Shackleton: An Entrepreneur of Survival

Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is the subject of a new HBS case study. Professor Nancy F. Koehn discusses lessons for leaders from the voyage of the Endurance.
by Martha Lagace

In recent years, polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton has been celebrated through books, memoirs, several films, and a major museum exhibit. His achievements on the ice have much to teach business students and executives, says Harvard Business School professor Nancy F. Koehn. That's why she created a new business case called Leadership in Crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance.

Shackleton, who died in 1922 at the age of forty-seven, never achieved his goal of traversing the continent of Antarctica. He is remembered these days for something more extraordinary. After his ship, the Endurance, became hopelessly trapped in pack ice, Shackleton abandoned one cherished goal and shouldered another that was forced on him by circumstance. Through extraordinary hardships that lasted almost two more years, he ensured the survival of all twenty-seven of his crewmen. It is a testament to his leadership skills that eight members of the ill-fated Endurance voyage signed up for Shackleton's next expedition to Antarctica.

Martha Lagace: Why was Shackleton's voyage good HBS case material?

Nancy Koehn: There are three reasons. The first is that I think there are many important lessons for business leaders to be found in areas outside business. History itself, literature, theater—look to Shakespeare and Henry V, Julius Caesar, or King Lear.

When we look at these enduring works, we find more than just great literature and interesting questions about living a good life. We also find important insights into how to motivate people, allocate resources, and act with great integrity in moments of crisis. I firmly believe that the template for business education can be very broad.

As soon as that ship was frozen, Shackleton figured out that the goal of the enterprise was no longer to walk across the continent of Antarctica. The new goal was to survive.
—Nancy Koehn

The second reason is that we are now living in a turbulent time. It's more than just September 11, although September 11 is perhaps the best single metaphor we have for Americans' sense of greater turbulence. There's been change in the stock market; there's an uncertain economy that seems to be recovering—but we're not quite convinced that it's recovering, we're not sure it won't implode again. There's been turbulence in the world order of a new caliber and intensity, and America's position in the world seems suddenly uncertain. There are new questions about where we are going as a people, as business leaders, and as good citizens. Leaders have to be able to manage in stable, prosperous times and also in very uncertain, dangerous times. And sometimes they have to be able to lead when the stakes are much, much greater than they expected them to be.

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Crew of the Endurance, when spirits were still high. Photo by Frank Hurley, voyage photographer. Copyright Royal Geographical Society, London.

The third reason is that the Shackleton story is compelling. Case method learning is partly about choosing compelling stories—stories that we can learn from, stories that we can make our own, stories that we don't forget as we go out in the world and begin to be responsible for other people's lives, jobs, money, energy, and commitment. This was a great story of integrity and humanity—and one that no one ever could have predicted, not in what happened, how it unfolded, or how it ended. Ernest Shackleton, like all of us, is as flawed as he is brilliant, or as flawed as he is effective. His story is one of the human spirit in all its wonder and all its frailty.

Business leaders, I believe, have to be able to discern both of these aspects of people and of organizations. They need to see how in a moment of great trial all of Shackleton's possibility could come forward to affect his future and that of others. But in order to appreciate what Lincoln once called "the better angels of our nature," the strengths and possibility of a given person or enterprise, leaders must also be able to see an individual or organization's weaknesses. And the case points to these aspects of Shackleton and the expedition as well.

I've taught this case twice so far: to MBA students and in Women Leading Business, one of our executive education programs. Both groups pointed to the fact that there was a huge amount of Shackleton's ego that he found very hard to divest until the ship ran into trouble. He insisted on sailing out of South Georgia Island in the winter of 1914–15, for example. He could have waited it out and not encountered the ice floes that the whalers at South Georgia predicted were coming.

Both groups of students pointed to his impetuosity in hiring. They also pointed out that he didn't seem to have a rich personal life, that his life was on the ice.

One thing Shackleton did very well was to revise, and reset, his objectives as the context changed. As soon as that ship was frozen, he figured out that the goal of the enterprise—and it was an enterprise, an organization—was no longer to walk across the continent of Antarctica. The new goal was to survive. He was able to see that and keep that clearly in focus.

It's frequently very hard for people to do this, to give up on a long-sought-after goal. And yet sometimes the stakes can be as high as one's life and other people's lives. And so they were at that moment for Shackleton and his crew.

One of the great challenges of managing or leading in turbulence is being able to play to your stronger suit as a leader and also play to others' stronger suits. Lincoln did it, Shackleton did it, Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, and many others have done it. We need to be able to help our students understand how they can do it both in "big L" leadership contexts, and, as HBS Dean Kim Clark says, in "small l" leadership roles.

Q: Was Shackleton an entrepreneur? If so, how?

A: There's a definition of entrepreneurship that HBS's Howard Stevenson pioneered. Many of us have used it at the school. It is, "Entrepreneurship is the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled." That's a great definition, and it was true of Shackleton when his objective was to walk across Antarctica.

