Shackleton’s Outstanding Leadership


Leadership in business and life can be both a calling and a challenging task when external conditions do not favor the smooth flow of events. According to scientists, goal-oriented leaders perform more effectively in extremely unfavorable environments, while relations-oriented leaders perform better in moderately adverse situations (Robbins & Judge, 2018). Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led three expeditions to the South Pole in the early 20th century, was an outstanding example of ethical, charismatic, and transformational leadership. Even though he set goals different from those of modern corporations, his communication with followers is a prime example of productive interaction. This paper aims to discuss Sir Ernest Shackleton’s leadership style and how it was realized in the harsh conditions of the Endurance expedition to the South Pole.

Shackleton as Entrepreneur and Showman

Although Ernest Shackleton was not an entrepreneur, he possessed all the qualifications needed to master the profession. Since childhood, Shackleton was fond of English poets, who romantically portrayed sea voyages and man’s struggle with the elements. The future head of polar expeditions first got on the ship in early youth and went from cabin boy to the third mate, demonstrating much better success than at school. He was distinguished for his ability to communicate with the team and excellent practical skills (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010). Besides, Shackleton was ambitious and self-confident, which caused hostility from some people around him.

He married quite early and promised his wife to gain the glory of the South Pole’s conqueror. His first expedition was Scott’s campaign in 1902, which did not bring him fame (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010). Therefore, in 1907 Ernest Shackleton independently organized another voyage, which reached 100 miles to the South Pole milestone, while the previous result was 350 miles (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010). The interest in the expansion of the North was growing in European society.

After the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen, the British were deprived of pioneers’ laurels. Therefore, in 1912, Shackleton developed an ambitious plan to conquer the continent, promising to cross it for the first time overland (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010). To raise money for constructing a ship that will withstand the pressure of the ice masses surrounding Antarctica and provide an expedition with food and equipment, Shackleton had to do a tremendous job.

Using family ties, he compiled a list of the most influential people in the UK who could sponsor the expedition. As a result, he was given the amount of money equivalent to $ 5 million (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010). Besides, Ernest Shackleton had to take many loans and credits from banks. Thanks to a detailed plan and the scope of the project, the adventurer managed to increase his team’s chances for a safe return home (Watson, 2010).

Shackleton paid particular attention to the future team’s balanced diet, as he had heard about the consequences of malnutrition on previous campaigns. In collaboration with a renowned American nutritionist, he created a recipe for special ‘cakes’ that included beef, fat, oats, salt, and sugar. These ‘cakes’ then helped Shackleton carry out the rescue mission, covering 800 miles along with the winter Weddell Sea in a small boat (Pooley, 2015). Thus, attention to the team’s needs became one of the most critical leadership qualities of the head of the expedition.

Ernest Shackleton was not a showman, as his personality was much more vibrant and more meaningful. However, he possessed some of the traits of a showman. During his first year in the ice on Endurance, he repeatedly staged ‘indecent’ antics to raise the crew’s morale. One day, he was seen waltzing with captain Worsley to music from a gramophone on the ice (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010).

On another occasion, Shackleton decided to make his subordinates laugh by depicting him taking a bath in the snow (Pooley, 2015). Besides, as a responsible leader, Shackleton oversaw the crew’s leisure time, who could amuse themselves by listening to phonograph records, playing chess and cards, and discussing books read (Pooley, 2015). Interestingly, on Christmas Day, the crew members staged an amateur show. This attention to leisure was justified by the filming of the expedition documentary directed by Hurley, the team’s photographer.

Shackleton and Modern Day Figures

Sir Ernest Shackleton lived in times that were very different from modern times in terms of developing technology and relationships in society. His outstanding personality made him a true adventurer and conqueror of the South. Shackleton wanted to do something significant that would be worthy of glory. It was also vital for him to meet face-to-face with the elements and overcome it, showing what man is capable of and expanding the knowledge of humankind about our planet and its geography.

Therefore, it would be entirely incorrect to compare him with such figures as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, whose passion was programming and computer technology. Although these outstanding leaders became examples of successful entrepreneurship, their leadership aimed to realize the dream of social success and the victory of technology within the framework of progress. On the opposite, Ernest Shackleton challenged the elements, relying only on capabilities given to him by nature, defending the individual’s right to freedom from the conventions of civilization. Comparing Ernest Shackleton to Mark Cuban based on the latter’s passion for sports and TV funding would also be speculation.

Shackleton was a pioneer and was second to none in this setting. However, with the outbreak of World War I and the end of the Endurance voyage, the exploration era came to an end, making Shackleton one of its last heroes. His friends described those times as “a madness sweeping Europe,” which continued on an even broader scale during World War II (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010). These wars’ massacres critically reduced the value of human life and turned civilization into slavery to the fear of death. The romantic spirit of a person’s victory over superior conditions could no longer inspire people as they did before.

Space exploration has become a new turn in the path of peaceful warriors striving to defeat the human form limitations. In this regard, Ernest Shackleton can be compared with Elon Musk, who is making significant efforts to proceed with space exploration. However, Musk is an engineer and entrepreneur, albeit a romantic entrepreneur. After all, if he had the spirit of adventure, he would probably wish to organize his space expedition. There are rumors that Musk has already booked a seat on the first tourist space flight to the moon, but it is not yet known whether he intends to go into outer space or pilot a spacecraft. For some reason, our contemporaries stopped challenging human capabilities and powers. Such a trend has ceased to arouse society’s interest since objectively, our planet is now considered to be explored and conquered.

