Teamistry Season 1 Episode 05

The Brilliant Success of Shackleton’s Failure

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Sir Ernest Shackleton wanted to be the first man to walk across the Antarctic continent. In 1914, with a crew of 28 men, he set sail on the Endurance to complete the first “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.” But harsh winds and frigid temperatures threatened the voyage from the start, and in short order the ship was marooned thousands of miles away from civilization. Shackleton suddenly realized a different task was at hand – keeping his crew alive. A team of restless seamen who quickly run out of food, patience, and hope. In this episode of Teamistry, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite travels back in time to discover the surprisingly modern leadership skills of Shackleton, like emotional intelligence and empathy. Hear from the diary of one of the crew to get a sense of the uncertainty and fear the seamen grappled with, and listen as Nancy Koehn, a historian and professor at the Harvard Business School, walks you through the pivotal moments when Shackleton’s superior decision-making helped him salvage the expedition and hold the hearts of his men. Also, Tim Jarvis, an explorer who recreated some of Shackleton’s journey, discusses how Shackleton’s strategies can help us face climate change, and Thomas H. Zurbuchen talks about how he applies Shackleton’s leadership lessons at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Teamistry is an original podcast from Atlassian.

Episode Extras

Sir E. Shackleton, between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920 (Flickr Commons project, 2015)

Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic last moments of the Endurance, 1916 (Library of Congress)

Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic on Elephant Island where Sir Ernest Shackleton found lost party, 1916 (Library of Congress)

Photograph shows Sir Ernest Shackleton, standing in foreground with friend, and crew members at campsite on Elephant Island, 1916 (Library of Congress)


SHACKLETON: We were marching along, three of us harnessed to one sledge, in very bad light. All of a sudden, we heard a shout of help from the man behind. We looked round, and saw him supporting himself by his elbows on the edge of a chasm.

GABRIELA: That is explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, remembering one of his most harrowing adventures in the Antarctic.

SHACKLETON: We rushed back and helped the man out, and then we laid down to have a look, but nothing but a black gulf lay below.

GABRIELA: If you’ve heard of Ernest Shackleton it’s probably because of his famous and ill fated trip in 1914. Which is what this episode of Teamistry is about. But the thing is, in that recording, he’s talking about his previous expedition, in 1907. That trip was also ill fated and his crew faced frostbite, starvation, and almost didn’t survive. In the end, they never even reached their destination of the South Pole. And yet, just a few years later, he was at it again, heading back on an even more ambitious expedition, to cross Antarctica on foot. A mission that would test him and his crew to their very limits, and beyond.

Nancy Koehn:

They're cold, they're hungry and they arrive on this absolutely deserted island, there is zero chance that a ship will find them. There is zero chance they will be rescued there.

GABRIELA: So, is this a story of failure? Well, actually, it's one of the most incredible adventure stories of all time, a leadership masterclass in the face of insurmountable challenges.

Nancy Koehn:

Shackleton made each of the men feel like they were capable of doing harder, better things than they could do on their own. And I think that's a really important aspect of real leaders.

GABRIELA: I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. This show is all about the chemistry of teams and what happens when people are so open to new ideas of working, innovating and expressing themselves together, they end up doing something amazing.

GABRIELA: It’s late summer, 1914. Europe is in turmoil. Britain has just declared war on Germany. But we’re literally miles away from that, near the southern tip of Chile, aboard The Endurance. It’s a three-masted wooden schooner, heading for the Antarctic. On board, a crew of 28 men—Brits, an Australian, a New Zealander and one American—are led by Ernest Shackleton. He’s titled this trip the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” and that pretty much sums it up: he wants to be the first to walk across the Antarctic continent, for the glory of the British empire. There’s also a vague goal of scientific discovery, but what it really comes down to is Shackleton’s answer to, in his own words, an “indescribable calling.” His crew has their own reasons for coming: for some it’s adventure and glory. For others, more desperate men, it is a way to earn some cash. And this expedition is costing a lot of that: about 9 million dollars in today’s money. Not to mention, in 1914, it’s the equivalent of space travel: dangerous, unknown and unprecedented.

