Sir Ernest Shackleton and Success he found in his failure

How many times you failed in your mission and still celebrated as success?

None for me.

I am not sure about you.

You don’t find someone celebrated as an influential leader despite failing in his mission.

Ernest Shackleton enjoys that distinction.

Sir Ernest Shackleton ventured on a journey to reach Antarctica in 1914.

Following is the advertisement he placed to recruit people for his mission.



The Journey of the ship Endurance started on 4th, August 1914 and reached Sub-Antarctic island South Georgia to collect food and ration before moving towards the Antarctic.

Endurance route plan

The Endurance began its journey from South Georgia on 5th, December 1914. After about 6 weeks, Endurance got stuck in ice on January 18, 1915. The Endurance started breaking down in October 1915 when Shackleton ordered to abandon it and set up camp in the ice. The Ship finally sank on 21st November 1915. Almost 5 months later, Shackleton and Crew set foot on an island. The Crew got stuck and survived in the ice for almost 500 days.

What made them stick together for so many days without losing morale?

The answer lies in the Leadership ability of Ernest Shackleton, which is also the reason for him being celebrated as a hero.

In the words of Roald Amundsen (to know who is Roald Amundsen, please check the link-

“Sir Ernest Shackleton’s name will forever be engraved with letters of fire in the history of Exploration of Antarctic”.

Why would someone get celebrated as a hero if his mission was a failure?

Well, his mission failed, but he made sure that he kept the entire Crew motivated for all these days and rescued all 28 men involved in the expedition to safety. The greatness of this hero lies in this story and not in the failure of his mission.

Three things that I learned from the Story of Ernest Shackleton that made him a success are:

  1. Humility:

Humility is a prominent trait not exhibited by many leaders. A Leader should be humble enough to accept the defeat with grace. Shackleton was humble enough to admit the mission’s failure to reach Antarctica. Humility allowed him to shift his focus swiftly to the safe return of every crew member. He could have persisted in reaching Antarctica and gone down remained in history as an epic failure. Instead, he accepted the defeat gracefully and placed the safe return of his team over his ambition. History has a plethora of leaders who were adamant about their goals and will sacrifice their team members for their ego gratification. Sir Ernest Shackleton is not one among them because of his humility to accept defeat and amenable to the situation.

2. Adaptability :

Excellent Leaders are always to adapt themselves to the changing environment. Shackleton and his crew members got stranded on ice for almost a year. They had to adapt to the new situation. He made an elaborate plan for the crew to make the ship drift when the ice melts and followed suit with an action plan. He expected that to retrieve the Ship when the ice melts. However, his plans got thwarted by mother nature as the Ship broke and drowned on 21st November 1915. The 28 men of the expedition got isolated on the drifting pack of ice hundreds of miles from land, with no ship, no means of communication with the outside world, and with limited supplies. What was worse was that the ice itself was now breaking up as the Antarctic spring got underway? He had to adapt to the new situation. On December 20th, Shackleton abandoned their camp and march westward to where they thought the nearest land was, at Paulet Island. He reached safely. However, his mission was not over yet. Leaving most of the crew there, he traveled almost 800 miles to get a rescue.

A Leader should be adaptable to the situation and be agile to change the plan of action.

3. Developing a Strong Culture :

A good leader knows that culture will beat strategy on any day. If the culture is weak, then even a foolproof strategy can fizzle out miserably.

The question is, “How do you build the desired culture? “.

Josh Linkner in his article “Culture Versus Morale: How To Avoid A Common Trap Culture” Published in Forbes magazine says that culture is like an Operating System for your company because the things you do and repeat regularly characterize it. Shackleton ensured that there is a certain routine that the team followed each day to keep up the morale of everyone. Team activities like basketball games or dinner parties became a routine. He left no one to be aloof during the entire journey. He planned activities that will keep people engaged to avoid boredom or impel someone into loneliness.

Excellent Leaders develop the desired culture in the organization.

The team’s affirmation of faith in Shackleton became clear when he purportedly called up the team after a few years to check for another expedition to Antarctica. Almost 70% of the team agreed to go with him.

Shackleton’s journey to Antarctica could have failed, but he succeeded as a leader.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store