Taking Shackleton’s exemplary leadership skills safely on board

The adventurer led his crew through extremes. A workshop analyses his management style

Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton received 2,000 applications for 28 spaces on his ship after composing an advertisement that wouldn't be out of place on JobBridge. "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success."

The expedition that followed is a story of leadership in the face of disaster that speaks to our business climate today. So much so, that a workshop has been created in Dún Laoghaire to explore the legend of Shackleton in the hope that some of his greatness will rub off.

"Leadership Skills – Shackleton Style" is a half-day course that applies lessons from Shackleton's Endurance expedition to the modern workplace, promising that "you too can become an excellent leader in your business".

One can only imagine what Shackleton, Tom Crean, Tim McCarthy and the rest of the crew would make of a bunch of business people sitting in a yacht club on a mild afternoon discussing leadership but, pragmatists to the core, they would no doubt roll up their sleeves and get busy with the flipchart.


After tea and sandwiches – not a sliver of seal meat in sight – the programme kicked off with a lecture about the expedition, which left England in 1914 just before the first World War.

Recruitment methods

First we learned how the man they called the boss put together his team. Shackleton’s recruitment style was eccentric, though effective, and indicated that psychometric testing is no substitute for instinct. He hired biologist

Leonard Hussey

because he “looked funny” and could play the banjo.

It worked out well and Hussey could be relied on to cheer everybody up when things got tough, as ship navigator Capt Frank Worsley would later confirm. "Hussey was a brilliant wit, and his keen repartee was one of the few joys left to us."

Shackleton was equally shrewd when it came to choosing his official photographer. His plan was to repay his wealthy backers by telling the story of the expedition when they got home, and images were essential in this. His chosen man proved courageous and hard as nails. "[Frank] Hurley is a warrior with his camera and would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture," said First Officer Lionel Greenstreet.

After the lecture, course participants were treated to a display of more than 150 photographs that captured the stillness and beauty of the icescape. Hurley had salvaged these by diving into ice-water inside the sinking ship in October 1915. The ship had been trapped in pack ice for months and had finally started to crack. Shackleton's response to the loss of the Endurance was to formulate a new goal: "Ship and stores have gone so now we'll go home."

It wasn’t yet home time in Dún Laoghaire so we headed on to the yacht club to learn how we too could be leaders – without having to camp on ice floes for six months. Seated in a light-filled room that backed on to the harbour, we were a group of about 15, largely composed of solicitors pursuing continued professional development points. An executive coach wearing a multicoloured shirt arrived fresh from a consultation in the park.

We split into groups to identify the leadership attributes demonstrated by Shackleton and discuss what he could teach us about team-building and managing a crisis. Everyone agreed that Shackleton inspired fierce trust and loyalty. No matter what obstacles they encountered, there was never so much as a murmur of mutiny. How had he done it?

He hired cheerful and optimistic people to start with, and treated them fairly. His leadership style was informal; senior officers and seamen were equal in his eyes. He pitched in on all the menial tasks and put his men's comfort above his own. When Hurley lost his mittens following the loss of the Endurance, Shackleton gave him his own and suffered frostbitten fingers as a result. He cared for his men and they responded in kind.

Given that everything that could go wrong on the expedition did go wrong, how did he stop his men losing heart?

He created an upbeat environment on the ship. He recognised the importance of play to keep spirits up and made sure the daily work routines were interjected with fun. Who else would have insisted on recovering the banjo instead of more food from the sinking ship? He believed in celebration and entertainment and, if he ever felt like throwing in the towel, he kept it to himself. As Worsley later said: “Shackleton is the life and soul of half the skylarking and fooling in the ship.” In other words, now and then the boss gets to act the clown.

The group identified countless other skills including Shackleton’s resilience, adaptability and his willingness to seek advice from all quarters. He didn’t insist on reaching his goal at any cost but never gave up and was determined to see the job to the end.

Just as we aspiring leaders had begun fidgeting with our felt-tipped pens, it was time for a coffee break on the terrace, to watch the boats bob in the harbour before returning inside for session two where we trashed out how these skills we had identified could apply to our own lives. We conferred, drew pictures, gave presentations and, at the end, were given postcards on which to write what we would take away from the day.

I wrote “it ain’t over ’til it’s over” on mine and snuck a look at the man to my right who had written “lighten up” on his. As the workshop drew to a close, the woman next to me laughed. “That was like a big group therapy session,” she said.

Management voyage

So was it just an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon out of the office or can leadership skills really be taught? Those who went along believing that leaders are born, not made, would have been surprised to learn that Shackleton himself picked up many of his leadership skills on previous expeditions. He learnt from his mistakes and those of other explorers.

Solicitor and yoga teacher Helen Gatenby said studying Shackleton and his team had inspired her to do more.

“The nine-to-five workday can be humdrum, so hearing about the extremes those men went to has motivated me to play with my edge,” she said. She felt that while leaders are not created in an afternoon, it was useful to focus on leadership to jumpstart the journey.

Shackleton’s story even gives comfort to those who are not cut out to be big chief. He didn’t, it seems, do too well in civilian life.

Away from the sea and his men, he was mired in debt and extra-marital affairs. When his wife in England got news of his death following a heart attack a month before he turned 48, she gave instructions to bury him in South Georgia rather than bring him home.

Not even great leaders get to have it all.


Christmas dinner aboard the doomed


100 years ago will be recreated on Tuesday, December 23rd, at the exhibition in the Dún Laoghaire Ferry Terminal, with food of the era and volunteers stepping in for the 28 original crew.

The half-day leadership skills workshops will resume in January, and are expected to run on Fridays. Check shackletonexhibition.com under “Leadership Skills” for details and booking information