Ernest Shackleton … and other thoughts on leadership

Ninety years ago this January marked the death of one of the most remarkable leaders of modern times. And believe me, no one noticed the anniversary.

Ernest Shackleton died January 5th, 1922. His lonely grave in a remote, godforsaken whaling station in the South Atlantic is seldom visited, but he once had the fame of  an international rock star. However, Shackleton’s fame was not based on a hyper-ventilating PR machine. He was real-life hero; a figure of  real substance and character.

Ernest Shackleton

In 1914, he launched an expedition to cross the Antarctic coast-to-coast, via the South Pole. He never made it. But he did make a legend.

Sailing to his base camp, his ship became trapped in the ice. He ordered it abandoned. For the next two months, Shackleton and his men lived on a series of  drifting, shrinking ice floes. He finally ordered everyone into their lifeboats and after five harrowing days, the exhausted crew landed on the deserted ice-covered Elephant Island, having drifted 350 miles. And this saga is only beginning.

He then selected five men, and set sail in one of the lifeboats (an event actually photographed) to try to make it to South Georgia, an isolated island in the South Atlantic where he knew there was a whaling station.

Launching the "James Caird"

It was 800 miles away. Six men. In the open boat. For two terrible weeks. Exposed to freezing storms and in constant danger of capsizing.

Finally, reaching South Georgia, in a storm, they barely made it ashore. Shackleton and two of his crew then climbed and crossed a mountain chain and after 36 hours made it to the whaling station on the north shore. Then, he sent a boat to rescue the men who’d remained on the south shore. Then he appealed to Chile to loan him a naval vessel to return for the rescue the 22 men still back there on Elephant Island. He never abandoned his trusting crew who’d been patiently waiting for him for almost five months.

It is a tale almost beyond belief. Shackleton lost not a single man. It seems like something out of the Viking sagas. A century on, the impact is with us still.

A crater at the Moon’s south pole now carries his name. Kenneth Branagh played him in an award-winning movie on the A&E network. A string of  books on Shackleton has been published.  A BBC poll ranked him 11th in a list of  100 greatest Britons.

In the international corporate world,  he’s viewed as a perfect leadership model. Among his admirers, the Estee Lauder cosmetics company. The US Navy studies his ability to bring unity out of chaos.

One author writes, “Shackleton resonates with executives in today’s business world. His people-centered approach to leadership can be a guide to anyone in a position of authority.”

Nancy Koehn, an historian at the Harvard Business School, is struck by “Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances … he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage  with a mission of exploration but it quickly became a  mission of survival.”

Ms Koehn wrote recently in the New York Times that Shackleton realized he had to embody the mission to save it. Each day his presence had a huge impact on the men’s mind-sets, not only in what he said and did, but in his bearing and the energy he exuded.

He understood human nature; the importance of keeping his men’s minds focused on the future.

“The ship was gone; previous plans were irrelevant,” she writes. “His goal now was to bring the team home safely, and he improvised, adapted and used every resource at hand to achieve it.”

It is a remarkable story of the power of a single personality; a story studied by the world. But we too have such a real-life object lesson that from anything I can gather, is ignored.

The 700 Canadians prevailed at Kapyong in Korea against thousands of Chinese when by the sheer arithmetic of battle, they should have perished. Outnumbered and outgunned, they were however, not outfought — in large part because of  the Shackleton style of leadership of Col. Jim Stone. Stone was battle-smart, exuded confidence (which is different than bravado) and convinced his men of 2PPCLI if they just stuck together, they could make it. Sounds like the spirit of Shackleton to me.

Kapyong veterans I’ve talked with tell me if Stone felt they could pull it off, well then they’d pull it off.

You’d think if the American Navy (just for starters) studies Shackleton for insights into successful leadership, and if young American Army officers study Gettysburg– and I’ve seen them there – for the lessons it still contains today, then you’d imagine the Canadian Army would surely study Kapyong. Amazingly, it apparently doesn’t.

This is not the same as studying the last war to fight the next. And it’s not to say that leadership can be taught, exactly. But leadership can be developed and enhanced in soldiers with the genes of  leadership already in their DNA.

But I could find not a single retired or serving Patricia who remembered being taught about Kapyong, either for tips on tactics or insights into leadership.

One very senior, now retired, Patricia, wrote me that he thought Kapyong : “…  was used at one time within the PPCLI as a ‘lessons learned’ battle, largely related to leadership, but I think even that has gone by the way. It is disappointing that only ‘major’ and better known battles are used for leadership (but) it is largely battles like Kapyong that bring out the best of leadership, especially at the levels where it is most important – the platoon, company and battalion levels.”

I wrote the head of the “Department of Military Psychology and Leadership” at the Royal Military College, Canada’s West Point. Presumably future officers would be getting their first insights into leadership from him. I asked for his thoughts on RMC courses or lectures that deal either with Kapyong or imaginative leadership in general. That was a month ago. I still have no answer. Writing RMC, it seems, is like writing to South Georgia. Replies apparently do not come from such places.

No one now lives in South Georgia. It was abandoned decades ago. Shackleton was buried there after he died of a heart attack 90 years ago this month while he was preparing another Antarctic expedition. His pretty little grave overlooks the deserted whaling community of  Grytviken. Ironically this final resting place of  one of the world’s most admired heros is at the edge of the world, visited by virtually no one.

Shackleton's grave: South Georgia

Nancy Koehn says of him, Shackleton had “a deep sense of loyalty and obligation to his fellow crew members. The men themselves understood this and most, in turn, offered him their commitment.”

Which echoes what Jim Stone said after Kapyong: “They were just a wonderful group of men.  I believed in them. They believed in me.”

Sorry, but I don’t get it. If the US military today can still find leadership lessons in Shackleton’s drama in the South Atlantic of a century ago, or in Gettysburg in 1863, then  why can’t the Canadian Army find value in studying our own Korean experiences sixty years ago. Just asking ….

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About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at: danbjarnason@gmail.com
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