Hope Preserved Against Long Odds
On a cold mid-March day in 1916, 28 members of the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition stood upon Elephant Island, an ice-covered, barren spot of land southeast of Cape Horn in the Antarctic Ocean. They originally intended to traverse Antarctica in 1914 on a 2,000 mile trek from the Wedell Sea to McMurdo Sound, but suffered from earlier than anticipated pack ice leading instead to a pitched fight against snow and limitless ice floes that eventually crushed their ship, the Endurance, five months earlier. Trapped for 20 months, the men left their refuge on the drifting ice floe several days earlier, casting off in their three remaining small boats, with their leader laying course for Elephant Island. Shortly after arriving, gale force winds soon tore their unprotected tents to tatters while the food supply of penguin meat and seaweed dwindled. Now, the only apparent chance of survival lay in leading a small group of volunteers on a seemingly suicidal run to find help.
Freezing and hungry, the men turned again to Sir Ernest Shackleton whose poise and grace under pressure preserved in them the last vestiges of hope. Tall, broad-backed, and with sharp features, Shackleton personified British stoicism. He knew the only hope for survival lay in the slight chance of reaching a whaling station on South Georgia in the Falkland Islands, an 800-mile sojourn through the most dangerous seas in the world in an open boat only 22 feet long. He requested volunteers for this trip against long odds. Without hesitation, every man volunteered. Five men chosen by Shackleton to embark with him, caulked and ballasted a light craft, stiffening its keel with timber from another boat. Gauging the conditions for the most advantageous time to sail, the men soon launched into the ocean, setting course for the nearest help in hope of bring rescue to the remaining men.
Fortitudine Vincimus (“by endurance we conquer”)
Dangerous from the outset, a heavy storm quickly drove the craft back nearly into the ice pack. Though a significant setback, Shackleton steadfastly drove his men forward. A continuous threat of capsizing filled the men with dread as ocean swells towered well above the small craft making headway difficult. Waves often broke over the men, soaking them thoroughly. Despite the hardships, progress continued unabated amidst these trials for two weeks. The unmitigated cold and wetness added to the misery of a slaking thirst. Shackleton himself, suffering terribly from sciatica, remained outwardly cheerful throughout. Late afternoon on the 14th day, through a heavy mist and occluded sun, the men sighted South Georgia.
That night, while making way toward shore, a terrific storm drove them to the coast. Fortunate to steer clear of sharp rocks, they rounded the tiny island and found calmer water. They had made landfall. The men found a nearby stream of water to drink from, leaves and moss on which to make a bed upon the stone and, for the first time in two weeks, they slept deeply without fear.
The following day, May 19, 1916, Shackleton proposed hiking across the island to the whaling station that lay on the other side as the risk of making it around by sea from where they landed was too great. Yet no man ever made this trek through the mountains of South Georgia. Shackleton was determined to try the route; if his boat were dashed against the rocks in working around to the station by sea, the men stranded on on Elephant Island would die.
When All Seems Lost, Pray for Shackleton
Prior to sunrise, under a full moon and cloudless sky, Shackleton prepared to take the two remaining able men and roped themselves together. They forged their way through blind passes, traveled almost to the sea only to find a dead-end and retreat to a more dangerous route leading over the knife’s edge of a chasm 200 feet deep. Finally, as fog and darkness rose to deny withdrawal to a safer height, the men stared down a mountainside in the failing light. If they remained exposed, they would die of hypothermia. Shackleton suggested the men slide and risk falling rather than assuredly freezing to death. Each man coiled his share of rope to sit upon, interlocked themselves with Shackleton as the lead, and pushed off into the gloom. The men slid down the mountainside in rapid descent, each began yelling in excitement. Though seemingly absurd, the men found exhilaration in the sledding into oblivion. Eventually, their speed slowed ending abruptly when bottoming into a snowbank. Laughing raucously, the men stood up and vigorously shook hands with each other in light of their good fortune. Alive and well with adrenaline from the experience still flowing through thier bodies, they pushed forward to the safety of shelter they knew lay shortly ahead.
The three men eventually reached the whaling station, having traversed South Georgia in 36 hours. Shackleton noticed and approached a personal friend, a Captain known to him for many years. The Captain did not recognize the explorer. Shackleton’s dark locks of hair had turned silver during the ordeal and only his eyes showed clearly in an emaciated, dirty face. The following day, one of the trio returned to retrieve the men in failing health on the other side of South Georgia. He, too, was not recognized, though this due to a bath, shave and untattered clothing making a significant difference in appearance.
Shackleton returned to Elephant Island to retrieve the stranded men of his ill-fated expedition, finding all alive and in reasonably good health. They endured five months under overturned small boats, pounded by frequent gales and lashed with ice strewn from the mountains.
The record of this odyssey stories as one of the greatest tales of survival in the annals of expedition history. Shackleton’s achievement is best reflected in the words of a fellow explorer, Sir Robert Priestly, a geologist who served with him on a previous expedition:
For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficeint travel, Amundsen; but if you are in a hopeless position, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.
Enduring Lessons in Leadership
Now mostly forgotten, the experience of Shackleton and the men of this expedition provide valuable lessons in Management today. Unforeseen circumstances challenge well-crafted planning. Unanticipated changes in economic conditions, competition and regulation compel Management to direct the organization through turbulent times to a safe harbor. High-functioning organizations possess leaders willing to lead from the frontline of change in advancing the organization to success in the midst of crisis. These individuals place the welfare of the organization above self-motivated interests. Leaders of this caliber understand that Teams need to possess faith that an organization will endure, even thrive, in changing conditions. You expect deep competency in your managers, yet does your organization select for traits such as moral courage, integrity and fortitude? Does your organization possess leaders willing to lead at the forefront of change and not from the rear echelon? Just as importantly, what traits do you possess?
When the unexpected occurs, will a Shackleton emerge or will you starve on the ice pack?
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