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Frozen Oceans, Sunken Ships, and One of the Greatest Lessons in Leadership

By Wayne Cascio

It is 1914, and there are no satellite communications, no GPS, and definitely no iPhones.

Once you are out of sight you have no way to communicate with people located elsewhere.

You’re the leader of an Antarctic expedition, and your first order of business is to choose your crew carefully. And then plan, meticulously. You need to make sure your boat is sturdy enough, so you reinforce the bow with timbers four-feet thick. As you load raw wooden crates of supplies and provisions onto your boat, you think about your goal – to become the first team ever to cross entire Antarctic Continent on foot.

The excited yips and barks of 80 sled dogs aboard the boat echo across the water at the dock’s edge. These dogs are the engines that will propel your team across the frigid landscape of snow and ice. Twenty-seven men will accompany you – from sailors to physicians to Cambridge-educated scientists. This team you’ve assembled, they are the best of the best.

You are Ernest Shackleton, an experienced Antarctic explorer.

And you’re full of optimism, until things start to go wrong.

While crossing the Weddell Sea, one of the most treacherous bodies of water in the world, the mother ship, The Endurance, becomes trapped in ice. After 10 months battling the shifting, frozen tangle of ice, The Endurance is eventually crushed by ice and slowly sinks. No one in the world knew where they were.

Shackleton and his team float on large, flat masses of solid ice for months, hardly a solution to the horrible situation they face. So they all board three small lifeboats in search of land. Now Shackleton has a new goal for his men: stay alive.

Extraordinary leadership skills, uncommon in the early 1900’s tradition of autocratic, “my-way-or-the-highway” leadership style, managed to keep his team focused, engaged, and most importantly, holding onto the hope of salvation despite the desperate circumstances and cruel, biting environment.

Shackleton failed at his original goal to lead his team across entire Antarctic continent on foot. However, fame followed because he successfully achieved his revised goal: not to lose a single life on his team.

There is no clearer metaphor for “we’re all in this together” than this timeless story of survival.


Wayne Cascio will share this story in detail at PeopleFWD 2018, sharing a number of little-known historical facts and illustrating ten critical themes in leadership that anyone can apply.