Ernest 'The Boss' Shackleton remains one of the trio of great names from the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration, alongside Scott (UK) and Amundsen (Norway). And yet Ernest was distinct from each...
He was born in Ireland and educated in England – a romantic, surviving on his wits and incredible personal charisma. Thoroughly non-establishment, and with no real Polar training, he nevertheless had a remarkably human touch and earthy personality which made him popular with the backers he needed to actualise his grand visions of achievement and endeavour.
The achievements and magnetic personality of The Boss are legendary. He had a unique ability to inspire others to achieve the apparently impossible. One hundred years after his greatest endeavours, the world still marvels at Shackleton’s life and character. New books are still written about him. Academics from the world’s best universities decode his techniques. His well-documented style of inspirational leadership is still taught today at Harvard Business School.
Modern-day explorer Ben Saunders discusses Sir Ernest Shackleton with Hon. Alexandra Shackleton
The Shackleton Company is indebted to modern-day British polar explorer Ben Saunders who spoke to the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton about what made Shackleton the iconic figure he is today. Here, Ben gives his perspective on The Boss, peppered with insight from his conversations with Shackleton’s granddaughter.
“My grandfather once listed the four qualities he thought a polar explorer should have... optimism, patience, idealism and courage."
- The Hon. Alexandra Shackleton
Success was not a given for Shackleton. Born into an unprivileged home in Ireland, before moving to London where he was educated, Shackleton enrolled in the merchant navy in his teenage years before joining Scott’s Discovery Expedition in 1901. Over the following two decades, Shackleton worked hard to prove himself as great a leader and explorer as Scott. And yet, while Shackleton’s successes in the field of exploration mounted, recognition proved fleeting.
Shackleton’s non-establishment background and persona meant he had to seek backing from corporate sponsors and wealthy benefactors, whereas Scott could look to the Royal Geographical Society for support. Nevertheless, Shackleton’s remarkable personal charisma and human touch made him a magnetic and extraordinarily popular character, and he was successful in impressing upon his backers his vision of supreme achievement and endeavour at the end of the Earth.
Shackleton’s relentless optimism was no doubt another source of his success, but he was not reckless. Known as ‘Old Cautious’ by his men, Shackleton was well known for weighing up the options in every situation.
Shackleton’s pragmatism was most notably demonstrated when he turned back from the South Pole on his 1907 Nimrod Expedition, only 97 miles short of his goal and almost certain fame and glory. Shackleton had recognised that if he were to achieve his goal, it would be at the sacrifice of his life and the lives of his team, as they would undoubtedly perish on the return journey due to a lack of supplies.
Shackleton later wrote to his wife that he thought she would “rather have a live donkey than a dead lion”.
“...The quality I look for most is optimism: especially optimism in the face of reverses and apparent defeat. Optimism is the true moral courage."
- Sir Ernest Shackleton
On his greatest adventure – the Endurance expedition – Shackleton again revised his objective of crossing the entire Antarctic continent to one of bringing all his men home alive. His ship, the Endurance, sank slowly into the black depths while its crew became stranded on the ice floe, faced with almost certain death once their supplies ran out. The James Caird lifeboat journey spanned over 800 miles of the tempestuous Southern Ocean, followed by a subsequent crossing of uncharted South Georgia on foot. It remains one of the most extraordinary stories of courage and survival against the odds.
In the end it was Sir Ernest’s unwavering optimism that proved vital to their endurance. Waking his men every day, holding fast to the belief that while they were alive, they still had a chance. When Shackleton left on the rescue mission, second in command Frank Wild sustained the optimism within the stranded camp on Elephant Island, every day hailing the men with “Roll up your bags boys, the Boss is coming today.”
On August 30th, 1916, the Boss did come.
Another of Shackleton’s great qualities was his idealism. This was essential to his survival in the frozen Southern wilderness and his ability to lead his men to safety. Shackleton’s love of books and poetry, particularly Browning and Tennyson, informed his decisions, his faith, his view of the world and fuelled his imagination as they proved gateways to worlds beyond his personal experiences. Indeed, it was Ernest’s romantic nature that first took him to Antarctica, and then drew him back time and time again.
“The main reason he first went to the Antarctic was for love - to impress Emily Dorman, my grandmother - then having got there, he fell in love with Antarctica."
- The Hon. Alexandra Shackleton
It was in perhaps Shackleton’s darkest days, stranded on the Antarctic ice with his crew, that this attribute proved its value as he enticed the men into debates on all manner of subjects, keeping morale high and minds engaged. For his imagination and his capacity to demonstrate unfailing cheeriness when his crew needed it most, Shackleton earned the admiration, trust and respect of his men. So much so, that nine of the Endurance crew joined him for his final 1921 expedition aboard Quest.
“He is a marvellous man, and I would follow him anywhere."
- Harry Dunlop, Nimrod engineer
Courage is a quality Shackleton believed was manifest in everyone. While he was both an optimist and an idealist about outcomes, he was a realist about circumstances, and he drew courage from this quality. Over the course of his many voyages to sea in the Merchant Navy, and later on polar expeditions, Shackleton discovered that one of his great strengths lay in boosting and maintaining the morale of a crew. This, alongside his capacity to connect with anyone, no matter what rank or position, imbued in him a sense of self-belief and the courage to lead.
Moreover, Shackleton recognised that courage expressed itself differently in every individual. That he was able to draw out the courageous spirit of his crew is testament to his own confidence in his ability to lead. Shackleton had the courage to take responsibility for his men and their lives. He never once put himself before his men, and for this he earned their unwavering loyalty.
“No words can do justice to their courage and their cheerfulness. To be brave cheerily, to be patient with a glad heart, to stand the agonies of thirst with laughter and song, to walk beside death for months and never be sad - that's the spirit that makes courage worth having."
- Sir Ernest Shackleton
It is this rare commodity that The Shackleton Company exists to nurture. We all have it, but only occasionally are we required to wrench it from within – to listen to it, to trust it.
When we review the very best things we’ve done in our lives (making the team, performing on stage, starting that particular enterprise, finishing a journey) most started with the inspiration of somebody who’d gone before us. The moments that make us are those when we confront our fears and summon the courage to overcome them. Then comes the elation – that metamorphosis in which we are somehow irrevocably transformed and discover what it means to feel truly alive.
Now more than ever our world needs people to follow in Shackleton’s footsteps. Those who live life with ambition and purpose and seek adventure at every turn. One of Shackleton’s most admirable attributes was his ability to instil his values in his men, proving that anyone with courage can fulfil a life in the way Shackleton did. And, which is more, that every man and woman holds this courage within them.
Finally, Ben Saunders asked Alexandra Shackleton why her grandfather is still so relevant today:
“In those days the important things were their goal, and each other. For my grandfather his men were his priorities. Now, we live in an age of egos. Shackleton didn't have the time to agonise, or to be introspective - he didn't look back. When he died, his brother-in-law described him as a 'rushing mighty wind', and he was very good at carrying people with him through his inspiring optimism. The values he held are all relevant today, none more so than his leadership."
- Hon. Alexandra Shackleton