined to save his crew, Shackleton set-out in one of the lifeboats with five crew members to make the journey. The odds of making it were 1 in 100. Nautical scholars consider this journey by lifeboat to be one of the greatest nautical accomplishments in maritime history.
When Shackelton landed on the island of the whaling outpost, they were on the opposite side of the outpost. With two companions, he had to hike over the mountains to reach the outpost. In thirty five hours and sub zero temperatures and without any hiking gear, they made their way over the mountains to reach the outpost.
A few years ago, a group of climbers retraced the path that Shackleton took over the mountain. With modern climbing equipment and experienced climbers, it took 48 hours to retrace the steps of Shackelton – almost thirteen more hours than the trio did ninety years earlier.
Shackleton returned to Elephant Island with a rescue party four months later.
In August 1916, after 22 months of being stranded on a barren rock in sub zero temperatures, the crew of the Endurance was rescued. All twenty eight crew members survived the ordeal and most were quick to credit the strong faith of their leader as the catalyst in their survival.
What an extraordinary story..! But there’s more.
When Shackleton returned to England in May 1917, Europe was in the midst of World War I. He was suffering from a heart condition, made worse by his arduous journeys. Though he was too old to be conscripted, he volunteered for the army.
His last expedition was financed by his old school mate John Quiller Rowett, he acquired a 125-ton Norwegian sealer, which he renamed Quest. The expedition, called the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, left England on 24 September 1921. The Quest reached South Georgia in January 1922. The next day, Shackleton suffered a fatal heart attack and died. He was buried in South Georgia.
Shackleton died some £40,000 in debt. For a few years after his death, he was remembered. Then his name vanished in the dark annals of the unspectacular.
In 2002, in a BBC poll conducted to determine the “100 Greatest Britons”, Shackleton was ranked eleventh. In 2007, the Shackleton Foundation was founded to honor the legacy of Ernest Shackleton by supporting inspirational leaders who exemplify his indomitable spirit and strive to make a positive difference to the world.
Shackleton is now hailed as a model for corporate leadership. He is considered exemplary for bringing order from chaos. The Center for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter (UK) offers a course on Shackleton, who also features in the management education programs of several American universities. In Boston USA a Shackleton School was set up with the motto The Journey is Everything.
Shackleton has also been cited as a model leader by the US Navy. He is described as a non- anxious leader whose calm, reflective demeanor becomes the antibiotic warning of the toxicity of reactive behavior.
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Away from his expeditions, Shackleton’s life was generally restless and unfulfilled. In his search for rapid pathways to wealth and security, he launched many business ventures and other money-making schemes, none of which prospered. His financial affairs were hopelessly muddled.
By worldly standards, Shackleton’s life couldn’t be defined as a success. While his Endurance expedition proved him to be an extraordinary man of unusual grit and courage, these qualities were apparently not enough to give him an easier life. When he died, he was in poor health and estranged from his family. He was drinking heavily and died in terrible debt. There can’t be a greater proof of a life touched by the grace of neither eminence nor significance- let alone fortune.
The success, eminence or significance of the man was unrecognized for almost eight decades. He achieved fame but not as much as he deserved. He was an exemplary leader. For his last expedition, most of the crew of Endurance came with him, even though some of them hadn’t been paid their full salaries for the Endurance expedition.
His story moves and inspires readers nearly a century after he has passed on from this world. He has exemplified courage and true leadership. He blazed an inspiring trail for future generations to follow. His life is iconic; his success is enduring.
The journey, not the destination, is everything.