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A Gripping and Beautiful Tale of Leadership
on February 12, 2000
This is a truly gripping and beautiful book. The story of the voyage and survival of the Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 expedition to traverse the Antarctic continent on foot, is truly awe-inspiring. The photographs of Frank Hurley, the expedition's photographer, are sublime and powerful. I can't recapture the magnitude or beauty of the book in a few words, but two things struck me as particularly moving. At one point, Shackleton and five men sailed 800 miles in a 22-foot boat through the tempestuous South Atlantic Ocean to reach help. I doubt that even Alexander's account of the voyage does justice to the courage, skill and fortitude exhibited by these men.
Two comments put this one piece of the survival struggle into perspective. Alexander comments, "They would later learn that a 500-ton steamer had foundered with all hands in the same hurricane they had just weathered." And upon reaching civilization for the first time, the captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley records the reaction of some of the hardiest seamen in the world:
Three or four white-haired veterans of the sea came forward. One spoke in Norse, and the Manager translated. He said he had been at sea over 40 years; that he knew this stormy Southern Ocean intimately, from South Georgia to Cape Horn, from Elephant Island to the South Orkneys, and that never had he heard of such a wonderful feat of daring seamanship as bringing the 22-foot open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia.... All the seamen present then came forward and solemnly shook hands with us in turn. Coming from brother seamen, men of our own cloth and members of a great seafaring race like the Norwegians, this was a wonderful tribute. (The Endurance, pages 166-167).
The second thing I found so moving about Alexander's account was the skillful and authentic way she weaves Hurley's unbelievably stark and beautiful photographs into the fabric of this story. Most moving of all, though, is the absence of photographs during the voyage described above. Shackleton, who lived and led for his men, left them to bring help, and it is somehow fitting that we have the same sense of solitude and lack the tangibility of a photograph to reassure us about the well-being of the 22 men left behind.
Shackleton ("the Boss") to his men, was a true leader. In her conclusion, Alexander writes of him, "He would be remembered not so much for his own accomplishment -- the 1909 expedition that attained the farthest South -- as for what he was capable of drawing out of others." She goes on to quote Worsley:
Shackleton's popularity among those he led was due to the fact that he was not the sort of man who could do only big and spectacular things. When occasion demanded he would attend personally to the smallest details.... Sometimes it would appear to the thoughtless that his care amounted almost to fussiness, and it was only afterwards that we understood the supreme importance of his ceaseless watchfulness. (The Endurance, pages 193-194).
Alexander goes on to say, "Behind every calculated word and gesture lay the single-minded determination to do what was best for his men. At the core of Shackleton's gift for leadership in crisis was...the fact that he elicited from his men strength and endurance they had never imagined they possessed; he ennobled them."
I think the most interesting passages with respect to his leadership are those that deal with the obvious INCREASED strain that Shackleton experienced after HE was safe but 22 of his men remained stranded on Elephant Island, even after 2 attempts to reach them. Again, Worsley's insight is revealing: "The wear and tear of this period was dreadful. To Shackleton it was little less than maddening. Lines scored themselves on his face more deeply day by day; his thick, dark, wavy hair was becoming silver. He had not had a grey hair when we started out to rescue our men the first time. Now on the third journey, he was grey-haired."
When Shackleton finally reached Elephant Island and realized that all his men had survived, Worsley writes, "He put his glasses back in their case and turned to me, his face showing more emotion than I had ever known it show before...we were all unable to speak. It sounds trite, but years literally seemed to drop from him as he stood before us."
In my estimation, this is the true quality of a leader: he leads his people, but more than anything, he leads FOR his people.