Antarctic Explorer's Failure Becomes His Greatest Success

Jan 2, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 3:14 pm

A helicopter has rescued all 52 passengers from a research ship that’s been trapped in Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve.

The group was stuck in the ice for 10 days, but imagine being stuck there for 15 months – with no communication with the outside world.

That’s what happened to Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton and his team in their attempt to make a land crossing of Antarctica in 1914.

Their ship got stuck in the ice, and they never reached their goal. But that journey is now remembered for Shackleton’s journey to rescue his crew.

Moshe Cohen teaches leadership at Boston University’s Graduate School of Business, and joins Here & Now’Robin Young to explain why Shackleton’s actions in 1914 serve as a model of true leadership.


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CHRIS TURNEY: (Unintelligible) the helicopters to take us home. Thanks everyone.

YOUNG: That's Chris Turney, head of that Antarctic expedition that got stuck in the ice on Christmas Eve as helicopters ferried all 52 passengers to an Australian icebreaker today, leaving the 22-member Russian crew behind with the ship until the pack ice breaks up.

And this story reminded us of another explorer who also got stuck in the ice during a 1914 Antarctic expedition, Ernest Shackleton. He'd already tried and failed twice to be the first to reach the South Pole. Someone beat him to it. So he decided to attempt another first, the land crossing of Antarctica. But his ship, the Endurance, also got trapped in ice, a colossal failure.

So the natural question is: Why is Shackleton taught as an example of leadership in business schools? Did you even know that he was? Moshe Cohen teaches leadership at Boston University's Graduate School of Business and joins us. Thank you, Moshe.

MOSHE COHEN: You're welcome.

YOUNG: And first, there was an amazing discovery recently of pictures of Shackleton's expedition. They were found in an ice shack. So we'll post those at Listeners can look at them to get a feel of what we're talking about. But remind us what that is, 1914, Shackleton and his crew trying to make this trip.

COHEN: So he sets out after two failures by going to South Georgia Island, which is the last inhabited place close to Antarctica. There was a Norwegian whaling station there. While there, he gets warned that the pack ice is particularly thick that year, and he should postpone his venture. He decides not to do that. He sets off, and January 19, he gets stuck in the ice 60 miles from the Antarctic coast. The ship can't go anywhere.

Then in October, the ship gets crushed and sinks.

YOUNG: So January to October, and then the ship sinks in October.

COHEN: And then they sit there on the ice flow, unable to go anywhere, from October to the following April. And then they get into the water in three lifeboats, go five and a half days in open water to a small rocky island called Elephant Island, and nobody knows they're there. There's no food. If they stay there, they will all eventually starve.

So he leaves 22 crew members there, sails 800 miles with five of his crew back to South Georgia Island and then crosses the interior of South Georgia Island, which no one had been through, had never been mapped. It is mountainous, full of glaciers and fissures. They had to climb up over 2,000 feet and made it to the whaling station.

YOUNG: I love the detail that at one point they have to slide down a hill on their coats.

COHEN: So what happens was that they reached the top, and it's becoming nightfall, and they know that they can't pick their way down the other side of the mountain without freezing to death first. So they sit down and slide down 1,500 feet and somehow survived it and then get up on their feet and walk into the whaling station.

YOUNG: Into the whaling station and go back and are able to eventually rescue the other men.

COHEN: And the word eventually is the important one because it takes about five more months before they can actually break through the pack ice. They make three attempts, and on the fourth one they actually succeed and rescue every single one of the crew members. And the biggest achievement there was that he didn't lose a single member of his crew.

YOUNG: OK, well that's heroic. But back up because you said that this all started because he was told he shouldn't go, and he went. So that to me sounds like a bad leader.

COHEN: So there he can be called a colossal failure. He was arrogant and didn't listen to good advice. He didn't plan well enough and ended up getting stuck. The turning point in the Shackleton story is at that point where the ship gets stuck in the ice, he changes his goal to keeping every member of his crew alive. And from that point he transforms into one of the most inspiring leaders that we come across, which is why we teach him.

YOUNG: Tell us more about that. What exactly did he do? I mean, obviously we know that he schlepped, you know, back and forth and sailing and climbing and, you know, traversing an island and sliding on coats. But what else did he do that showed leadership qualities?

COHEN: This man went through repeated cycles of hope, progress and then unbelievable setbacks. And one of the reasons we teach him is because you can see that he changes his goals instantly, and he never looks back. He's always looking forward from where is he now, what is possible and then moves forward.

And not only does he do it for himself, but that's what he conveys to his crew. The other thing he does is no matter what goes on, he always stays optimistic. After they got stuck in the ice, he decides to wait it out because maybe the ice will break up, and his ship will be able to complete its mission.

After the ship gets crushed, the mission turns to survival, and he believes that everybody can survive. When the ice opens up, they go into the lifeboats. And it was a crazy trip in the lifeboats. They were five and a half days in open water, and...

YOUNG: Well by the way, didn't they come across a hurricane or something?

COHEN: That was on the next leg of the trip, when they went the 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. It was some of the roughest seas in the world, including a hurricane right before they hit the island.

YOUNG: So it's not just the setback and the adversity of the - the muscular adversity of having to get somewhere. There were also huge barriers put in his way on every leg of the trips that he had to take. And when you say optimism, you also say humor.

COHEN: Yes, yes, one of the things that's remarkable about Shackleton was the ability to take care not only of the physical well-being of his crew but also of their mental and spiritual and emotional well-being. This ranged from things like routines and attending to their duties and maintaining equality among the crew but also joking around.

He and one of his officers danced for the crew on the ice to keep the spirits up. He got them engaged in soccer matches. They took care of their animals. They did everything to maintain both the physical and spiritual well-being of his team, and that's something that is very important for leaders to think about, that it's not just about the physical well-being.

YOUNG: I know we know about a lot of this because of the people that he saved. What did they say about him?

COHEN: So his people adored him. They called him The Boss. And they looked up to him. And both at the time and after, people were willing to follow him, and when he went on his fourth expedition, a number of the people who had been with him on his third expedition came back with him, as well.

YOUNG: So Shackleton in the history books, in the business classes, as you just said, but how did his life ultimately end?

COHEN: He set out on yet another mission to Antarctica, made it as far as South Georgia Island and then ended up dying from a heart attack and is buried on South Georgia.

YOUNG: A sad ending in a lot of ways, but as you've been pointing out, he already achieved something great.

COHEN: True, and it's tempting to look at Shackleton as the ultimate failure. He had four attempts to try to do something amazing on Antarctica and failed in each one of them. But on the other hand, it's the indomitable spirit and the resilience in the face of adversity that sets him apart from a lot of other leaders.

YOUNG: Well, the other truth, it would seem, is that yet, you might have had somewhat smooth sailing, even, and become the first person to cross Antarctica, but what he did was harder, it sounds like.

COHEN: Absolutely, and I think that's why he is taught so much more than some of the other more successful Antarctic explorers. There are people like Amundson and Scott, and, you know, we know of them in the history books as the people who reached the South Pole and made these achievements, but I believe that Shackleton is taught much more frequently because of what he was able to do in saving his crew.

YOUNG: Moshe Cohen, he teaches leadership classes at Boston University's Graduate School of Business. His private company is called The Negotiating Table. He's a mediator and teaches the arts of negotiating and leadership. Moshe, thanks so much.

COHEN: My pleasure, thank you.

YOUNG: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.