Fresh off of last week’s Monday Memo and my embrace of a friend’s thoughtfulness about his desire to become (or maintain) his countenance as an explorer, on the plane ride home to Shanghai, I galloped through Alfred Lansing’s Shackleton: a tale of adventure and exploration, certainly, also one also of patience, resilience, leadership, and teamwork.
The book recounts Sir Ernest Shackleton’s remarkable journey to cross Antarctica in 1914. Shackleton, starry-eyed for adventure, is at one point described as, “...above all, an explorer in the classic mold - utterly self-reliant, romantic, and just a little swashbuckling.” Of course things did not go according to plan - his ship, The Endurance, became lodged in the ice floes off the shores of Antarctica. He and his men spent 497 days aboard the ship, then camping on ice floes, and then in boats before finally reaching dry land. For full details, and a page-turner at that, I highly recommend picking up a copy.
But then, once reaching land, shockingly, Shackleton needed to navigate a 22-foot boat with six men through Drake’s Passage (the most dangerous stretch of any ocean at the time) on a month-long journey in the open seas, proceed to hike across South Georgia Island with two of them (a feat only replicated 40 years later by professional mountaineers with all the proper gear - Shackleton just had a rope!), and lead four rescue attempts back to where the remaining 22 men of his expedition were freezing to death on Elephant Island.
He rescued every single man. The only casualties were the dogs originally aboard the vessel and one foot which a stowaway lost to frostbite.
The conditions could not have been more miserable. Nearly starving to death multiple times, the men were spared by hunting penguins and sea leopards. At times, many nearly froze to death in the frigid waters and the icy winds. The U.S. Navy’s Sailing Direction for Antarctica writes about the winds these men traversed in the Drake Passage as , “...often of hurricane intensity and with gust velocities sometimes attaining to 150 to 200 miles per hour. Winds of such violence are not known elsewhere, save perhaps within a tropical cycle.”
Multiple times, they were dehydrated, not drinking for days. Sailing across waters among icebergs, a single lapse of concentration could have spelled out certain death for groups of the men. Charles Darwin wrote about these same treacherous straits, “The sight...is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about death, peril, and shipwreck.”
While the story is one of heroism and leadership, for sure, it is also one of intense fortitude and commitment to teamwork. Throughout the nearly two years adrift, the band of merry men shared moments of bliss and of heartbreak. An intense bond was no doubt forged between them, but that doesn’t mean it was perfect. Being ‘held captive’ voluntarily aboard a ship in close quarters, within tents, and finally within a ramshackle lodge that reeked of seal blubber and penguin guano, there was a considerable amount of friction between the men.
While reading, one moment stuck out to me as a seemingly mundane yet make-or-break moment. The ice itself was a metaphor for the conditions of the crew, “[Shackleton] was fearful that cracks would open up, and if the line of march were stretched out over a long distance the party might be divided.”
Tensions were boiling high and the men were huddled around the stove eagerly welcoming their one ration of powdered milk for the day. Shackleton had just denied the men the opportunity to travel back to Ocean Camp (where The Endurance lay bare, buckled, and broken in the ice) to get supplies. Lionel Greenstreet knocks over his own milk. He shouts at Robert Clark, who tries to protest but only aggravates Greenstreet further. The moment is transcribed here in full:
“Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at each other. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down.
Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet, too, and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded, and filthy with blubber soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was almost so tragic he seemed almost to the point of weeping.
Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug. Then Worley, then Mackin, and Rickenson, and Kerr, Orde-Lees, and finally Blackboro. They finished in silence.”
An unsung hero, Clark is barely referenced elsewhere in the story - a gaunt Scottish biologist, he was only on the expedition to catalogue the wildlife the men encountered. Hardly a central figure or a superstar of the crew.
And yet it is he who arguably saves the entire mission. Immediately after being yelled at from two different parties, publicly scorned, and having undue blame placed his way, he silently reaches over and supports his crewmate with such a simple yet meaningful gesture: It is an other-worldly showing of humility and teamwork.
I had to put the book down after this passage and reflect for a moment: How many moments like that - How many Clarks had I encountered in my life? How many times had I wronged someone else due to tempers or tensions flying high and had them respond with compassion? How often have I, in a position of power, neglected to recognize true servant leadership?
The leadership that Shackleton is often credited with is well-deserved: the two-year epic of The Endurance and his sense of unyielding purpose and responsibility to care for his men are legendary in their own right. But what gets overlooked too often in the story of this and every leader are the silent actions of the crew: Clark’s poignant pour, Wild’s intense loyalty, and Worsley’s world-class navigation in treacherous waters.
In the coming weeks as the semester draws nearer, tensions may flare. There may be a moment of utter frustration, desperation, and even anger at a teammate. At that moment, what will you do? Will you prioritize the crew, the vision, and the mission?
While we are not floating on ice nor freezing to death, make no mistake - the stakes could not be higher than they are at this very moment. We are about to launch on our most ambitious year yet: setting the standard as a world-class coaching organization with industry-leading client retention and satisfaction, coaching students to win world championships, leveling up our brand equity and awareness, upgrading our customer service to delight and inspire our community on a daily basis, and nearly doubling the size of our partnership.
If we want to even have a chance at accomplishing these goals, we must pull together in the same direction. Let us have the strength to be patient, to be humble, and to work together, from whatever direction the winds may blow.
A captain alone cannot bring a ship safely to harbor.
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