Chair's Corner

The Endurance: Three Lessons in Leadership from Ernest Shackleton

Melanie Bragg
Difficulties are just things to overcome.

—Ernest Shackleton

This issue of the GPSolo magazine deals with the art of persuasion. As you enjoy the many articles contained in this issue, I would like for you to begin with a story from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. A few years back, I read an article about Ernest Shackleton’s 1915 Antarctica expedition, the Endurance (named after his ship on the expedition). The article ignited my curiosity, and I bought several books and went to see the IMAX film about the epic survival story. Since then the stories of Shackleton’s leadership have guided me in times of challenge. He is a wonderful role model. Many of the leadership lessons from Shackleton’s expedition can be analogized to the work we do as lawyers, as well as to the art of persuasion.

HMS Endurance. Frank Hurley—State Library of New South Wales.

HMS Endurance. Frank Hurley—State Library of New South Wales.

As Sir Edmund Hillary points out in his introduction to the 1977 (W.W. Norton) edition of Shackleton’s Boat Journey,

And yet, Shackleton, great explorer though he was, could probably be regarded as unsuccessful on all his major journeys—if success is judged solely by the limited standard of whether a set goal has been achieved. It was as a leader of men and an overcomer of appalling circumstances that Shackleton really excelled. Not for him an easy task and a quick success—he was at his best when the going was toughest. The enormous affection and respect he engendered in his expedition members (often mighty men themselves) shines through in their diaries and writings. . . . Shackleton undoubtedly understood his men—he could be as gentle as a woman and incredibly considerate of his crew’s welfare, or as tough as was required to deal with any problem.

Shackleton began his expedition at the onset of World War I, after offering up his ship to the cause. Shackleton allegedly placed an advertisement in a newspaper that sounds a little like an ad for a new lawyer: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Shackleton’s goal was to attain the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea. But the crossing never took place. On January 18, 1915, the Endurance was entombed by the heavy ice pack in the Weddell Sea, and the 28-man crew never set foot on the Antarctic continent. On November 21, 1915, the Endurance sank, and one of the most remarkable recorded stories of survival began. Shackleton’s new goal and only goal became survival.

For five months, they drifted on a huge ice floe that changed size and nature daily. Shackleton, whose men called him “Boss,” was called on to lift their spirits by leading them courageously. He kept the men occupied by finding creative ways to entertain them during the cold and icy days and nights. (In 1915 there were no cell phones or computers.) Several crew members kept copious diaries of their daily life, and Frank Hurley, the photographer, took magnificent photos all along the way.

“Need to put footstep of courage into stirrup of patience.”—Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton’s diaries reveal his concern for his men while they reported that his spirit never seemed to waiver. He was cautious and in control of his crew and mission. On April 8, 1916, the ice cracked, and by April 9, they launched the three small boats they had recovered from the ship before it sank. On April 15 they landed on Elephant Island, a bleak and forsaken island in Antarctic waters. They were on land again, but it was a lifeless place. The only chance for survival was to take the 26-foot boat out into the stormiest ocean in the world and try somehow to navigate the 800 miles to the mountainous, glacier island of South Georgia. Shackleton, F.A. Worsley (captain of the Endurance), and four others headed out in the most dangerous and dreadful conditions. The story of Worsley’s navigation brings tears to my eyes because I still can’t for the life of me figure out how he made that calculation in those conditions. After some near misses, they found land on the southwest coast of South Georgia.

“A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.”—Ernest Shackleton

But, as with all survival stories, nothing that happens in this story is easy. The whaling stations they were trying to find were on the other side of the island. It wasn’t just any island, either. It was a mountain range with glaciers and ice the whole way—treacherous for men with holey socks, bare-soled boots, and sparse supplies. Three men crossed the glaciers on foot. (The IMAX movie shows athletes doing the same journey today with top-notch equipment, who report how tough the journey is.) It took Shackleton, Worsley, and Tom Crean 36 hours of herculean effort to get to the whaling station at Stromness. Shackleton did not rest; he immediately began preparations to go back to Elephant Island to get his crew, who were engaged in their own epic survival adventure. His first three attempts failed due to weather and other conditions, but on his fourth try, on August 30, 1916, he arrived at Elephant Island to find all his men alive.

