Was Ernest Shackleton a good leader?

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was a polar explorer who led four expeditions exploring Antarctica. He is best known for his 1914-1916 attempt to traverse the Antarctic which, although unsuccessful, became famous as a story of remarkable perseverance and survival.

There are many books about the Endurance Expedition (Endurance is the name of the ship), and they all portray Shackleton as an exemplary leader. But I recently watched a documentary that caused me to think differently. [Shackleton’s Captain on Amazon Prime. The film focuses on the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley, who was the second in command under Shackleton.]

On October 26, 1914, the Endurance left Buenos Aires, headed for Antarctica. Eleven days later it arrived at South Georgia Island, a Norwegian whaling station. The whalers there reported that the early summer was colder than usual and the ice conditions to the south were the worst they had ever seen. They strongly advised Shackleton not to go, but he ignored their advice and ordered the ship to continue on the journey. Days later they encountered pack ice a thousand miles farther north than expected. It was ludicrous to continue, but despite the pleas of the ship’s captain, he insisted that they continue south.

It was a terrible mistake. Within days the ship became trapped in ice. As one crew member said, “We felt like an almond stuck in the middle of a chocolate bar.” The ice eventually crushed the ship and the 28 members of the expedition had to abandon ship and set up camp on floating ice. For the next two years they struggled to survive unthinkable challenges. Remarkably, the entire crew made it back safely. 

But why did Shackleton risk the lives of his men?

Historians note that before the expedition, Shackleton had trouble at home—he was having an affair with an American actress and his brother was convicted of fraud that might incriminate Ernest—so he needed to create a new narrative about his life. Furthermore, it would have been a blow to his ego to abandon or even postpone the trip.

He was also profoundly self-promoting. Before the ship set sail, he had each crew member sign over all rights to their journals and diaries. He made sure all publicity promoted him as the hero. However, the real hero of the expedition was Frank Worsley, the captain. (Shackleton was inexperienced at sea, having never even been in a medium-sized boat.) But few people know of the valiant work of Worsley. 

It’s commendable for a leader to lead well in the midst of a crisis (think Churchill during WW2), but if the crisis was avoidable and caused by the leader, there’s no glory in that. 

12 Replies to “Was Ernest Shackleton a good leader?”

  1. I also saw that documentary about Shackleton‘s captain. I felt it was intentionally pejorative against Shackleton. The writers clearly had an agenda to denigrate him. Most everything else I’ve read on Shackleton has given the other side of things. Regardless, it’s like so many leaders today who are getting their statues torn down. We all have clay feet. Even the best leaders.

    1. Thanks, Wayne, for sharing your thoughts. I do think he exhibited some good leadership traits once they were in the mess, but the whole debacle could have been easily avoided. It’s unfair to judge a person based on their worst moment, so I suppose the question is, long-term, was he a good leader or was there a fundamental flaw. Don

      1. There were fundamental flaws. I think he was blinded by his pursuit of self glory and fame and riches. I didn’t study his life in depth, but based on the book I read about his expedition it sounded like he had some charm about him and was good in keeping the peace among the crew members after the disaster he lead them into. He was brave and persistant in achieving his goals (good trait of the goal is noble, like saving the lives of his crew, but can be detrimental if the goal is adventure and fame). He failed in his personal life and did not even provide for his own family which is leadership 101 in my opinion. I probably don’t know what you i am talking about 🙂

        1. Michel, thanks for taking the time to write. We’re all flawed people, but some mistakes affect not just ourselves but others; Shackleton’s decision to pursue the expedition was wrong on many levels.

  2. Thanks for this post. I had similar thoughts about Shackleton’s when I read one of the books about the expedition. I thought his decision making before the tragedy was pretty reckless and selfish, but during the ordeal i also saw some other leadership qualities in him that kept the crew from despairing or killing each other. I totally agree Worsley was the hero of that expedition and without him and his skills they all would have been dead.

    1. Thanks, Michel, for taking the time to write. You’re right, once they were in the throes of the tragedy Shackleton did a lot of good things to keep morale up; it’s just sad that he led them into the difficult situation.

  3. One cannot focus on Shackleton and overlook the pandemic leadership void. I’m thankful for Fauci but puzzled at the herd mentality when it comes to ignoring data based decision-making when it came to reopening the economy so we could shut it down again.

    1. David, thanks for taking the time to respond to my post. Yes, times of crisis brings out the best and worst of our leaders. I do wish we had handled things differently.

  4. As Paul Harvey might say the rest of the story about Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer. Interesting that he had an ‘affair’ an overused word for the real meaning of ‘adultery’ just like ‘gay’ is used instead of the real word as described in the Bible. Society likes to play loose with words.

    1. Jim, thanks for taking the time to write. I remember well the Paul Harvey approach to story telling. Take care. Don

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