Leadership Lessons of Courage, Confidence, Resilience and Endurance in a Time of Crisis


During my leadership career, I had taken part in a company-sponsored executive leadership education course at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, AZ, USA. I read the case study during the course about the leadership lessons from the Endurance vessel, Shackleton's expedition and race to the pole that began in August 1914. This case was used as management tutorial in how to face repeated crisis and how to overcome many challenges in real life. Ernest Shackleton faced harsh conditions and what he really experienced speaks more directly to our time, especially in a time of crisis.  (S.D. Sutedja). 

The Shackleton expedition to the South Pole is a compelling story of leadership when disaster strikes again and again. Bearing in mind a handful of events that shook the world: the global financial crisis of 2008, the gulf oil spill of 2010, the debt-ceiling debacle and Euro crisis and most recently in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis. Constant threats, uncertainties, volatilities and turbulences seem to be the new normal, and effective leadership is crucial in containing them.

The case study during the executive course had focused on Shackleton's ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances and crisis. When Shackleton expedition experienced serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team's goals. He had originally started the expedition with a mission of exploration, but then it suddenly became a mission of survival. This leadership mindset and capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course in the middle of crisis, changing the earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.

In January 1915, the Endurance ship almost reached the Antarctic mainland but harsh winds and freezing temperatures and the pack ice trapped the ship. The Endurance was stuck in the ice and immobilized. Even though his ship, the Endurance was immobilized and never reached Antarctica and none of its 28 crew members set foot on the South Pole, Shackleton can still serve as a role model.He required all of his men to maintain their ordinary duties as closely as possible. He also kept a strict routine and insisted his men to socialize after dinner to keep their morale and spirit alive. Through the routines, order and interaction, Shackleton managed the collective fear that threatened to take hold when the trip didn't go as planned.

Days became weeks, and weeks became months, and still the ice held the ship. By June 1915, the ship was sinking and Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon the sinking ship and make camp on a nearby ice floe. After the Endurance sank, leaving the men with three small lifeboats, several tents and supplies, Shackleton realized that the new survival mission was needed. He managed his own emotional intelligence to keep his courage, resilience, endurance and confidence high. When these flagged, he never let his men know.

What I learned from the case was that as a leader, you have to have unshakable faith and strong belief in your mission, yourself and your abilities. In the face of enormous obstacles, Shackleton managed to overcome these. Just as important, Shackleton kept his men focus on the future. The ship was gone, previous plans were obsolete and irrelevant. Now his goal was to bring the team home safely. and he improvised, adapted, used every resource at hand and enormous energy to achieve it. Finally, on August 30, 1916 Shackleton managed to rescue the twenty two remaining men and bring all the twenty seven men home safely, not a life lost.

Shackleton exemplified this kind of leadership for almost two years on the ice. What can we learn from his actions? Courage, Confidence, Resilience and Endurance!


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