GABRIELA: It’s now late 1914 and the Endurance has reached a whaling settlement on the island of South Georgia, the last port before the Antarctic Circle. It is summer in the southern hemisphere and so the crew is confident they can reach the continent before winter returns. But talk from the whalers is that the pack ice is unusually thick and could trap the ship if the wind shifts or the temperatures drop. Shackleton, impatient and overconfident, ignores the warnings and sets out.

GABRIELA: Some of Shackleton’s crew kept diaries during the voyage, which give us an inside look into daily life. A crew member who kept a remarkably detailed and consistent diary was Tom Orde-Lees, who everyone called “Lees.” He was in charge of the ship’s supplies and also worked as the helmsman, steering the ship on Shackleton’s orders.

GABRIELA: One of Lees’ first entries is for Christmas day, 1914, writing about the festivities on the Endurance:

Sir Ernest is splendid where intoxicants are concerned, he gauges exactly how much is suitable to the occasion - necessary to satisfy without permitting of unreasonable and objectionable indulgence...

GABRIELA: In other words, Shackleton keeps the drinks flowing as long as everyone is having a good time. He cuts them off before things get rowdy. Within days, though, the mood changes as the Endurance encounters ice. They are still able to continue, but their pace is frustratingly slow. Writes Lees on New Year’s Eve:

During practically the whole of my watch this morning we were jammed in between two converging floes. Sir Ernest seemed quite relieved when he saw what we had got clear of, though he did not exhibit any undue apprehensiveness at the time.

GABRIELA: By January, they come within sight of the Antarctic mainland but harsh winds kick up and frigid temperatures descend on the crew. Movement gets slower and slower until, at the beginning of February, 1915, the Endurance is trapped in the ice, as Lees writes:

Owing to the temperature having been below zero a good deal lately the pool in which we were lying is now all frozen over. Sir Ernest accepts the inevitable with his customary inscrutable composure. One wonders what he really does think with so much anxiety concealed beneath so calm an exterior.

GABRIELA: The crew now faces passing the winter in the cramped ship, which itself is stuck in an ice flow, drifting along the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton needs to take action and make some decisions.

Nancy Koehn:

The first one was to realize that things had suddenly changed dramatically and that he had to manage the morale and the energy of his team now in a different way than when things were going according to plan

GABRIELA: That’s Nancy Koehn. She’s a historian and professor at the Harvard Business School. She’s so fascinated by the Shackleton expedition, she writes and lectures about its leadership lessons. And those lessons begin here, in how to deal with this first crisis. Not just being trapped in the ice, but how that can lead to a loss of morale and discord amongst the crew.

Nancy Koehn:

So he created routine, including not only duty rosters that rotated every week, but also forced socialization.

GABRIELA: Those daily routines include swabbing the decks, collecting scientific samples from the ice, hunting for seals and penguins as meat stores run low. All while trapped in the ice. And, as Nancy says, Shackleton made sure they did more than work together.

Nancy Koehn:

The men did a lot of socializing around things like skits and songs and dog sled races on the ice So, the value of comradery that was both social and mission driven and the seamlessness of the bond among the men because of that joint comradery, that was really important.

GABRIELA: Lees writes about that camaraderie:

We had a grand cinema football match with two full teams of eleven aside. Hurley, who never plays games, was busy with his cameras all the time, showing one phase of our strange existence, our recreation as we all played with much vigour.

GABRIELA: But despite Shackleton’s efforts, spirits don’t always remain high...

Certainly one notices a little grumpiness and irritability in one's comrades. One has to exercise one's self-control. Resentment and estrangement are vile at all times but here they would entirely mar the harmony that, for the most part, exists among us

GABRIELA: That sense of harmony is about to come under even greater strain. It’s October, 1915 and the Endurance has been drifting, stuck fast in the ice, for eight months. But it is also being slowly crushed by all that pressure. Pressure which sometimes gets so intense, it violently shakes the ship, as Lees writes

We were having tea peacefully at 4 p.m. when we heard and felt several light bumps, such as we have grown quite accustomed to, followed by one very loud one. No sooner had we reached the deck than the ship was heaved up suddenly and violently and  immediately rolled over slowly onto her side. Everything was at once pandemonium. Kennels, spars, sledges, etc., all sliding down the deck and the dogs howling with terror.

