Shackleton: leadership fit for purpose

Shackleton - grave at Grytviken


Sir Ernest Shackleton died in 1922 at Grytviken. He was back in the south to re-attempt the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Crossing but his heart finally failed as he stayed here preparing the expedition. He is buried in the tiny graveyard overlooking the bay, the biggest marker among the simple white crosses reflecting the many, much younger men who died here during the whaling times.  

(They are all men. I checked.)

The graveyard at Grytviken where Shackleton is buried

He’d had an occasional bout of weakness, indeed possibly had a hole in his heart; the challenges he had had sledging were the main reason he was sent home by Scott in 1903 after his first winter on the ice. Being a man much committed to heroism, he never let it stop him. Indeed, his first attempt at the Crossing when Endurance sank, he survived the ice, Elephant Island, the James Caird voyage and the astonishing yomp across the glaciers, all of which showed him to be a man of enormous physical strength. Throughout that extraordinary episode, his own recounting in South makes no reference to any physical weakness. All the same, he was never less than sympathetic and concerned about any physical challenges in the crew, such as Blackborow’s frostbitten toes and Rickenson’s heart failure at Elephant Island.

And of course, this is part of what made him a great leader. He had the qualities needed to survive in the extreme conditions he faced, but did not in any way belittle or dismiss those of his team who could not quite achieve those standards. More than that, he evidently cared passionately about every member of the team. South like all his writing is riddled with his thoughts on keeping his crew and scientists occupied, in good health, safe and ultimately home. The picture is of him (with Frank Hurley) outside their tent at Ocean Camp, the ice floe on which they floated north after Endurance was destroyed.

Millions of words have been written about the skills and qualities he brought to his life as an explorer, many of them by people who are better leaders (especially in extreme conditions) than I could ever be. Right now, as my country reels from one level of leadership absurdity to the next, it is instructive to muse on what we should look for in our political leaders today.

Physical strength matters of course: the life of a senior politician does involve considerable stamina plus the ability to stay fit in the face of endless schmoozing, but it is not on the level that Shackleton needed. On the other hand, he was never quite so good at staying power outside of those extreme conditions. He found it difficult to stick at anything for more than a year or so unless it involved those high dramas and challenges only exploring offered.

(It is interesting, though, that Bryan Fell, who became Clerk to the Commons and knew Shackleton at the time of his 1906 election attempt in Dundee, considered he would have found sufficient outlet for his restlessness in a political career. Jim Mayer cites this point in his book Shackleton: A Life in Poetry.)

Perhaps too, he would have struggled with the alliance building and compromise fundamental to successful political leadership. At the moment, many people see those compromises as failure, a betrayal of some kind of abstract value. And yet, in large and complicated situations, finding the commonalities, the issues many people can agree on or at least not object to, is key to any sort of democratic longevity. (Whether bombastic rhetoric and post-factual campaigning can be called ‘democracy’ is quite another subject, though one on which I have plenty to say elsewhere.)

One of Shackleton’s enduring characteristics was the great personal loyalty he inspired, most of all in Frank Wild, his lieutenant on Endurance and Elephant Island, and after. Wild had said he wished to be buried next to Shackleton, but for a long time, the whereabouts of his remains were unknown. Eventually they were located in Johannesburg. In 2011 they were moved here and now he is reunited with the Boss, by far the oldest man in the place.

Wild's memorial stone, next to Shackleton at Grytviken
Honouring Shackleton with a tot of whiskey (picture by Jordi)

The long-standing tradition is to honour Sir Ernest with a drink of whiskey at his graveside. Sailors and explorers are nothing if not keen supporters of the comforting ritual. Of course Jordi, ever efficient, had bought a bottle plus sufficient glasses (and took this picture) so we raised a tot to the Boss in fine style.

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