Ernie Shackleton: A Lesson in Leadership

I have often posted stories here about a humanitarian whose efforts led him to ensure that millions of people would not starve. These are the stories about Herbert Hoover or, as I call him, Bert.

Let me now tell a story about Ernie.

Ernie was blessed with a boundless energy and an unquenchable passion for action. If ever there was someone who was born to adventure, it was him. By the time Ernie was 28, he had explored the far reaches of the globe.

Having twice served on Antarctic voyages, Ernie found one last frontier. He aspired to do something that experts thought impossible. He didn’t simply want to reach the South Pole. Instead, he proposed crossing the entire Antarctic continent – nearly 1,500 miles – on foot. That he had never even successfully reached the South Pole did not discourage him. To get a sense of what Ernie sought to do, imagine walking from College Park to Houston across a landscape where everything was covered in rock hard ice.

To assemble the crew for his expedition, Ernie placed this ad in a London newspaper:
“Men wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of Complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

I am sure there are some in NARA who are amazed that Ernie, 100 years ago, could so accurately write their job description. What’s even more amazing is that the ad generated thousands of responses. Ernie hand-picked 27 hardy men for the journey. After a year of careful preparation, his ship, the Endurance, set sail.

Ernie thought the journey could be finished in 120 days, and he planned accordingly. Arrive in Antarctica in December. Traverse the icy continent. Be gone by May; then back home for honor and recognition.

He could not have been more mistaken.

Just 45 days into the journey, the expedition’s situation – and its objective – changed forever. The ship, which had the capacity of covering 200 miles a day, encountered the outer edges of the polar ice cap. The further into the ice cap the Endurance sailed, the slower its progress, dropping to 30 miles a day, then 10, then 2. Finally the ship was stopped cold. The icy vise of the sea closed around the Endurance. No matter how hard the men worked, no matter what they did, the ship was not going anywhere. The vessel was hopelessly stuck. After days of trying to extract the ship from the ice pack, the crew simply stopped expending its energy in this fruitless effort. All they could do was wait.

Imagine for a moment how bleak the situation was … imagine being as cold as you’ve ever been… imagine awaking each day in total darkness in a land where the sun does not rise … imagine being in a location so remote that the nearest human was 1,200 miles away … imagine knowing your provisions were not designed for a crisis like this … imagine not being able to do anything productive … imagine the frustration that must have crossed the crew’s minds.

For 288 days, the Endurance was marooned. Life aboard the ice-bound ship was distressing, but predictable. The situation became even grimmer. As time passed, the sea of ice tightened its grip around the ship, cracking the seven-foot-thick wood hull like a peanut. Ernie gave the order to abandon ship – in the middle of any icy wasteland – salvaging only a few life-boats, sleds and food. Now what?

Ernie first thought to have his crew walk across hundreds of miles of ice to safety. After covering two miles in two days, he wisely switched to Plan B. They camped on an ice floe a half-mile wide and hoped that it would drift back toward open water. After spending 171 days on a shrinking floe, the ice pack opened up and the life-boats were launched. Emaciated, suffering from diarrhea and in desperate need of fresh water, the men rowed non-stop for six days before reaching a barren speck of land called Elephant Island. For the first time in nearly 500 days, all 28 men stood on solid ground.

Not that it was grounds for celebration. Faced with no prospect of rescue, Ernie decided to take five men and set off for South Georgia Island, the same place from which the expedition had sailed out from some 18 months before. There were only three problems. First, their only seaworthy vessel was a life-boat. Second, South Georgia was 800 miles away. Third, those miles covered the most treacherous stretch of water on the planet, with hurricane-force winds and 50-foot waves common.

Despite the danger, Ernie and the five men went forward. After sixteen days of rowing, they reached South Georgia Island. While it was miraculous that the six men had survived the sea passage, Ernie was not about to abandon the 22 others left at Elephant Island. Ernie struggled to launch a successful rescue. After three failed attempts, he succeeded on the fourth try. Finally, 128 days after he had left Elephant Island, Ernie returned to rescue the men. After 634 days, the saga was complete.

If our story were to end right here, we might all agree that Ernest Shackleton was someone who exhibited amazing leadership. He helped his crew overcome obstacles that would have paralyzed lesser men.

But what makes Ernie’s story so much more compelling is the contrast it provides to the saga of Vilhhalmur Stefansson, a Canadian whose expedition to sail to the North Pole occurred about a year before the Endurance set sail. Trapped by the polar ice cap, each crew was engaged in a fight for survival. But the outcomes of these two adventures – and the ways in which the two leaders dealt with situations as they arose – were as far apart as the poles that each set out to explore.

In the north, the crew of the Karluk found themselves transformed into a band of dog-eat-dog, in-fighting individuals. The team’s disintegration had tragic consequences for the eleven members of the expedition. They died in the Arctic.

In the south, the story of the Endurance could not have been more different. Shackleton’s expedition faced the same problems – ice, cold, long stretches of darkness and severe privation. The response of his crew to these awful conditions, however, was in almost every respect the polar opposite of the crew of the Karluk. In the south, there was teamwork, self-sacrifice and good cheer. In the north, there was lying, cheating and rapacious self-interest. It was as though the Endurance existed – not just in a different polar region – but in a different universe.

So why should we here today care about Ernie’s story?

Whether you are aware of it or not, we in NARA are currently in a situation very similar to that of the Endurance. We are trapped in the ice of stagnation. Like the Endurance, we have made many attempts to free ourselves. Like the Endurance, we have to believe that there are better days ahead, but those better days are contingent. Like the Endurance, our survival depends on all of us working together, as a team, to pursue our common goals.

Let’s agree to keep our minds open and our attitudes positive as we embark on this challenge. To paraphrase Ernie’s famous classified ad:
“Honor and recognition when (not in case) we succeed.”

Let the journey begin …

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