What We Can Learn About Community Leadership from Sir Ernest Shackleton

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

One of the cases I have students read in the leadership class I teach is the story of the Endurance expedition to Antarctica, led by famed polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. This story has received a tremendous amount of attention in the last several years, with several books and documentaries, a four hour BBC film starring Kenneth Branagh, and most recently (last month), a three hour PBS documentary called “Chasing Shackleton.” The attention this story has received though was not about the success of the audacious mission to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. The ship never made it to shore. Rather, the story is an awe-inspiring saga of survival, and Shackleton’s efforts to make sure his entire crew made it home safely is frequently cited of one of the greatest examples of leadership ever. But while the Endurance expedition is an incredible epic, and Shackleton an inspiring hero, one might legitimately ask how such an extreme story—so out of time and place with our day-to-day experience—can offer lessons for leadership today. I actually think we can learn a lot about leadership in general and community leadership specifically from the Shackleton story if we think about the crisis the Endurance crew faced as a metaphor for community crises today. This post explores a few of the lessons we might learn from this amazing story.

First, if you are not familiar with the Endurance expedition story, I’d encourage you to read one of many books that have been written about it. I’d recommend the books by Alfred Lansing and Caroline Alexander in particular. The documentary by George Butler is also excellent, as well as the shorter documentary Butler produced for IMAX theaters. This post will assume prior knowledge of the two-year survival epic that involved being trapped on ice flows, making the greatest open boat journey ever, only to be followed by one of the greatest feats of mountaineering ever. It is an incredible story. In fact, so incredible that it might seem irrelevant to current community leadership challenges.

But if we think of Shackleton and his men as a metaphor for community, I believe there are some interesting lessons to learn. Like Shackleton and his crew found themselves stuck in the ice and unable to reach their goal, many communities today are seemingly “stuck” in a state of crisis. The great recession certainly has created economic crises in many communities. High unemployment, loss of local tax revenue, and related problems have been (and still are) a significant challenge for many communities. Regardless of what past decisions led to the crisis at hand, the key issue is what is going to be done about it going forward. For Shackleton, the focus was always on the future and so when it became clear that the original mission had to be abandoned, he immediately set about a new mission, for everyone to survive. Leadership is the process of bringing people together to address a problem and this is precisely what Shackleton did. He did not dwell on the past, second-guess decisions, or look for blame. Rather, he rallied everyone around the single purpose of getting home; and the only way that could happen is if all 28 men worked together.

Hurley and Shackleton at campEffective community leadership looks a lot what we saw in Shackleton’s response to crisis. It is the process of bringing the community together to address issues of shared concern. It is about creating resilient communities. Resilience refers to the capacity to withstand and bounce-back from various kinds of calamities, challenges, adversity, etc. The Endurance saga is a great example of a group of people (a community) demonstrating remarkable resilience. Community leaders help develop collective resilience. They bridge differences and keep the focus on a shared vision of the future. In Shackleton’s case, he knew that the stresses of the situation could lead to low morale and infighting, and that disunity would be more of a threat to the crew than the harsh elements. Thus he constantly worked to build a sense of “we” (as opposed to “I”). He modeled the way, as several accounts from his men attest to his selflessness and care for the crew, and that example was then reflected in others following suit, as the many poignant accounts of the men caring for one another illustrate. Likewise, the wise community leader will do all they can do engender a “we” attitude among community stakeholders. They help resolve conflict and play a mediator-type role among [potential] partners.

Shackleton was also willing to take risks and disrupt the status quo. A hundred years ago there was strict hierarchy—almost a caste system—aboard ships like the Endurance. Shackleton saw this as an impediment on the unity needed to be successful, so he discarded those norms and treated everyone equally and placed expectations on everyone equally. The 800 mile boat journey to South Georgia was likewise an enormous risk, yet Shackleton was very deliberate in how he took that risk, modifying the boat significantly to increase the odds of success and carefully selecting the men that would go with him. Community leaders are likewise notable for their entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take risks. And like Shackleton, the risks taken by community leaders are not wild gambits, but are carefully considered and backed by preparation and foresight.

Perhaps the most important of Shackleton’s leadership qualities was optimism. Not only was Shackleton always positive and optimistic, but optimism was one of the qualities he looked for in his crew. Over 5,000 people applied to be part of the Endurance crew and while Shackleton certainly screened for particular experience, skills and abilities, he also (perhaps more so even) looked for personal qualities like humor and optimism, as he knew those attitudes were critical to team success. One of the key roles community leaders play is that of convener. They invite people “to the table” to address community issues. Like Shackleton, effective community leaders will look to resources or abilities that stakeholders may bring to the table. But they also look for positive, can-do attitudes and other personal characteristics that will help create a strong team.

There are many other parallels to make between Shackleton’s leadership and effective community leadership. His is a story of self-rescue, utilizing the assets at hand rather than hoping for help from outside. Effective community leaders likewise realize the power of building on community assets and take an appreciative approach to change as opposed to focusing on needs or deficits. Shackleton also was attentive to individuals and was a master of what Kouzes and Posner call “encourage the heart.” Shackleton was authentic with his men. When he offered praise people knew he meant it, that it was not empty “feel good” platitudes but truly from the heart. These personal qualities are also hallmarks of community change agents.

Suffice it to say, if you haven’t read about the Endurance expedition or at least watched one of the films about it, I highly recommend you do! I think there are many lessons Shackleton and the story of the Endurance expedition have to offer us today. Beyond being an exciting tale of survival and heroism it is a story of community leadership, of bringing people together to overcome a crisis and accomplish a shared vision that would have been impossible were it not for the collective effort of all. That is what we need in our communities today—collective effort across sectors (business, government, not-for-profit) to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. That kind of collaboration doesn’t happen organically on its own. It requires leadership, which I would define as the process of bringing the different parts of a community together to create and achieve a shared vision of a better future.

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