“Through endurance we conquer”: Shackleton’s Lessons for Lawyers

When I read some of the Facebook posts on the various lawyer sites where I am a member, I know that many of us feel at times that being in the thick of the practice of law is like the voyage of the Endurance. I have felt this way at times. Legal work is challenging, with no promise of absolute success in each case and with no certainty that our work will be rewarded. Balancing a thriving law practice with the demands of home life and public service can be challenging in and of itself. But we keep going because it is something we just “have to do.” I feel in some ways that we lawyers are on what author and philosopher Joseph Campbell calls the “Hero’s Journey.” And Shackleton is definitely a hero who can teach us many great lessons.

My top three leadership lessons from Shackleton’s expedition that I want to share with you are:

1. Leaders set goals, but when circumstances beyond their control change, they adapt and refocus the mission. Shackleton set out in 1915 with a goal of crossing the South Polar continent from sea to sea. If you judge him by whether he achieved that goal, he would be unsuccessful. But the fact that the 28 men who began the treacherous journey survived—well, that is the achievement. Rigid thinking would not have gotten Shackleton anywhere. It took courage, grit, determination, and tenacity that few men have ever experienced to survive.

“Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results.” —Ernest Shackleton

2. Be strong and decisive as a leader and, when inevitable conflicts occur, promote reconciliation in order to achieve the overall mission. The second big lesson I learned by reading about Shackleton’s epic journey is that when you put groups of people together, conflict is inevitable. There is no way to please everyone all the time, and if you try to do that as a leader, you can run yourself ragged very quickly. A leader’s ability to utilize even those in opposition to achieve the group’s goals sets him apart from other leaders. Shackleton had to contend with disobedience on the ship, and once the ship was gone, one man, W. McNeish, thought he did not have to follow the rules anymore. Like a lawyer, Shackleton pulled out the employment paperwork the men signed when they came on board and read the clause that made it clear they were still under his authority until they got home safely. He not only read it to McNeish, he gathered all the men and read it to them. He never held a grudge and was able to charm even the most rebellious man with his patient and kind-hearted treatment. His reputation as a leader was shown by the quality of the men he was able to gather around him.

“Loneliness is the penalty of leadership, but the man who has to make the decisions is assisted greatly if he feels that there is no uncertainty in the minds of those who follow him, and that his orders will be carried out confidently and in expectation of success.”—Ernest Shackleton

3. Never give up on the mission, no matter how difficult or impossible it may seem. Shackleton’s diary entries for that final 36-hour trip across the glaciers at South Georgia grow ever more descriptive about how the effort had the help of what felt like a supernatural power—that thing that you feel when something happens that turns everything around and you know it was more than just your effort.

Shackleton recognized, as did some of the others, that there was a spiritual side to the whole process. The three men, who were at the end of their ropes, gathered the gumption and strength to do the last leg of the journey, and when it was over they all reported that they felt the presence of another person during the journey. This is remarkable. Leaders rely on that supernatural part of leadership when they are in tune. Leaders plan, work, and then let the rest happen.

In his account of these events, South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914–1917 (1919), Shackleton reports:

When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.

Ernest Shackleton’s family motto was “Through Endurance we conquer.” He unfortunately did not receive the recognition he deserved during his life, and it was much later that the world caught up to his genius. His life is a portrayal of his family motto and all it entails and can serve as an example to us to keep going even when circumstances might not be as hopeful as we would like. So, let’s go out there and be like Shackleton every day in our own lives as we walk the Hero’s Journey!

For more information on the epic journey, see Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, 1959; Shackleton’s Boat Journey by F.A. Worsley, Captain of HMS Endurance, 1933; The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander, 1998; and the IMAX film Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, 2001. The quotes from Ernest Shackleton in this article are taken from Goodreads.

Melanie Bragg is Chair of the GPSolo Division. She is the principal of Bragg Law PC, a general civil firm in Houston, Texas.

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