GABRIELA: Finally, the breaking point, literally: October 24th. Pressed against an ice floe, the hull begins to crack. Icy water starts flowing into the ship.

Nancy Koehn:

It was bad enough when the men were immobile in the ship, but at least they were housed, they had a sense that once the ship broke free of the ice they could carry on or certainly sail home. Once the ship begins to be crushed by the ice a whole different set of circumstances are seen. Their conditions, the conditions in which the men are operating, become much worse.

GABRIELA: Once again, Shackleton must face changing conditions with a new plan. He orders his crew to make camp on the ice near the damaged ship. On a nearby ice floe, the crew set themselves up to live under three overturned lifeboats and tents. Shackleton, though, doesn’t plan things haphazardly.

Nancy Koehn:

He very carefully orchestrates who will be with whom in the tents trying to put the most important influencers of morale, the most practically, realistically positive people in each tent as a way of, again, keeping the men's spirits realistically optimistic. He takes all of what I like to call the Doubting Thomases, all the people who didn't believe this thing could succeed and the men could survive, all the people that were stirring dissension and doubt among the team, he puts them all in his tent.

GABRIELA: By having the doubters close at hand, and keeping them in check, Shackleton was able to maintain positivity across the entire team. But a short time after setting up the tents, a shocking sight. As the men stand and watch helplessly, the Endurace falls through the ice

Things have taken a terribly serious turn. Our worst fears are realized. Our little ship was stove in, hopelessly crushed and helpless amongst the engulfing ice. Nothing that we could do for her was any more good and as before our eyes she commenced to settle down first by the bow then by the stern. We bade her goodbye with our hearts.

Nancy Koehn:

So the men are just absolutely gobsmacked. They are so anxious, so upset, these are sailors, many of them, nautical men. To lose their ship thousands of miles from civilization, they have no radio, they have no means of communication, is just a huge blow.

GABRIELA: And, as Lees writes, they look to their captain for guidance:

Sir Ernest's grand example inspired us all with a confidence in our leader, in a moment such as this, that caused us to look to him for direction in all we did and to work in unison implicitly obeying his orders. To each of us, as occasion offered, he said a word or two of encouragement, such as to me, "Mind you put your old diary in my bag as it has been kept rather more regularly than mine, I believe." The forces of nature have made their counter attack and had driven us out from our position but thoughts of surrender never entered our heads.

GABRIELA: They are camped and floating on a huge chunk of ice, out at sea. Supplies for less than eight weeks survival. No one knows where they are and they have no way of calling for help. All they can look forward to is months of drifting aimlessly. And despite some of the men keeping a stiff upper lip, Shackleton knows despair will soon take over.

Nancy Koehn:

Shackleton the next morning walks around to the tents with his first mate, bringing cups of hot tea and milk to the men and says, "Lads, come outside, gather round." And the first and only thing he says after all the men kind of pull themselves out of the tents and are standing there with their tin cups full of a hot beverage. He says, "Well, ship and store's gone. We'll go home now."

GABRIELA: Up until this point, I had an image of Shackleton in my head, obsessed with the South Pole, kind of like Captain Ahab who even throws his life away to get Moby Dick (sorry, spoilers). But not Shackleton. He is the champion of a team superpower I'll call “Pivot and Commit.” Let the whale go and pick a new goal: save the crew.

Nancy Koehn:

The lesson is, and it's vital for our time, is that leaders, particularly when things are volatile, have to show up in service to the mission. So the fact that Shackleton appeared confident, focused the men's thoughts and vision on what was ahead, that is, we've got to get home now, that's our job and we will. At a moment when it looked like all hope was lost was absolutely essential to creating the will among the men to get home alive and to do it together, to do it with camaraderie and mutual support.

