Endurance – engineering success out of failure

“By endurance we conquer” is the family motto of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a motto he would prove as leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914.  Shackleton hoped to complete the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, but he did not set foot on it during this expedition.  But history didn’t judge Shackleton a failure because of the gritty leadership he displayed, which is recounted in Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance”.

Shackleton sailed on this polar expedition in August, 1914 with a crew of 28 aboard the Endurance, a ship designed for the rigors of sailing arctic waters.  The destination was Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea, where he would commence the overland portion of the journey, completing it 1,800 miles later at the Ross Sea where a sister ship, the Aurora, would wait for his arrival.

The Endurance encountered pack ice in mid-December.  They sailed around the ice, but were unable to reach Vahsel Bay.  By mid-February 1915 – ironically the Antarctic summer – the ship was ice-bound.  This wasn’t part of Shackleton’s plan, but he didn’t panic.  The crew settled in to spend the next few months drifting at the mercy of the ice pack with plans to resume the voyage once the pack broke up the following spring.

Months were spent aboard ship waiting and drifting.  When the ice began to move, the effect on the ship was alarming.  The strong winds and currents created massive pressure ridges in the ice, forcing the Endurance to list and squeezing her hull.  Shackleton’s crew witnessed the slow death of their ship.  By late October, the hull splintered and timbers snapped under the pressure, allowing water to enter the ship.  In temperatures well below freezing, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship.  Before the Endurance sank one month later, the crew was able to salvage critical supplies and equipment, as well as the ship’s three lifeboats.

The crew camped on the ice as Shackleton turned his attention to their rescue.  A few inhospitable islands offered better sanctuary and hope for rescue than the ice flow on which they were camped.  An arduous trek across the ice pack to one of them was attempted but quickly abandoned.  The only remaining option was to sail in the lifeboats to an island when leads of open water appeared.  The tricky part was the timing: waiting for the ice pack to break up so they could sail was a high-stakes game of chance.  At one point, the floe on which they were camped suddenly split, necessitating a hasty evacuation to the larger half of the floe.

In early April, 1916, the members of the expedition put to sea and spent six perilous days in open lifeboats making their way to Elephant Island.  After having spent over a year adrift on the ice, they finally made land.  Their relief at being ashore was short-lived: Elephant Island was remote, uninhabited rock in the hostile sea.  For their ordeal to end, Shackleton knew they would have to rescue themselves.  He made a decision to sail the most seaworthy lifeboat, the James Caird, 800-miles across the savage waters of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia Island where a whaling station was located.

The lives of Shackleton’s men rested on the success of this voyage because failure meant no hope of rescue.  To succeed, the James Caird had to complete a near-impossible feat of navigation through the stormy, windswept Southern Ocean to a tiny speck of land.  They essentially had to hit a bulls-eye from a great distance under horrible conditions on the first shot.  In Shackleton’s crew was Harry McNish, the ship’s carpenter with whom Shackleton had a sharp disagreement over an incident of insubordination.  McNish modified the James Caird to make it more seaworthy.

Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance in whom Shackleton had great confidence, was navigator.  During the voyage to South Georgia Island, Worsley navigated with a sextant, requiring him to take sightings on celestial objects to establish their position.  Rough seas, which pitched the boat in waves as high as 50 feet, and clouds that frequently obscured the heavens made taking sightings very difficult.  But after 16 days of difficult sailing, the James Caird landed on the west side of the island, concluding what is considered one of the greatest feats of maritime navigation.  But the challenge wasn’t over.

The whaling station was on the east side of the island.  Getting there meant trekking across the rugged interior of the island’s mountain ranges without a map or climbing equipment other than a short length of rope.  On May 19, 1916, Shackleton and two of his crew staggered into the whaling station.  On September 3, 1916, the Chilean steam-tug Yelcho reached Elephant Island and brought the stranded crew to safety.  Throughout this ordeal, Shackleton didn’t lose a man.

Shackleton’s story teaches us this:

  • It matters who’s in the boat with you (a nod to Jim Collins’ bus metaphor).  Early in the trials of this expedition, Harry McNish staged a minor uprising.  Shackleton felt that at the right time, he would subject McNish to formal charges and punishment.  But Shackleton didn’t let a grudge keep him from putting McNish in the boat with him – he was the right man for the job.  Ineffective leaders aren’t secure enough to do this and therefore surround themselves with “yes” men and women.
  • A bias for action made the difference.  Shackleton was unsure of many things, but certain of one: to do nothing and wait for rescue was certainly a death sentence.  Despite the risks of all he did, his decisiveness early in the ordeal made the difference.  The condition and morale of the crew worsened every day.  Deferring any of the decisions he made to await rescue or see if conditions would improve would have cost lives.

Shackleton was considered a hero, even though he “failed”. In situations when the preferred outcome is not achieved, the ingredients for a triumph of leadership are often still there.  By endurance you will conquer.


About Jerry Rackley

An avid reader, mostly non-fiction, I read great books and think how the lessons of history have contemporary application. Most of these thoughts are work related, but sometimes about faith or family. This blog is my first attempt to allow some of these thoughts to escape the rather thick skull in which they were born.
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3 Responses to Endurance – engineering success out of failure

  1. Great story and the lessons you draw from it are certainly very apt. Thankyou for sharing.

  2. Erica says:

    I remember this book as one of my favorites from the early days. You make some great applications. Shackleton is one of those people like Edmund Hillary or Colin Angus who acted despite the endless reasons why what he attempted was impossible. It’s frighteningly easy to not take a risk. Thanks for writing on this book!

  3. Ruthie says:

    What an excellent article Jerry! There is much to be learned from Shackleton’s tenacity and ability to make clear leadership decisions even when he knew that he had failed in his initial quest. To convince his team – even McNish, with whom he had experienced setbacks – to have faith in his decision, is impressive. Yet, he did NOT fail because he was clear headed enough to make the right decisions. It is reassuring to know that we all have to endure failure to learn how to become better leaders.

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