In these difficult times, I find myself looking back at heroes of adversity, people who faced extraordinary dangers and social isolation…yet triumphed. There is a list of inspiring exemplars, but my thoughts turn first to Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton, chronicled in the brilliant book Endurance, was an Irish explorer who set sail in August, 1914 for Antarctica in an attempt to lead the first team in history to traverse the continent by foot. In January, however, the ship became hemmed in by massive sheafs of ice. Unable to escape, he and his crew planned to wait out the terrible winter in the ship’s cramped quarters. But just five months later, in the depths of the cold, an even worse disaster struck — the ice floes began moving together, pressuring the ship’s timbers until they groaned under the strain.
When it became clear the vessel would be lost, Shackleton ordered an immediate evacuation. The crew transferred as much of the food stores and equipment as they could, and then made camp on the moving floes. There they pitched tents, where Shackleton faced threats of daily mutiny, extreme cold, attacks by whales and polar bear, food scarcity, and perhaps the most serious of all — the threat of disillusionment and despair.
Perhaps that is why he is recorded as saying: “Optimism is moral courage.”
Amazingly, he brought his entire crew of 28 to safety. As soon as the ice began to melt in the Spring, seeing the desperation of their situation, and the deterioration of their supplies and their vigor, Shackleton set out with a group of five on what appeared to be a suicide mission — an 800-mile voyage in tiny lifeboats across what may be the most perilous stretch of open ocean on the globe, to South George Island. They made it, where the men then had to scale a treacherous mountain without technical equipment in order to reach a whaling station on the other side. Once that was accomplished, Shackleton attempted three different return trips to rescue the men who had been left behind, but none of the sailing vessels could make it through the ice. Finally, onboard a Chilean steamer on August 30th, 1916, he reached his men, bringing to close an ordeal that had spanned more than twenty months.
The adventure is rightly regarded as one of the greatest survival — and rescue feats — of the 20th century, for not a single life was lost. And it provides 3 brilliant leadership lessons:
#1: Leadership begins by sustaining hope. If Shackleton were here today, I could imagine him saying: “Keep your energy high.” He knew that the leader’s job is to set a tone, for everyone else is always watching. Hope is also the bedrock for social cohesion, wellness, and the solutions-seeking mind. In recent days, I have had friends tell me they relish the amount of time — the slow days — that they have at home. They are reforging intimate bonds that are too often stretched thin in the pressures of daily life. They are building new patterns.
And on a global level, I have heard a colleague with close ties to the Cabinet in Canada, a leader in a prominent school, and a scientist who is on the front lines in developing a potential cure for cancer all mention their wish for a less traveled world and a new greenhouse emissions model. Perhaps they will be part of building that thought.
#2. Leadership continues by adjusting purpose. While hope sets the general tone, purpose provides the direction for all that energy to move in. When the dreams we pursue are crushed by circumstance — in his case, quite literally by the ice — Shackleton demonstrates that we must waste no time in setting a new focal point, for without purpose we are lost. When the ship was destroyed, and the history-making dream that had been years in the making — the goal pivoted immediately to something equally audacious: the survival of the entire crew.
His voice asks to all the students and employees, and leaders, and teams whose dreams for the Spring have been temporarily derailed or perhaps permanently dashed: what’s your pivot? What is the most compelling thing you can achieve during your time in social isolation?
#3. And last, leadership is enacted by thoughtful routine. This is perhaps the most cogent contribution Sir Ernest Shackleton made to my life.
According to his ship journals, Shackleton feared the impact of idleness, boredom and in-fighting more than he did the ice and cold. So he created strict routines that kept the men doing tasks that mirrored as much as possible what their duties had been before, always with an eye on keeping them productive, connected to each other, and in service to the group’s mission.
This is something I had forgotten to do for myself, and so my first days in isolation, I wallowed. But Shackleton’s lucidity was clear. In times of high stress, structure provides psychological safety and a sense of order. It provides the day-to-day leverage to convert our purpose into action, and the cumulative achievements to secure our hope.
It seems fitting to end with one last quote from the intrepid survivor and leader: “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”
― Ernest Shackleton