Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton was a great explorer with his eye especially on Antarctica.  After his first experience there, it became his goal to achieve the South Pole.  Three times he shot for that goal, yet he failed each time.  But were they really failures?

S. Michael Wilcox suggests that "His destiny seems to have been to teach us how to lead."  It is easy to categorize Shackleton as a true service-oriented leader.  Through incredible tests of survival, Shackleton always kept his vision of bringing every man home at the front of his mind, giving up his own comfort and personal goals for the benefit of the rest.

During his third attempt at the pole he was especially tried.  Their shipEndurance, became ice bound for several months.  After the ship was crushed by the melting and shifting ice, they were stranded on the ice for a few more months.  I know our family gets pretty stir crazy when sickness or something keeps us all home bound, so imagining months and months stuck on the same ship then even more on the ice - yikes!  Besides being sick of one another, dangers were everywhere.  "[Shackleton] knew how dire their plight was.  Almost every night, he shouted himself awake from nightmares in which he pictured one disaster or emergency after another.  Would the boats be separated when they took to the ocean?  Would he himself be incapacitated?  Would Worsley's navigational books be lost?  Would they run out of food?  One after another, disasters visited him and shook him awake.  Then, in the remaining hours of the night, he would form plans for meeting the crises he had dreamed of.  In spite of his anxiety, he tried to keep up the appearance of calm in order to maintain morale.  Although tortured by worry, he remained outwardly unperturbed" (Armstrong, 70).  Much of Shakleton's success came from his ability to look clearly at potential problems and plan accordingly, rather than succumbing to the fear of what could be.

When the ice melted enough that they could get to the open ocean, the 28 men were split between three lifeboats to paddle through terrible, freezing storms to Elephant Island, 346 miles from where the Endurance sank.  Upon arrival, realizing they couldn't stay there long, Shackleton took five others and climbed back into what was deemed the strongest lifeboat, leaving behind the rest of the men to go in search of help.  Shackleton kept a careful watch on the men, knowing he needed each to make their destination.  "When someone looked particularly bad, the Boss ordered a round of hot milk for all hands.  The one man he really wanted to get the hot drink into never realized that the break was for his benefit and so wasn't embarrassed, and all of the men were better off for having the warmth and nourishment" (Armstrong, 100).  I love that he cared for each man as an individual, mindful of their needs and aiding those without making that person feel singled out or weak.  He watched the individual, cared for all, and all benefited.

After another 15 days on the cold, stormy ocean, Shackleton and the five arrived at South Georgia Island, but for safety's sake, landed on the opposite side from where the whaling ships and factories were.  The boat was no longer in any shape to sail, so with two men too sick to continue, Shackleton left one man to care for them, and took two others with him over the unexplored snow-covered mountains, taking them an amazing 36 hours to cover 32 miles with only about 50 feet of rope and a carpenters adze.  (Seriously, this man never quits!)

One of the most beautiful parts of the story comes at this part of their journey.  "As they slogged their way through the snow, a strange feeling began to grow on each of the men.  The three discovered long afterward that they all had the feeling that there was a fourth.  'Even now again I find myself counting our party--Shackleton, Crean, and I and--who was the other?' Worsley wrote later.  'Of course, there were only three, but it is strange that in mentally reviewing of the crossing we should always think of a fourth, and then correct ourselves.'

"'When I look back at those days,' Shackleton added, 'I do not doubt that Providence guided us . . . I know that during that long march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it often seemed to me that there were four, not three.' At the time, however, Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean did not discuss it" (Armstrong, 110).  I think Shackleton's purpose was so true and so selfless, that he was supported through that by heavenly means.

Another incredible experience happened as they got closer to the whaling camp.  They found themselves at the top of a frozen waterfall.  "There was nothing to tie the rope to.  Worsley held it, while first Shackleton and then Crean went over the edge.  They went down the rope as sailors do, letting it slip through their hands and not putting their weight on it until just before they hit bottom.  At the top, Worsley bunched the end of the rope up and jammed it under some rocks.  If he didn't put his weight on the rope until the bottom, it just might hold.  Worsley stepped off into the air, plummeting downward with the rope whipping through his hands.  Shackleton and Cream caught him as he fell, and his full weight yanked on the rope.  It held.

"Startled, the three men stared up at the top of the waterfall and tugged on the rope.  It wouldn't budge.  It might have been frozen, but they couldn't understand what was holding it.  Shrugging, they turned and left their rope hanging where it was.  They didn't need it any longer" (Armstrong, 114).

When they finally reached the whaling station, their thoughts were not of their own rescue, but that the rest of the men were now saved.  Still, it took Shackleton four attempts to get to the men back on Elephant Island, where he found ALL were safe and alive.  "We knew you'd come back," one of the men said to him.  Shackleton called that the best compliment he'd ever received.

Many, many leadership lessons can be taking from Ernest Shackleton.  But I'll end with Shackleton's own words about it.  "It was like this," Shackleton said much later.  "The thought of those fellows on Elephant Island kept us going all the time.  It might have been different if we'd had only ourselves to think about.  You can get so tired in the snow, particularly if you're hungry, that sleep seems just the best thing life has to give . . . But if you're a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you've got to keep going.  That was the thought which sailed us through the hurricane and tugged us up and down those mountains . . . and when we got to the whaling station, it was the thought of those comrades which made us so mad with joy that the reaction beats all effort to describe it.  We didn't so much feel that we were safe as that they were saved" (Wilcox, 116).

I need to memorize part of that one.  I may not travel the Antarctic, but there are plenty of tired, hungry, just want to hide under the covers days.  But if you're a leader . . . 

Quote Sources:
Jennifer Armstrong, "Shipwreck on the Bottom of the World."

1 comment:

  1. My son and I read the Armstong book a year or two ago. We loved it!!