One hundred years ago, a young man demonstrated remarkable leadership under the most brutally harsh conditions—some hailed him as brave saver of lives, while others at the time thought of him as a dreamer who failed multiple times to achieve his goals.

The story of Sir Ernest Shackleton came to mind when I saw the following course description. I like browsing leadership books, trainings, articles, etc. and (probably because I am writing a book on “Appreciation”) this course caught my attention: 

“Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry. The definition of appreciative inquiry is the ability to recognize the best in people and utilize those strengths to discover new possibilities and results. Appreciative inquiry focuses on positive thinking and expressing ideas and opinion to reach an end result. In the workplace, it encourages employees to think positively, which in turn helps them to overcome any negative thoughts which my hinder their ability to work harder and reach goals of greater productivity. 

Reading about that leadership-related course did not tempt me to delve in to learn more about appreciative inquiry—even though one of my strengths is being “able to recognize the best in people.” But learning about this like a technique? I say it would be a much more worthwhile use of time to read this book and get to know a real-life hero with this leadership skill: 

South: The Illustrated Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914-1917 (author: Ernest Shackleton)

In 1914, the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton announced an ambitious plan to lead the first trek across Antarctica via the South Pole. The expedition would prove fraught with adventure—and peril. South is the remarkable tale of the ill-fated expedition, told in Shackleton’s own words—breathtakingly illustrated in this unique edition with photography from the expedition, modern images of the Antarctic, and newly discovered photos.

So Shackleton led 27 men on a journey to be the first to cross Antarctica. He failed. Why do we care about a leader whose expedition failed? Because what happened instead was incredible.

With his crew and ship, the Endurance, he departed England in 1914. The plan was to sail to Argentina, then on to Antarctica, then walk across the continent where another crew would pick them up. There were no radios, no weather reports, no Gore-Tex or snowmobiles, no down North Face jackets. 

After leaving Argentina, the ship stopped at a whaling station on South Georgia Island. There they learned that the Weddell Sea, the most dangerous sea in the world, was jammed with ice, the worst in recorded history. After a short wait, they started out for the South Pole, but only six weeks later their ship was stuck in ice. 

The crew made heroic efforts to free the ship. They tried to cut through the ice, but days and days of work was never enough. They were over 1,000 miles from any other humans and no one knew their predicament. They finally settled in for a long winter to await a spring thaw. For 10 months they waited. The cold, the ice, and the food supply were all concerns and the men began hunting seals and penguins. However, Shackleton’s biggest concern was demoralization of the crew. He was intentional to keep the men’s spirits high. He encouraged singing, games, and skits in the evenings. He listened to them and had an “open-door policy” long before that phrase was coined. He had all the men cross-train in various roles to increase their stimulation and their competence. Surprisingly, during the 10 months their ship was stuck in the ice, the men were content. One man wrote in his journal after a particular celebration that it was “one of the happiest days of my life.”

Then the ice shifted and started to crush the ship. Everyone had to move off the ship onto the ice. Three weeks later the ship sunk and the 28 men were stuck on an ice flow in Antarctica with nothing but three small lifeboats and a pile of gear. Back in England, they were presumed to be dead.

Shackleton knew that no one was going to come save them. If they were to survive it was up to him. They made several failed attempts to cross the ice with the three life boats on sleds, but it was impossible. The tough decision was made to risk battling the sea and on April 9, 1916, they boarded the three life boats and headed north. After a 16-day perilous journey they made it to Elephant Island. No one was there, but Shackleton played up the “at least we’re on land” to boost the morale of the crew. The penguins were not plentiful there for hunting and Shackleton soon saw no other choice but to take the best life boat, a few of the men, and sail across the Weddell Sea to the South Georgia whaling station where they had started. It was 800 miles! 

Miraculously, after three weeks they made it. However, it took Shackleton four more months to get a ship to rescue his crew. On August 30, 1916, he arrived on Elephant Island to find the 22 men he had left behind—all of them alive.

Shackleton’s journey was amazing. The early 1900’s was the age of polar expeditions. It was common for men to die during the journey. Shackleton would not accept death. 

His focus was on constant fortification of his crewmen’s individual and collective mindset. He knew that only a strong team could survive the difficulties they had to face. 

Here is what I’ve come to believe about the leadership of the inspiring Sir Edward Shackleton:

Mindset: Shackleton modeled and inspired optimism. He believed in his mission and in his team and showed his enthusiasm. He encouraged singing, games, fun antics, and other merriment during the expedition. One way he empowered his team was to be crystal clear on their shared purpose. 

Trust: Shackleton valued and intentionally fostered hard-work and loyalty above all else. The team’s well-being was his top priority, higher than his mission. He knew that without the team, they could never reach their goal. He got to know each team member personally and understood their strengths and their style. He made sure team members could come to his with concerns and had an “open-door policy” long before the term was coined.

I guess you could say his approach was “appreciative inquiry.” 

Shackleton continually made difficult decisions throughout the expedition. He would have been terribly unpopular among the crew had he not build relationships, trust, and loyalty. He always made decisions with their best interest in mind.

Adaptability: His method was to plan and proceed with confidence but stay flexible. After the team left the Camp, they traveled in three life boats searching for land, which they hadn’t seen in 15 months. During the 15-day journey, Shackleton changed the plan four times. The change was always because new information emerged and he had to adjust in order to meet the end goal. He avoided getting attached to a particular plan, no matter how much time he had spent devising it.

Another book that sheds light on the man and the expedition is by Caroline Alexander,

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. I plan to get the audiobook version.  

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