A century ago, a man named Ernest Shackleton was one of the most renowned explorers of his time. He was a member of Captain Randolph Scott’s Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic in 1901–04 and led the Nimrod Expedition to the Antarctic in 1907–09, when he and three companions marched farther south than any human had ventured before. He was knighted by the king of England for that effort.
Today, however, Shackleton is best known for a failed mission, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17 that aimed to be the first to journey across the southern continent. In January 1915, Shackleton and his men aboard the Endurance were trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea and forced to abandon the ship. Under increasingly desperate circumstances, they floated on icebergs and in three small lifeboats to reach a remote, deserted island.
From there, Shackleton and five men embarked in one of the lifeboats on an eight-hundred-mile voyage through some of the planet’s stormiest waters, landing more than two weeks later at South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. After a rest, Shackleton and two of his men hiked and climbed across the treacherous South Georgia mountains to a whaling station, where Shackleton procured a ship and sailed to rescue his comrades. Despite incredible danger and adversity, every member of the twenty-eight-man crew returned home safely.
During all his journeys and particularly on the Endurance expedition, Shackleton earned the lasting respect and loyalty of his men. Part of the reason was his dedication to their physical health and safety. When the ship was trapped in the pack ice, Shackleton ordered extended times of exercise and games on the ice. Though they were well-stocked with canned foods, he insisted his men also eat fresh seal meat to prevent scurvy.
Shackleton nurtured his team in other ways. He divided work responsibilities evenly between officers and the rest of the crew and often pitched in himself. He scheduled feasts to mark birthdays and other special occasions and even treated one crewman who suffered from sciatica for two weeks in his cabin. “He attends to me himself,” the crewman wrote in his journal, “making up the fire and making me a cup of tea during the night if I happen to say that I am thirsty, reading to me and always entertaining me with his wonderful conversation, making me forget my pain by joking with me continually just as if I was a spoiled child. What sacrifices would I not make for such a leader as this.”5
In 1921, Shackleton again set out for the Antarctic on what turned out to be his final voyage. When he died of a heart attack on South Georgia Island, eight of the eighteen crew members were colleagues from the Endurance expedition.
The loyalty that Shackleton stirred within his crew did not occur by accident. As the leader of missions where the stakes were often life and death, he understood that a bond of loyalty between himself and his men could make the difference between survival and the ultimate failure. He cultivated it constantly.
“The loyalty of your men is a sacred trust you carry,” he wrote. “It is something which must never be betrayed,.”6
Adapted excerpt from: “Inspired People Produce Results” – Jeremy Kingsley, McGraw-Hill (2013)