Shackleton’s Way: Developing Leadership Skills

September 30, 2009 — 5 Comments

We’re having a Leadership Retreat this weekend and I’ve prepared a lengthy presentation on the leadership lessons we can learn from Ernest Shackleton.  Over the next few weeks I’ll share portions of the presentation with you.  This material–and the material I’ll reference in future posts–comes from the book, Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.  I read this book a few years ago, but I find myself going back to it regularly because it’s a great source of leadership wisdom and inspiration to me.

Cover - shackleton's_way

He has been called “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none,” yet he never led a group larger than 27, he failed to reach nearly every goal he ever set and, until recently, he had been little remembered since his death in 1922. But once you learn the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his remarkable Antarctic expedition of 1914 you’ll come to agree with the effusive praise of those under his command. He is a model of great leadership and, in particular, a master of guidance in crisis.

That’s because Shackleton failed only at the improbable; he succeeded at the unimaginable. “I love the fight and when things [are] easy, I hate it,” he once wrote to his wife, Emily. He failed to reach the South Pole in 1902, when he was part of a three-man Farthest South team on the Discovery expedition of the great explorer Captain Robert F. Scott. But the men turned back only after walking their scurvy-ravaged bodies to within 463 miles of the Pole in a terrifying cold experienced only by a handful of human beings at that time. Six years later, commanding his own expedition aboard the Nimrod, Shackleton was forced to stop a heartbreaking 97 miles short of the Pole, but only after realizing it would be certain death by starvation had his team continued. He was forgiven that failure in light of the greatness of the effort; he was knighted by King Edward VII and honored as a hero throughout the world.

His greatest failure was his 1914-1916 Endurance expedition. He lost his ship before even touching Antarctica. But he reached a new pinnacle in leadership when he successfully led all 27 members of his crew to safety after a harrowing two-year fight for their lives.

Here’s a sampling of the methods Shackleton used for developing leadership skills in himself and others.

Shackleton’s Way of Developing Leadership Skills:

  • Cultivate a sense of compassion and responsibility for others. You have a bigger impact on the lives of those under you than you can imagine.
  • Once you make a career decision, commit to sticking through the tough learning period.
  • Do your part to help create an upbeat environment at work. A positive and cheerful workplace is important to productivity.
  • Broaden your cultural and social horizons beyond your usual experiences.
  • Learning to see things from different perspectives will give you greater flexibility in problem solving at work.
  • In a rapidly changing world, be willing to venture in new directions to seize new opportunities and learn new skills.
  • Find a way to turn setbacks and failures to your advantage. This would be a good time to step forward on your own.
  • Be bold in vision and careful in planning. Dare to try something new, but be meticulous enough in your proposal to give your ideas a good chance of succeeding.
  • Learn from past mistakes – yours and those made by others. Sometimes the best teachers are the bad bosses and the negative experiences.
  • Never insist on reaching a goal at any cost. It must be achieved at a reasonable expense, without undue hardship for your staff.
  • Don’t be drawn into public disputes with rivals. Rather, engage in respectful competition. You may need their cooperation someday.

5 responses to Shackleton’s Way: Developing Leadership Skills


    Thinking of the last point, I was once told to “make friends of the people I passed on the way up the ladder, you will meet them again on the way down”.


    Shackleton’s story is amazing. There is an iMax film about the journey that is breathtaking. I highly recommend trying to locate it. I remember being in awe of the wisdom and leadership that he displayed. I can’t wait to continue reading your posts regarding this.


    Aaron, thanks for uncovering another gem of a book. Shackleton’s Way of Developing Leadership are rules to live for leaders who are trying to navigate in this culture. I really appreciate your insights.


    Great post. I think I’ve heard of him before but never really knew the whole story. One of your last points was really encouraging to me today -“Once you make a career decision, commit to sticking through the tough learning period.” When we are in the middle of everything and the fight seems tough, it can be so helpful to remember that everything we do has a learning period. What separates the whinners and losers is often those who simply refuse to give up (as long as the price for success is reasonable). Thanks for the post.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Becoming a Better Leader « My Lord and My Blog - April 13, 2011

    […] that I’ve read that have helped me to become a better leader: Shackleton’s Way, Apollo 13, Failure is Not an Option, The Imitation of Christ, anything by John […]

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