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Resilience & Determination
Two cold and harsh tales that tell the difference that leadership styles can make.
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”
― William Ernest Henley, 1888
We all experience setbacks. It’s just part of life. We run into obstacles, whether they’re related to time, resources, difficult personalities, changes in circumstances, etc.
The true mark of a leader is how they respond to these kinds of difficulties. There are some leaders who look at the facts and decided to put their heads down and plow through; and there are others who assess the situation and alter their plans — sometimes comprehensively.
I recently had a health issue that was causing me a lot of pain. So much so that it made it impossible to concentrate on anything: reading, writing — even meditating.
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Rather than fight it, like I usually do with an illness, I decided to visit the doctor. It’s a good thing I did, because the doctor warned that it wouldn’t have gotten better without care.
After treatment, the pain still lingered for about a week, but it made me realize a couple of things: (1) humans are so much softer than our ancestors, who had to endure conditions beyond our imagination; and (2) how other leaders have managed to get themselves through situations of unimaginable hardship.
The stereotypical visualization of Hell is usually fire and brimstone, with Satan wielding a pitchfork as molten lava flows all around. But in Dante’s Inferno, there were nine circles of Hell, each with varying forms of tortuous surroundings.
The Ninth Circle of Hell, in Dante’s telling, was the frozen central zone of Hell where Satan was trapped in ice, frozen up to his mid-chest. This is the area where the worst sinners were sent, unable to speak or move, frozen in the ice.
According to Rachel Jacoff (Dante, Cambridge University Press, 1963) Dante portrayed the worst of Hell this way because
“the deepest isolation is to suffer separation from the source of all light and life and warmth.”
Imagine then, that it’s the early 1900s and you’re undertaking a physical and geographical adventure that no other human being has achieved: you’re going to travel to Antarctica, the last unexplored continent, and you’re going to march to the South Pole.
This of course is exactly what Captain Robert Falcon Scott sought in 1910 when his Terra Nova Expedition set out. He had already led the Discovery Expedition from 1901–1904 to explore Antarctica, and his goal in his return was to be the first to reach the South Pole.
As humans spread around the globe, the polar regions were a couple of the few remaining areas to conquer, so competition was fierce. There was a Japanese Antarctic expedition in the works, as well as an Australasian expedition, and the Norwegians, under Roald Amundsen, were going to explore the Arctic.
The Terra Nova set out from Wales on June 15, 1910, prepared to arrive in the Antarctic for its summer months. By the time it reached Melbourne, though, a telegram from Amundsen was waiting for Scott, indicating that the Norwegians were headed south. It was to be a race, then.
Scott was a Royal Navy man (did I just sing that to myself to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme?), beginning his naval career as a 13 year-old cadet. He worked his way up through the most hierarchical system, with the Discovery voyage serving as a way to further his advancement. This culture and tradition would eventually doom Scott — more on that later.
Looking to use the most innovative technology of the day, Scott opted for a mixed transport strategy, using dogs, horses, and motorized sledges (essentially motor cars with tracks rather than tires). The vehicles quickly succumbed to the cold, and eventually, the horses did as well.
When the horses grew weak, expedition member Lawrence Oates suggested killing them for food. This kind of thought was abhorrent to the traditional Scott, and he forbade it. The horses died anyway. The food would have proven useful for the dogs and the men who were left.
Meanwhile, Amundsen relied solely on a team of 100 Greenland sledge dogs, knowing how they could be useful when led by the right expedition member.
After many hardships, on January 4, 1912, Scott decided that he and four men would make the final march on foot. On January 17, Scott and his men made it to the South Pole, but to their horror, there was a Norwegian flag waiting for them.
Amundsen and his men had made it just 34 days earlier.
Dejected, the five began the 862-mile journey back on January 19.
Over the course of the next two months, as they trudged back through blizzards and down glaciers, scurvy and frostbite began to set in (temperatures were routinely -40 degrees Fahrenheit). On March 16, Oates, whose toes had become frostbitten, left the tent and walked to his death.
According to Wikipedia:
“After walking 20 miles farther despite Scott's toes now becoming frostbitten, the three remaining men made their final camp on March 19, approximately 12.5 miles short of One Ton Depot. The next day a fierce blizzard prevented their making any progress. During the next nine days, as their supplies ran out, and with storms still raging outside the tent, Scott and his companions wrote their farewell letters. Scott gave up his diary after March 23, save for a final entry on March 29.”
Each man, aware of his pending death, penned final letters to loved ones. In addition, Scott left this message for the public:
“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last ... Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”
In his final diary entry, Scott wrote:
“Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
For God’s sake look after our people.”
Heroic and chilling, all at the same time.
Imagine the pain Scott went through — both mental, for the defeat he and his team experienced at the hands of a rival, and physical, with the equivalent of being in the center of the Ninth Circle of Hell. And the full knowledge that he and his team would not survive,
And still, Scott managed to write in his diary, straight through to the end. He resisted nature and its cruel effects for as long as humanly possible.
He also resisted giving up traditional roles along the way, punishing crew members for insubordination and making them hew to their given responsibilities. It’s as if the British Navy from the Mediterranean and Caribbean also had to function in the Antarctic.
