The Endurance Lesson

Browsing the online portal of Harvard Business Review, I chanced upon a 35 Minute Interactive Lesson with Professor Nancy Koehn, called ‘The Shackleton’s Endurance Mission’. The session was a brilliant eye opener; as it proved beyond doubt why HBR are masters of their craft and tremendously enlightening for its leadership lessons.

Using the narrative of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Trans – Antarctic Expedition, the professor delivers brilliant insights into the crises and disaster management techniques which are immensely valuable leadership lessons for the beleaguered leaders of the current COVID era. The engaging narrative covers the Trans – Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917 which became ship wrecked and went down in History not for its avowed attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, but for the heroic efforts of Sir Ernest Shackleton, to keep the crew alive and safe during the Antarctic winter of 1915. The amazing tale captures the dilemma of Shackleton’s endurance for keeping the morale of his crew in place and the most astounding methods employed by him to finally bring his men alive out of that terrible unforeseen disaster.

As the ship was immobilized in the inescapable ice and was faced with the long polar winter from which there was no escape in sight, Sir Ernest Shackleton managed to achieve the unimaginable by bringing out all his men alive. He knew that management was important but it was not man management he had to focus on, but resources. He continuously assessed and reassessed his tasks and priorities. He understood that the course of his mission had changed from the exploration of South Pole, to the safe return of his men and as mission had changed so must the ideas and strategy. He prioritized his task as a leader realizing that the only way to lead his men under such dire circumstances was to fight the ‘great uncertainty and collective fear’. He realized that he had to: 

  1. Keep the people engaged- Stuck in the snow and ice with nothing to do the crew was likely to get desperate, desolate and depressed.
  2.  Keep the morale high- he knew that others had to keep their faith in him as a leader. They had to trust him as a leader who is capable of helping them sail out of the current crises. 
  3. Fight disbelief, hopelessness and despair
  4.  Give them hope.


In this short capsule the professor goes on to reveal his strategy as a leader. In such turbulent circumstances, as leader of the crew, he organized several games and contests, such as dog races waltzing contests and other such fun activities. He called it ‘Mental Medicine’ to keep his men engaged, keep them together, to fight disbelief, to fight a loss of morale and most of all to keep the cohesion of his team.


As per the professor there were three essentials which were at the core of Shackleton’s strategies as a leader, finally bringing his men out alive out of what could have been an imaginable disaster.

  1. He continuously assessed and reassessed his approach to ever changing volatile and uncertain situation which had changed his mission.
  2.  He showed great commitment to his primary objective- the safety of his team- while being quite flexible in his ideas and approaches.
  3. He maintained his team’s faith and trust by managing individual and collective energy.

 Strong leaders are not born out of text books, but are shaped out of chaos and confusion, as they discover novel means to alter their sails and along with their teams learn to negotiate point to point difficulty of any crisis.