GABRIELA: And this is where Shackleton displays another of the key team superpowers on this voyage, what Nancy calls “Calculated Empathy”

Nancy Koehn:

All leaders need empathy. Most leaders need calculated empathy. I want to do it because it's needed, but I have to do it in a way that moves the mission forward. We shouldn't get nervous about the word calculation. Smart, serious leaders don't do much that they aren't thoughtful about and they aren't thinking one step ahead on. So, he would offer empathy to men.

And he would do it in a calculated way

GABRIELA: Nancy has examples of how Shackleton used this superpower to build up and maintain morale.

Nancy Koehn:

When one man would start to flag and Shackleton would notice his energy declining, he would order up hot milk for all the men around him, including that man without ever identifying who the person he was worried about was. So he did everything from, I'm going to take care of the men without ever embarrassing anyone, raise their energy, make them feel better, warm their bodies, to making conversation after dinner with the men. He used to travel around the camp, stopping at the tent to chat about, oh, this Britannica article. They had torn sheets from the encyclopedia on the ship before they emptied the ship or play cards. So each man felt like their boss, knew who they were and cared about who they were.

GABRIELA: Weeks pass and the ice floe the crew is camped on slowly drifts northward. As the weeks turn into months, there is no sight of land. Provisions run so low that the crew depends more and more on seal and penguin for sustenance. And now it’s April, 1916, and the ice is starting to break up. Which means their campsite is unstable. At any moment the ice can crack apart, dumping them all into the sea. Which happens, as Lees writes on April 9th.

All hands were awakened, just before 11 p.m., by the now familiar cry of "crack." We jumped up just in time to see the floe separate into two halves and to hear the cry and commotion of a man in the water. The latter was the sailor Holness and his position was one of extreme danger, for apart from the usual restrictions of clothing, boots, etc., and the fact that his sleeping bag had fallen in on top of him, he was in imminent peril of being crushed between two halves of the floe. Curiously enough it was Sir Ernest himself who rescued Holness. No doubt he was spending one of his usual wakeful nights and so was it up and out in an instant.

GABRIELA: With the ice breaking up, they must load the lifeboats and row for land before they all fall into the freezing water. Their hope is to reach one of the South Shetland islands, off the coast of Antarctica, that are sometimes visited by whalers. But between the crew and those islands is hundreds of miles of ice filled water

As the water splashed into the boats it froze instantly, forming thick incrustations of ice on the inside of the boat and all over the gear freezing up the sail as stiff as a piece of corrugated iron.

GABRIELA: Miserable days pass aboard the lifeboats. Morale has never been so low.

It is anything but a pleasant life just at present and I have heard Mr. Wild and several others who ought to know assert that if this sort of thing continues for much longer some of the party will undoubtedly go under.

GABRIELA: After three days of futility and suffering, Shackleton once again accepts the situation and makes a change. Instead of continuing for the inhabited islands that are still hundreds of miles away, they will head to Elephant Island, which they should reach in two days. They make it, but Elephant Island is completely barren and uninhabited

Nancy Koehn:

They're cold, they're hungry. They're tired. They're frightened. And Shackleton is very worried about the pulse of morale. He says it's weak, it's feeble. And then against all the advice of the man who was in charge of supplies, Shackleton orders up double rations for several days and announces it to the men. And almost immediately, it's fascinating in the diaries, you start getting these moments of positive uptick. There's one wonderful comment from one of the enlisted men. "Terrible week, double rations now. Just ate, feel full as a tick."

GABRIELA: And while it’s a relief to finally be on land, Elephant Island is not on any trade or sailing routes. There is no chance anyone will find them. No chance of rescue. And since their goal is to simply make it home alive, Shackleton comes up with a new plan. About 800 miles away, or just over a week’s sailing is South Georgia, the island they set out from a year and half ago. There’s a whaling station there with a telegraph office. Once again Shackleton taps into the “Pivot and Commit” superpower.

Nancy Koehn:

The lesson there is effective, courageous leaders are always looking to the future and then ready very quickly with improvisation and other resources to put that plan into action.

GABRIELA: But the trip will be treacherous to say the least: two weeks in a lifeboat not made for ocean crossings, it doesn’t even have a keel to keep it upright. And they’ll be facing heavy sea conditions and gale force winds. Even today the south Atlantic is considered one of the most difficult oceans to sail in the world.