In reality, the differing conditions required a different way of thinking.
Adapt or Die: A Leadership Story for the Ages
And this is where Ernest Shackleton’s leadership stands apart.
Shackleton and Scott were well acquainted, not just as explorers who sought fame, but as fellow expeditioners. Shackleton had been part of Scott’s Discovery expedition, but was sent home early, due to sickness or because he violently disagreed with Scott's leadership style, depending on differing reports.
Once the news of Scott’s death reached England, Shackleton decided that there was still an opportunity left for him amid the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He was determined to be the first to cross the entire continent, traversing the South Pole along the way.
Just like Scott’s journey, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition ran into trouble. Setting off in in August 1914 in what would become the most appropriately-named ship in exploration history — the Endurance — Shackleton’s tale would become one of courage, leadership, and resilience in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.
As he prepared his journey, legend has it that Shackleton advertised for crew in the newspapers with this ad:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
There’s no known evidence that any such ad ever appeared, but the tone rings true, as that’s exactly what Shackleton got.
He chose a number of experienced Antarctic naval hands to lead the ship, and his scientific team included two surgeons, a meteorologist, and a biologist, as well as an expedition photographer.
By mid-February 1915, the Endurance was trapped in pack ice and Shackleton expected it would be for the entire winter. He had set up the ship for winter quarters.
There, throughout the winter, they exercised the dogs, played sports, took turns swabbing the deck, and took walks illuminated only by the moonlight. Shackleton’s main concern was keeping morale up and ensuring general fitness, for they’d need both for their journey ahead.
The men generally mingled as a team; there was no hierarchy as far as Shackleton was concerned.
What Shackleton was building within his team during this critical time was a sense of optimism, the need for patience, and physical endurance to train the body and mind for grueling circumstances.
He ignored traditional naval roles and expectations and adapted to the changing conditions.
At one point, the ship’s carpenter Harry McNish, objected to orders, saying that he was released from service because of the length of time the Endurance was out of service. Shackleton managed to talk him down, but there was a rift that remained between the two.
The conditions continued to change as the ship was eventually crushed by the ice. On October 27, 1915, Shackleton ordered a camp to be set up on the ice and that the crew should rescue as much from the ship as possible, including two of the lifeboats.
Trying to pull the lifeboats over the uneven ice floes was difficult work. By the end of December, they set up what Shackleton called “Patience Camp” and waited for the ice to break up. The team dogs had to be shot because their food needs were outstripping the expedition’s, which had already rationed things. Their meat helped to sustain the crew.
They remained on the floes until April 8, 1916, when the ice began to break apart. Shackleton decided that the only option was to try to make land at Elephant Island, about 100 miles away. A week later, they were at the southern coast of the island, but could not approach because that side consisted of cliffs and glaciers.
After landing on the remote and desolate Elephant Island, Shackleton knew that his mission had to change. It went from trying to transverse the continent to trying to bring his entire crew home safely.
The only hope was to make a run for South Georgia, some 800 miles across the Southern Sea. He determined that he and five others — the ablest seamen and navigators among them, and the ship’s carpenter Harry McNish — would make the journey in one of the lifeboats.
Shackleton knew that despite his differences with McNish, his skills would be essential for their survival. He put aside any hard feelings that he harbored and made it clear to McNish how important he was to the entire expedition.
Together, they outfitted the 22.5-foot lifeboat with makeshift tools and materials, and packed enough provisions for four weeks, knowing that if they didn't make it by then, they'd be doomed. Over the next two weeks, the tiny boat encountered some of the largest waves and stormiest conditions Shackleton had ever encountered in his 26 years at sea.
They eventually made land at South Georgia on May 10, but realized that the whaling depot was 26 miles away, on the other side of the island, which could only be reached over the mountains. Shackleton knew that three members of the crew were near exhaustion, so he and the other two would make the journey.
McNish put screws through the bottom of the team’s boots, creating makeshift crampons for mountaineering. They crossed without rest, knowing that they were racing against time to save the lives of their crew members they left behind both there on South Georgia and back on Elephant Island.
They reached the whaling depot, returned to the camp to pick up the remaining three crew members, then set out to rescue the rest of the expedition at Elephant Island. It took four attempts over the next few months before they could finally get the right ship and break through the ice to rescue the remaining crew on August 30, 1916.
Not a single life was lost.
Lessons for Today’s Leader
These two harrowing tales — and you should take the time to seek them out and read more about them — are stark examples of managing in a crisis, and how different leadership styles bring us different results.
Scott’s style was about powering through and doing what was necessary. There are times when such persistence is helpful. But when conditions change, it requires emotional intelligence to recognize that the leader needs to seek counsel, change course, and depend on different skill sets.
Shackleton was all about resilience and endurance. He knew that the most important thing was not glory or fame, but the lives of his fellow crew members. He came to care about them deeply, and they about him.
Leaders who listen to their team, create a sense of optimism and shared purpose, watch morale while focusing on the goal, and show they trust their team with greater responsibilities, will be able to withstand any crisis that comes their way.
Developing this level of trust and respect among your team is critical every day, so that when a crisis hits, you’ll be well prepared to endure together.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Can I send you stories like this every week?