The Voyage of Endurance

Since Shackleton came up with a rather ambitious plan to conquer the Antarctic continent, difficulties inevitably arose. The project’s scope was developed to a great extent to attract public attention and sponsor money. Therefore, first of all, he had to make a vivid impression. This misalignment of priorities led to the fact that the route proposed by Shackleton was initially tricky to overcome and not thoroughly thought out. Besides, the expedition leader was running out of time, since upon returning home, he had to repay many loans (Pooley, 2015). Perhaps these circumstances influenced him so that he considered achieving his goal the only possible outcome of the expedition and took an extremely ill-considered step.

Therefore, when the Endurance ship arrived at the whale station on Saint George Island in the Weddell Sea, local scientists warned Shackleton against traveling and suggested waiting out a couple of months. In December 1914, when the expedition arrived at the Antarctic Circle, it was greeted by an unexpected natural phenomenon (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010). Despite the summer season, the melting ice surrounding the continent came much closer to the island than usual. Nobody knows what caused this phenomenon, but this was a clear warning against starting the expedition. Shackleton decided to set off towards the shores of Antarctica. As a result, his ship Endurance, engineered from wood to resist ice masses, was stuck in the ice 80 miles offshore (Koehn, Helms, & Mead, 2010). The crew was immobilized, and Shackleton suggested spending the winter on the ship, waiting for an ice pack gap.

A year after being in the ice, it became evident that the venture had failed, and the boat began to collapse under the ice pressure. Therefore, the crew had to leave it and set up camp on the drifting ice. The current moved the expedition hundreds of miles north, closer to the edge of the ice pack. After Endurance sunk, Shackleton ordered to wait until the current delivers the expedition to the edge of the ice pack and then get to the nearest islands by boats (Pooley, 2015). It was done despite enormous efforts and extremely unfavorable conditions. Shackleton then had to carry out a rescue expedition to the South George Island’s shores to save the crew remaining on the Elephant Island, which he also succeeded.

Shackleton and Leadership Styles

Undoubtedly, Shackleton had leadership traits such as openness, self-confidence, responsibility, and the ability to achieve goals. However, the decisive factor in his leadership style was establishing ethical relations between people, inspiring them with his behavior (Robbins & Judge, 2018). According to the theories of leadership, which presuppose charismatic, transitional, and transformational leaders’ traits, Ernest Shackleton most possessed the latter (Robbins & Judge, 2018). He implemented the 4I approach inherent in the transformational leadership style and was more focused on achieving goals than maintaining good relations with the team (Robbins & Judge, 2018). This demeanor helped him to prove himself as a leader in the most adverse conditions. However, this same quality could have caused severe friction if Shackleton had not chosen captain Worsley as an assistant, who spent a lot of time communicating with the crew.

Shackleton’s strong ethical character helped him create an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. Besides, Shackleton had an exceptional sense of responsibility and awareness of his people’s needs and requirements, as well as a clear understanding of how to meet those needs. Preparing for the expedition, he read many reports on his predecessors’ campaigns and set himself to save the lives of all crew members. He served this purpose selflessly, and, after the Endurance stuck in the ice pack, he banned the traditional rank relationships between team members, obliging everyone to work physically. This decision resulted in less tension, humility, and increased team job satisfaction (Robbins & Judge, 2018). Besides, Shackleton has shown himself as a directive leader in harsh conditions and extremely democratic in favorable ones, which speaks of his innate ability to manage people.

Sir Ernest Shackleton was a good leader as he achieved his goal even in defeat. The head of the expedition revealed an additional 200 miles of the Antarctic coastline and experienced drifting ice (Pooley, 2015). He was also the first to conquer the world’s most dangerous Weddell Sea, on a small lifeboat. In doing so, he managed to save all his crew. These people became the conquerors of the South Pole and survived thanks to their talents and abilities and thanks to the foresight and wisdom of their leader, who knew how to learn from other people’s mistakes. Upon the return of the expedition, Shackleton did not receive social and financial recognition. However, he gained worldwide fame as the leader of the first expedition that returned home in full force, having managed to survive in inhuman conditions.

Thus, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s leadership style and how it was realized in the Endurance expedition’s harsh conditions to the South Pole were discussed. A high level of responsibility and ethics and dedication to the goals set, helped him become an outstanding leader and pioneer of the early 20th century. Shackleton’s ability to organize people can be a good example for modern entrepreneurs, especially those whose business faces harsh and unfavorable conditions.


Koehn, N. F., Helms, E., & Mead, P. (2010). Leadership in crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the epic voyage of the Endurance. Harvard Business School.

Robbins, S. P., & Judge T. A. (2018). Essentials of organizational behavior (14th ed.). Pearson.

Pooley, L. (2015). Shackleton’s captain – the famous Antarctic expedition. Web.

Watson, C. (2010). Effective project management: The art of creating scope statements. LLRX. Web.

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