GABRIELA: Shackleton can’t take the entire crew, the crossing is too dangerous and taxing. So he decides to sail with only five others. His navigator, Frank Worsely and his most capable sailor, Thomas Crean.

Nancy Koehn:

And then he takes what he considers his two worst troublemakers with him, because he doesn't want to leave them on Elephant Island sowing the seeds of doubt or destruction or discord among the 22 men who must remain there while Shackleton sails for help. He's not just thinking practically here, he's thinking psychologically, he's thinking strategically.

GABRIELA: After ten days of preparation, on the 24th of April, Shackleton and his tiny crew set out from Elephant Island. And while we can’t interview him about that journey, we have almost the next best thing.

Tim Jarvis:

Sometimes the waves are 10 to 15 meters high, and you're in a boat that sits only 40 centimeters above the surface of the sea. It's very, very low, because you have all of the ballast on board, to try and stop the boat capsizing in the absence of a keel.

GABRIELA: Tim Jarvis is an environmental scientist and explorer. A few years ago, Alexandra Shackleton, who works to preserve her grandfather’s memory and honour his accomplishments, asked Tim to recreate the journey to South Georgia island. Tim decided to do it in an exact replica of Shackleton’s lifeboat. Wearing the same type of clothes he and his crew would have worn. With the same equipment. Like Shackleton’s team, Tim and his crew also spent two weeks on a harrowing sea crossing.

Tim Jarvis:

It's noisy, it's sometimes very frightening. It's extremely cold. The temperature of the sea down there is one degree Celsius.

GABRIELA: That’s 34 degrees fahrenheit.

Tim Jarvis:

And, of course, your boat only has planks which are 15 millimeters thick, so you feel the cold coming through, and you can hear the sound of the ocean on the other side of the planks, as you sit below deck waiting for your turn to go up and get on the helm of the boat.  When you're on the helm, of course, you have waves crashing over you, so you're being soaked continuously by that one degree Celsius sea water, and you're wearing clothing that's not waterproof. It's a very, very challenging, rough, unpleasant journey, and you have to keep focused all the way through, otherwise you won't make it.

GABRIELA: And, like Shackleton, Tim’s group made it to South Georgia. And here’s where they replicated another part of the original journey. A hurricane had forced Shackleton’s group to land not at the whaling station, but on the opposite, uninhabited side of the island. And even though the island is not large, there is a huge mountain range in the middle. A range that had never been crossed. By anyone. Shackleton’s group had no maps, no climbing gear and no tents. Plus, three of the men are too sick from the ocean crossing to make the hike. That leaves only Shackleton and two others. They push nails through the bottoms of their boots for grip and spend thirty-six hours crossing the South Georgia mountain range. Tim and his group also made it across South Georgia, the entire time inspired by Shackleton’s team leadership.

Tim Jarvis:

He understood that in order to get the people through the situation in which they found themselves, you needed to have a plan as to how they were going to get through the circumstances they found themselves in.

GABRIELA: Shackleton’s circumstances at this point, in May of 1916, are that most of his crew is still trapped on Elephant Island while three are on the other side of South Georgia. The first thing he does is send a whaling ship back to rescue those three. But getting the rest of the crew proves much harder than he had hoped. A barrier of pack ice has formed off the coast of Elephant Island. Over the coming weeks, Shackleton attempts to make it through first in a whaling ship, then a trawler, then a small schooner. But the ice is impassable. At this point, the team on Elephant Island has been alone and out of contact for over one hundred days. Eventually, Shackleton begs the Chilean government for help and they agree to give him a much larger boat, a steamer, to head south.

GABRIELA: It’s the morning of August 30, 1916—four months after originally leaving Elephant Island—and after breaking through the pack ice, Shackleton is looking for the rest of his crew. Will they have survived this long? Could they have decided after all this time, to try their own luck at crossing the sea? Sailing along the shore, the fog is so thick, Shackleton can’t see land. But then, for once on this entire expedition, the weather cooperates. The fog lifts and Shackleton spots the camp. Within an hour, the men are safely aboard. Every single one of them. Upon returning to South Georgia, Shackleton writes a letter to his wife,

My darling, I have done it. Not a life lost and we have been through Hell. Soon I will be home and then I will rest. Give my love and kisses to the children.

