Shackleton’s Epic Voyage Offers Management Lessons for Family Businesses

by Shel Horowitz

Picture this: you have literally sailed to the ends of the earth as the leader of a 28-man expedition party‚ only to be trapped for months in the frozen waters of Antarctica. When the ice finally breaks up, it crushes your ship, and your men are camping on an ice floe and slowly running out of food. And no one in the entire world knows exactly where you are.

What do you do?

If you’re Sir Earnest Shackleton, the answer is simple. You take a handful of your best men aboard a small, rickety lifeboat and sail 800 miles across the roughest seas in the world, with only the most primitive navigation aids, to a small, easy-to-miss island in order to get help.

Not only do you beat the odds and make it to the island in your rapidly disintegrating small craft, but you come in on the opposite side of the island from the settlement and have to hike across frigid, uncharted, crevasse-laden mountains in worn clothes and leather boots, You do this arduous hike, including sliding down a 2000-foot drop, in 36 hours; decades later, three of the world’s most experienced mountain climbers, with crampons, Polartec, and radios, take three days to retrace your steps.

Shackleton not only made it back to the whaling station on South Georgia Island, he went back with a ship and rescued his crew, who had not seen anyone outside the crew in 17 months‚ and not a single life was lost.

Susanne Simpson, an executive producer with WGBH’s acclaimed Nova series, shared Shackleton’s astonishing story with Family Business Center members at the June meeting. Winning, hands-down, the title of Most Visually Stunning Family Business Center Presentation in Eight Years of Meetings, she showed Nova’s 40-minute Imax film on the expedition, which she produced, as well as a fascinating slide show that went behind the scenes during the making of the film. Much of the still photos and movie footage came from Shackleton’s own photographer, who was a key part of the 1914 to 1916 expedition.

But of course, if we just saw the film, it would be spellbinding, but it wouldn’t be a Family Business Center presentation. So Simpson added a few lessons on applying Shackleton’s leadership principles to a modern business. Noting that Shackleton and his era didn’t have management consultants and that none of these leadership principles were enshrined in the expedition’s voluminous journals, Simpson drew from two books on the expedition: Leading At The Edge, by Dennis Perkins and Shackleton’s Way by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell. Perkins identified ten leadership principles that Shackleton appeared to embrace, and Simpson discussed how he achieved each one:

  1. Never lose sight of the ultimate goal, and focus energy on short-term objectives Shackleton presold book, film, and slide rights to fund the expedition. Yet, he could adapt that vision to changing circumstances, e.g. when the ship broke up, he changed his goal from crossing Antarctica by foot and dogsled to saving every man.
  2. Personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors. Each man was allowed to save only two pounds of possessions. “He took his gold cigarette case and gold sovereigns and his Bible and threw them on the ice to show they would not be of value; it would be the extra pair of socks, photographs of family and loved ones.” And, recognizing the need to keep his men sane, an encyclopedia and a banjo. Another time, he took off his own mittens and forced another man to wear them.
  3. Optimism. The men “had never met anybody with that boundless optimism, and it was contagious. He understood how one man could affect the psychology of others.” Sometimes, even too optimistic; he refused to hunt enough food to last another winter, insisting they’d be home before then.
  4. Stamina. Physical health was as important as psychological health. Shackle ton enforced limits among his men, though he was often guilty of ignoring his own physical limits. The men were “all expected to work– even at the most dreary tasks,” not necessarily at the same, exact job.
  5. Team message, minimizing status differences and insisting on courtesy and mutual respect. “‘We live or die together.’ They never would have survived if they had not been able to maintain themselves as a group. Shackleton created a routine and structure where every man was equal and did the same job. All the men ate together, had concerts and skits together, sang together.” While the ultimate decisions were his, Shackleton constantly sought input from his men. He continually went out of his way to ignore status distinctions, or even give seamen more privileges than officers (such as warm sleeping bags instead of blanket rolls). And hiring a great crew (hand-selected from over 5000 applicants) helped as well.
  6. Ability to admit mistakes, and not to blame others. This built his credibility with his crew. Perkins named this “Core Team Values”– lack of blame is an example of a team value.
  7. Master conflict, deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles. There was only one fistfight in 22 months, between two men who were having a disagreement over ladies’ hats. He set clear limits early on after the ship had gone down. A seaman started bullying, Shackle ton took him aside and demoted him, and that was the end of that behavior. He was very careful to watch what conflicts built up, he would move people in and out of different tents. He allowed them daily to let off a lot of steam. Yet he himself had a quick temper, so this was difficult.
  8. Ability to lighten up, find things to celebrate and laugh about. “He saved food, alcohol, tobacco for special celebrations. Dog derby races‚ he always wanted them to have something to look forward to.”
  9. Risk-taking. He did many extremely dangerous things‚ but only after careful consideration of the options and calculation of the risks.
  10. Tenacious creativity and persistence, He would never give up, always have another move. “Persistence was extremely important. Most of us would have given up hope, but his ability to persist, find new solutions‚ he created a situation where luck came to be on his side.” In Shackleton’s own words, ” Just when things looked their worst, they changed for the best. I have marveled often at the thin line that divides success from failure, and the sudden turn that leads from apparently certain disaster to comparative safety.”