He was an Antarctic explorer who never got near the South Pole. A mariner whose ship sank miles from its destination in some of the world’s most hostile seas.
Yet Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated Antarctic expedition have much to teach modern business leaders, says Harvard Business School (HBS) Professor of Business Administration Nancy Koehn. She has created and taught a business case called “Leadership in Crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance.”
“How he did what he did is very instructive,” says Koehn of the now celebrated explorer and leader of a heroic expedition that saw all 28 members survive despite several years of harsh conditions and devastating, potentially deadly, setbacks. “It has both inspirational lessons and things we don’t want to do.” It’s this duality, she says, that makes Shackleton such a compelling case, knocking him off a mythologized pedestal and into the messy stew of humanity, where good and bad, success and failure coexist.
What’s more, as movies and books have demonstrated in the past decade, the voyage of the ship Endurance makes for a grippingly good story.
It is 1914, the peak of Europe’s fascination with polar exploration and the eve of Britain’s involvement in World War I. Shackleton and a crew of 27 men set out to be the first to traverse Antarctica. They head south from South Georgia Island, a whaling outpost, despite warnings of pack ice, and within a month, the
‘Part of what the Shackleton story is about . . . is leading under moments of great uncertainty when the game is changing, and may change on a dime.’
– Nancy Koehn, HBS Professor of Business Administration
Endurance is frozen solid in ice. Although Antarctica is within sight, the ice floes carry the Endurance off course, away from land. Ten months later, in October 1915, the ship suffers irreparable damage by the massive ice floes and sinks; Shackleton and his crew abandon ship and camp on the ice.
With his men’s survival, not Antarctica, as his new goal, Shackleton mounts several failed rescue attempts, the last of which gets his crew to uninhabited Elephant Island. From there, in April 1916, he and five others travel in a lifeboat back to South Georgia Island, where they cross the uncharted interior to secure help at a whaling station. After several attempts and four months, they return to rescue the remaining 22 men, all of whom are alive.
Flexible leadership in trying times
Along the arduous way, Shackleton demonstrates leadership qualities that HBS students, most of whom will never sail to Antarctica or face the life-threatening cold or hunger that tried the Endurance crew, can nonetheless learn volumes from.
“He’s tireless, he’s a very fascinating example of entrepreneurship, of self-promotion, of obsessive dedication to a goal,” says Koehn. And yet despite this obsession, he maintains the perspective and flexibility to alter his goal to the circumstances – a skill crucial to successful entrepreneurs.
“What happens when your true north is suddenly very different?” says Koehn. “Part of what the Shackleton story is about … is leading under moments of great uncertainty when the game is changing, and may change on a dime.”
Koehn fine-tuned her conception of leadership and entrepreneurship in her book “Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers’ Trust from Wedgwood to Dell” (Harvard Business School Press, 2001), which tells the personal and business
stories of six legendary entrepreneurs. One quality they share, she says, is the ability to “throw out the baby and the bathwater,” to scrap a favorite but floundering business model for one that’s more effective, given the circumstances. A tenacious hold on the “baby” has derailed many a motivated entrepreneur, she notes.
On this point, certainly, Shackleton soars. Very shortly after the Endurance becomes stalled in the ice, he abandons his dreams of an Antarctic traverse and focuses wholeheartedly on his expedition’s survival. He even instructs his crew to abandon microscopes and tools for collecting specimens on the island.
One crewmember’s banjo, however, is saved, in what Koehn calls another demonstration of Shackleton’s leadership prowess. He’s able to simultaneously see the big picture – keeping his crew alive and returning them safely – and small details, such as the banjo’s ability to entertain the crew over long, dark days with little to do.
“I think this is true of a lot of great business leaders and public leaders of different ilks: He’s very good at running a split screen in his head,” says Koehn. “Leadership is about both screens.”
Shackleton also proves an insightful manager under the curiously demanding circumstances of mind-numbing, seemingly unending boredom. With forward progress toward Antarctica out of the question, he nonetheless keeps his crew on a strict daily routine and mounts skits and poetry readings for their long nights. Crew morale is paramount: When the ship’s carpenter (Koehn calls him “high-maintenance”) threatens mutiny, Shackleton flies in the face of maritime convention by promising to pay the entire crew until they return to England, despite the dissolution of the tasks for which they were hired.
“He’s not afraid to bend the rules, or break them when he needs to,” Koehn says.
Making smart mistakes
As an educator, Koehn embraces Shackleton’s flaws with the same vigor she applauds his visionary leadership.
“There are lots of things he does that we would call ‘leadership don’ts.’ And those are perhaps as illustrative or helpful or educational as the things he does well,” she says.
Shackleton was arrogant to a fault, a quality that leads to the whopper mistake of ignoring the whalers’ warnings of pack ice and proceeding south to Antarctica. The case’s business perspective also notes other management shortcomings. He hires his crew haphazardly and trains them poorly; most of them did not know how to ski – arguably a skill crucial to trans-Antarctic navigation. The sled dogs he commissions from Canada arrive untrained as well.
Shackleton makes other errors in judgment that Koehn says are a necessary evil to entrepreneurship. Twice, he tries to trek toward the sea, his men dragging a supply-laden lifeboat across soft ice and snow. Twice, he abandons the effort after their progress falls far short of his estimates. Again and again, he sets a course that must be altered – just as good leaders must do.
“You can’t be afraid to make smart mistakes. That’s something we have no training in,” says Koehn.
‘Resonant to our moment’
Shackleton’s disaster has turned out to be students’ gain. “Nothing I have done at the Harvard Business School has gotten as much ‘click-through,’ so to speak, as this,” says Koehn. “This story is so resonant to our moment.”
A European historian by training who was a lecturer in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences before joining the HBS faculty in 1991, Koehn notes that Great Britain on the eve of World War I enjoyed a power and stability much like the United States saw at the end of the 20th century. In both nations, the following few years would shake this certainty. Without prompting, her students find obvious parallels to 9/11 and the challenges faced by leaders like then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Even more than his courage and crisis-tested leadership skills, Koehn says Shackleton fills a heroism void – in this country, in particular.
Read more about Professor of Business Administration Nancy Koehn.
“We’re living in an age when conceptions of success are really rapidly changing,” she says, noting that especially since 9/11, material gain has taken a backseat to less tangible measures of success. “Give me someone whom I trust, whom I believe in, who represents an ideal, an objective greater than himself, greater than the transactional, greater than the self-interested. Shackleton is all about that.
“He is an interesting kind of touchstone of what constitutes success, what really matters when the old bedrock seems to be on shaky ground,” she adds. “Good leaders do that. They provide some context to measure our worth and our endeavors by. They frame a moment to say ‘here is what constitutes a good end.'”