Nancy Koehn:

I think one of the reasons he was so tireless about trying to do this, why he worked so very hard, why it became a kind of personal covenant to bring his men home alive was not just that he felt responsible for them, that was critical, but also that he felt responsible for the initiating event that caused the crisis.

GABRIELA: And, as Nancy points out, it was Shackleton’s decisions that are the lasting legacy of this voyage

Nancy Koehn:

When you make a mistake, learn quickly and take the responsibility for cleaning it up. That's an incredibly effective way to not only make the situation better, as important as that is, but to earn trust and respect from others.

GABRIELA: Nancy teaches these lessons learned from Shackleton at Harvard. But the lessons are so powerful, so inspirational, that they reverberate around the world. And beyond.

Thomas H. Zurbuchen:

Here at the NASA Science Mission directorate, which is what I'm leading, we have close to a hundred missions that are in various stages of development.

GABRIELA: That’s right, NASA. Thomas Zurbuchen and his team are explorers too, supporting missions into Earth orbit and to the moon. He looks to Shackleton’s story for inspiration...

Thomas H. Zurbuchen:

The only way Shackleton made it with that entire team is because he looked out for the wellbeing of every single crew member. And because of that, whether it's the person working in the kitchen initially, or the person who was keeping the log and the history and so forth, everybody became part of the solution. And what the leader does in this case, he focuses or she focuses not so much on what is the most comfortable for me, she or he focuses on what is best for the team. I always tell my team that it's much better to be in a great team doing a horrific task, than having a great task with a horrific team.

GABRIELA: The story of the Endurance expedition doesn’t only inspire business teams or guide Thomas’ work at NASA. Tim Jarvis, the explorer who recreated some of the journey, is inspired by one of Shackleton’s strategies when it comes to facing one of the biggest crises of our time. Bring people with opposing views into your camp, so you can minimize their negative impact and even get them to engage.

Tim Jarvis:

And I think that lesson is a very important one for the way we communicate climate change. You might be speaking to someone today who has no interest in climate change, or doesn't believe in it, but they might be motivated by the fact that by putting in renewable energy on the roof of their home, like a solar panel for example, it's going to save them money. And I think there are ways of pitching messages to people to get them to want to follow you in a leadership situation. And it's just a case of understanding what those touch points are with people. And Shackleton was very good at doing that, and I think we need to do that in the environment space

GABRIELA: Shackleton’s team made it home, in 1916, despite everything they had been through. And after having been through all that, how did they really feel about him? Well, Nancy offers perhaps the best test of his leadership

Nancy Koehn:

Shackleton decides in 1920 he wants to go back to the Antarctic. It's not exactly clear why, but he sends the call out to all the men that had been on the expedition on the Endurance. Almost half immediately from the far corners of the world answer the call and come back. And we know they don't come back because it was so much fun on the last expedition. They come back because he called them and they believed in him and they liked how they felt when he led them, when they were working with him.

GABRIELA: This next expedition to Antarctica turned out to be Shackelton’s last. Upon arriving at the familiar stop on South Georgia Island, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was 47 years old. His wife asked that he be buried at the same whaling station from where he had saved his men.

Nancy Koehn:

When we think about the power of courageous leadership, that to me, every time I think of it is a perfect example of the power of one person to make people better and stronger and to make the world better and move the boulder of goodness forward. So as someone who wants to motivate people, inspire people to be stronger, even when it seems easier to be weak or scared, that example is really powerful for me personally as well.

GABRIELA:  The only way Shackleton and his crew could have survived was by relying on superpowers like committing to new directions in the face of constant change and showing compassion to individuals the way they need it. To find out more about those and a growing list of team powers, check out the “extras” page at atlassian dot com slash Teamistry. Next time on the podcast, the true story of how one of the most important apps in our lives almost never happened. That’s next time on Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian.

GABRIELA: Thanks for listening.