He had to pursue opportunity. He had no money. His reputation suffered some when the South Pole was discovered in 1911 and that was no longer "a company to found." There was no longer a continent to conquer. He suffered somewhat when Robert Falcon Scott died on a horrendous journey back from the South Pole in 1912. He realized that Scott would be lionized. And, indeed, Scott became a martyr, a great hero for English history.

This meant that Shackleton was perceived to be out of the loop when he started to raise money. And as the winds of what would become World War I started whipping across Europe, people were less interested in polar exploration. So it was under less than ideal circumstances that Shackleton had to marshal resources: He had to find men, money, a ship, dogs. He had to find someone to help them learn to ski. He had to figure out how to do all this—how to make his dream real, how to bring it out of the ether.

When we teach students about the entrepreneurial journey—which can apply to a manager at a small company or in a large, established organization—we say that entrepreneurs are made, not born, and that entrepreneurship is a way of managing, not necessarily a way of being as a person. Any of us can be an entrepreneur.

He thought he was going to be an entrepreneur of exploration but he became an entrepreneur of survival.
—Nancy Koehn

I was fascinated with how completely Shackleton's enterprise had to change once the ship was frozen in the ice. That happens in all kinds of businesses. Anyone who has tried to start a business or manage an existing one knows that you often have to change horses midstream several times if the thing is going to succeed. And those can be big midstream horses—from a new product, to a new CEO, a new set of investors, or a whole new set of customers.

It can be very significant. It can be a life change. That's what happened to Shackleton, too. He thought he was going to be an entrepreneur of exploration, but he became an entrepreneur of survival.

Q: When he returned home in the autumn of 1916, England was in the throes of the First World War. The public was rather indifferent to his achievement. What do you think about the end of his story?

A: Let's begin with the beginning of the end. In the beginning of the end, there were Shackleton's tireless attempts to rescue the twenty-two men who were trapped on Elephant Island. Shackleton simply would not—could not—let go of the quest to get his men home safely. Once he arrived at the whaling station on South Georgia Island in May of 1916, he had to find a boat to get through the ice, get back across those perilous waters—some of the most dangerous waters to sail in in the world, including the Drake Passage—and get the remaining men who were stranded on Elephant Island. He was stymied several times.

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The Endurance trapped in the ice, winter 1915, photographed by Frank Hurley, the voyage photographer. Copyright Royal Geographical Society, London.

Imagine what Shackleton had been through: The worst nightmare possible. But he had survived to reach the whaling station on South Georgia. He used the telegraph there to try to get through to his home country, but there was no boat available in wartime England. He was worried about his men starving on Elephant Island. There was an amputation while he was gone. He was equally concerned about their morale—because of course, our motivation and our possibilities are so conditioned by how we think about ourselves and the enterprise in which we are engaged, and our leaders affect that.

Worsley, the expedition's navigator, was a good friend of Shackleton who charted them from Elephant Island to South Georgia and stayed with him the whole time. He wrote of Shackleton and what the effort to bring his men home cost him. Worsley said that Shackleton went gray—his hair literally turned gray between the time they arrived at the whaling station at South Georgia in May and the following August, when they rescued the remaining men.

When Shackleton and Worsley finally got back to Elephant Island in a boat that came from South America, the men on the island saw the ship coming and all stood on shore waving. From the deck of the rescue ship, Shackleton counted the figures on land one by one. When he reached the number twenty-two, great relief passed over his face. They were all there!

There was exuberance and deep gratification, maybe gratitude to him and other powers. Shackleton had achieved his objective. And then, after a moment of that exuberance and a moment of thanks, they sailed back to South America and there was a celebration.

But when Shackleton and his men returned to England no one seemed interested in polar exploration, in the Endurance expedition, nor in the incredible story of survival that Shackleton and his crew had to tell. England had bigger fish to fry in the form of the First World War. In a strange, sad twist of fate, two of the Endurance crew would be killed in the war. Imagine the extraordinary irony of having survived all that, only to be slaughtered by machine gun fire in the first modern war of mass carnage, World War I.

The war opened a new century of human destruction on a scale that Shackleton could never have envisioned. In many ways, Shackleton was of an older world. And this is why I included the ending. I wanted readers to think, "Which aspects of his moment are like our moment?" One thing that is relevant about his moment to our own time is how it ends—with mass destruction. Destruction that would continue throughout the twentieth century, with two world wars, with mass genocide, with numerous terrible civil wars, the Holocaust, the nuclear age, and most recently, for Americans, with September 11. So we, like Shackleton, have some taste of the power of man to destroy others.

Shackleton saw that irony. He cannot not have seen it. The reputation and survival that meant everything to him meant seemingly very little to the larger world in 1916. It would wait for our moment to reclaim it, revalidate it, sanctify it, and learn from it.

I wanted our students to see that irony. I wanted our students to also see that some of the valiance, integrity, compassion, and respect for individual life that was part of an older world, and that was part of Shackleton, did not die on the fields of Flanders. It lives in all of us. We live to serve our selves, greater good, and our organizations. We live to serve with integrity.

There are historians who have said that a particular code of behavior, a way of seeing the world—one often associated with an older, feudal order—died with the First World War. I think it should live. I think it must live. I wanted our students, our executives, to believe it can live here now.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.