The Shackleton Expedition – Business Lessons Learned Conquering The Impossible

Liran BaronHistory's Business Lessons, Quote2 Comments

The Shackleton Expedition - Business Lessons Learned From Conquering The Impossible
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.Newspaper Ad for the Shackleton Expedition

And so begins the incredible story of the Shackleton Expedition. An early 1900’s Antarctic explorer who along with his team defied the odds after 497 days stranded in Antarctic conditions.

The official name of the Shackleton Expedition was the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.” The goal: cross the Antarctic continent on a 1,800 mile journey. From the onset, the expedition was plagued by bad luck and misfortune. World War One, bad weather, and impassable ice sheets were just a few of the misfortunes that beset the expedition.

Background: Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–17

Conceived by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, also known as the Endurance Expedition or Shackleton Expedition, is considered by many historians to be the last major expedition of the heroic age of Antarctic Exploration. This expedition was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent – a journey of over 1,800 miles.

For this expedition, Shackleton proposed to sail to the Weddell Sea to land a shore party near Vahsel Bay. Here they would prepare for a transcontinental march via the South Pole towards the Ross Sea.

Shackleton Expedition: Vahsel Bay to the Ross Sea

This plan would require two ships: Endurance under Shackleton for the Weddell Sea party, and Aurora, under Aeneas Mackintosh, for the Ross Sea party.

The Ross Sea party would serve as the support group. They would establish camp in McMurdo Sound. From there the team would lay a series of supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier.

These depots would be essential for the Shackletons transcontinental party’s survival. The crossing group would not be able to carry enough provisions for the entire crossing and be dependent on these prearranged supply depots.

Shackleton Expedition: Business Lessons To Be Learned No. 1: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance

Sir Shackleton did a lot of planning and preparation before he even thought about starting this expedition. And so too should it be with starting a business.

Study your routes. Know your strengths and weaknesses, then plan accordingly. Make sure you have the resources to get the job done. And make sure any endeavor you launch is worth the effort. Make sure you have the resources and support systems in place… before you even start.

The Shackleton Expedition: The Crew

This was going to be a long and arduous journey. Shackleton knew he would need the “right” type of men.

He personally conducted each interview. Shackleton believed that character and temperament were just as important as technical competence.

In fact, his interview methods were deemed “eccentric.” He expected all crew members, regardless of rank or station, to take their fair share of the ships chores. He even asked one scientist (Reginald James) if he could sing.

He ultimately decided on 56 men. Tough, hardy men, who would not be panicked by unexpected conditions. He split them into two teams of 28 crew members each.

While Shackleton led the expedition, the Endurance was captained by Cpt. F. Worsley DSO. The Aurora was captained by Lt. J. Stenhouse DSC .

Unfortunately, the heroic crew never accomplished its goal, but instead inspired millions with their epic story of endurance and perseverance against almost insurmountable odds.

Shackleton Expedition: Business Lessons To Be Learned No. 2: Choose the Right Team

Nothing will ensure the success or failure of any business venture more so than your team. Choose your “crew” wisely. Know what your strengths and weaknesses. Surround yourself with those that support your strengths. But more importantly, select a crew that fills in your weak spots.

Shackleton was surrounded by cough, level headed men whom did not panic. But, in your case, when disaster strikes, and it always will, it is your team that will make the difference between success and failure. More importantly, your team might just guarantee your company survives.

The Shackleton Expedition: Disaster Strikes

The Shackleton Expedition: Disaster Strikes

While enroute to Vahsel Bay, the Endurance encountered early ice packs that should not have been there. This slowed their progress, delaying them until they became frozen in the ice of the Weddell Sea, long before reaching Vahsel Bay.

They drifted northward, held in the pack ice, throughout the Antarctic winter of 1915.

Eventually the Endurance was crushed and sunk. On 21 November 1915, the wreck finally slipped beneath the surface stranding its 28-man complement on the ice… including Shackleton.

The Shackleton Expedition: The Struggle For Survival

Shackleton Expedition Elephant Island to South Georgia whaling station

After almost two months spent in makeshift camps floating on ice, the party took to the lifeboats and managed to reach the inhospitable, uninhabited Elephant Island.

Given the conditions of the island and the distance from any shipping lanes, Shackleton and five others set to sea in an open-boat journey aboard the James Caird (pictured below), the strongest of the 20-foot lifeboats. Their goal: to reach South Georgia whaling station 720 nautical miles away in an open boat in icy arctic conditions.

Shackleton Expedition crew hauling the James Caird

During the next fifteen days, Shackleton and crew sailed through the waters of the southern ocean, at the mercy of stormy seas and in constant peril of capsizing. On May 8th, 1916 thanks to Worsley’s navigational skills,(remember what we said about choosing the right crew!) the cliffs of South Georgia finally came into sight.

Shackleton Expedition: Business Lessons To Be Learned No. 4: Take a Chance

Sometimes, in order to ensure your own survival, and your business’, you have to risk everything. If your very existence is at stake, you must commit and take incredible risks that leave others frightened into inaction.

The Shackleton Expedition: Disaster Strikes… Again

Despite all they had endured, Shackleton and his lifeboat crew arrived at South Georgia during a hurricane. The hurricane-force winds prevented any possibility of landing. The party was forced to ride out the storm offshore (in uncovered boats!), in constant danger of being thrown against the rocks and killed. They would later learn that the same hurricane had sunk a 500-ton steamer bound for South Georgia from Buenos Aires.

On the following day, they were able, finally, to land on the unoccupied southern shore of South Georgia Islands. After a short period of rest, rather than risk putting to sea again to reach the whaling stations on the northern coast, Shackleton decided to attempt a land crossing of the island. Although it is likely that Norwegian whalers had previously crossed at other points on ski, no one had attempted this particular route before.

For their journey, the survivors were only equipped with boots they had pushed screws into to act as climbing boots, a carpenter’s adze, and about 50 feet of rope.

carpenter's adze

Leaving McNish, Vincent and McCarthy at the landing point on South Georgia, Shackleton travelled 32 miles (without a map) with Worsley and Crean over extremely dangerous icy mountainous terrain for 36 hours to reach the whaling station at Stromness on May 20th, 1916.

From there, Shackleton was eventually able to mount a rescue of the men waiting on Elephant Island and bring them home without a single loss of life.

Shackleton Expedition: Business Lessons To Be Learned No. 5: Never Give Up

Never, ever give up. Never surrender. Despite all that is thrown against you, despite all the “bad luck” you seem to receive, you must believe, with all your will and intellect, that you can and will survive. Make a plan, execute, learn, adjust, repeat.

Because ultimately, when you own a business, your employees are counting on you. They are looking to you for leadership.

If you, as the leader of your business don’t see your survival or success just around the corner… neither will your employees. And with that you are doomed to fail. But with a clear vision, unwavering determination, and with strong and steady leadership not only will you survive, you will succeed.

If you ever find yourself faltering, or wavering in your determination, just remember this story. The story of the incredible Shackleton Expedition. After all, most of the job description in Shackleton’s ad also applies to running a business.

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2 Comments on “The Shackleton Expedition – Business Lessons Learned Conquering The Impossible”

  1. Kristen, great job with this post. The story of Shackleton is an amazing one for sure and you did a great job of weaving it into some business truths! Thoroughly enjoyable. Wish you well. EC

    1. Thanks EC! Glad you enjoyed it. History is full of valuable lessons of perseverance against all odds. This is just one example. I think the next one I’m going to write will be military in nature.

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