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Shackleton’s Leadership Lessons from the Bottom of the World

Justin Hoffman • May 5th, 2017

In 1914, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and his crew of 28 men set off for Antarctica to become the first people to ever cross the continent via the South Pole. He led the explorers on what is considered one of the greatest undertakings and leadership stories in recorded history. He called his expedition “The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition: The last great journey on Earth.”

What does that have to do with workplace leadership and engagement? More than you may realize, said “Antarctic Mike” Pierce, who recently spoke at a PSA Partnership event. Pierce, a former headhunter, discovered Shackleton’s journey in 2001 after reading “Shackleton’s Way” — a book documenting the expedition and his leadership. Within moments of starting the book, he recognized the parallels between Shackleton’s incredible journey and today’s business world.

“This journey is somewhere between difficult and dangerous. And I thought, wait a minute, this is what the best companies in the world do today by design.” Shackleton was a master at creating compelling opportunities and getting team members to buy into the leadership principles that enabled them to complete their expedition despite conditions and circumstances that were beyond terrible

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In 2006, to understand Shackleton’s challenges and walk in the steps of his hero, Pierce became one of just nine people to run a marathon in Antarctica. Only 11 months later, he went back again — this time to become the first American to ever complete the Antarctic 100k, a grueling 62 miles on an ice shelf 600 miles from the South Pole.

Through Shackleton’s stories and his own, Pierce shared how to attract the best employees, create an environment where they enjoy coming to work, retain those employees over time and engage them in the success of the business.

Building a high performance message and team

In 1914, Shackleton placed an ad in a London newspaper that read: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

That ad is an excellent template for building a message, Pierce said. It teaches the power of a great story, and a business’ story is the reason why the next customer will drive further and spend more money to use the business — or why an employee would want to work there.

Consider this story: About 20 miles short of the crew’s Antarctic destination, Shackleton’s ship got stuck in ice. Initially, the men tried to free the ship with saws. But then, understanding the effort was becoming futile, Shackleton did something “unconventional yet effective.”

“Shackleton said, ‘Put the saws down,’” Pierce recalled. “’We’re going to play a game.’” The crew began playing soccer, despite the ice, cold temperatures and lack of food. It was one of the smartest things Shackleton could have done as a leader, Pierce said.

“The game is an example of something they have complete control over,” Pierce explained. “The ship is something they have zero control over. As good as they are, as hard as they try, it’s not moving.”

In business, people spend too much time pushing against walls they’ll never move. If people are to be more fully engaged in what they do, they need to think about what they can control instead of what they can’t, Pierce said.

Creating a better environment and heroes

With the ship still stuck, Shackleton developed a new plan: Have a party.

He called it a “Mid-Winter’s Day” celebration. Darkness had surrounded them for months, so when the sun was halfway through the winter cycle, they celebrated. This changed the culture of his crew, Pierce said.

“It’s not different today,” Pierce said. “When people come in and do a job… they have to want to do it.”

He asked, “As a leader, what can you do to get the people on the team to say, ‘I want to come to work, I want to show up earlier, I want to stay later, I want to give more of my all.’”

Recognizing people and moments that are important to them is an effective way to get them in the “want to” zone, Pierce said. It’s how to make someone a “hero.”

“When people are made heroes, they are more dedicated and they give more of themselves,” he said. “They’re more than willing to bring their full mind to solve problems that have never been solved, to figure out ways to add value… and do the things you really want them to do.”

Making difficult decisions

When spring arrived and the ice began to melt, the ship started leaning. No longer able to use the ship, Shackleton pulled all the men into a semicircle and said, “’Now the goal has changed. The goal is no longer to cross the continent. The goal is to get you home alive.’”

To reach that goal, Shackleton needed to make some difficult decisions. He told the men to throw most of their personal possessions out on the ice. Shackleton said, “If we’re going to get out of here alive, we have to go to a level that’s called sacrifice.”

As a business leader, don’t be afraid to make difficult decisions like this, Pierce said.

“Think about the most difficult decision you have to make right now that you haven’t made,” he said. “Don’t let is fester. Don’t just try to sweep it under the rug… It will come back and haunt you.”

It could even cost you employees or customers, he said.

Finding your Antarctica, engaging in success

Shackleton and his crew faced several more challenges: Using dinghies over 20 feet long to reach land, navigating 40- to 50-foot ocean waves, and crossing 30 miles on foot, including 5,000-foot mountain peaks, to find civilization. But in the end, all 28 men survived.

“This is why I went to Antarctica… It was about walking in the shoes of my heroes,” Pierce said.

During Pierce’s first Antarctic marathon, conditions were rough. When clouds rolled in, the sky and the icy, barren landscape became indistinguishable for hours, which made it nearly impossible to stay on track.

“Going into this, I knew the battle mentally would probably be bigger than the battle physically,” he said.

To condition his muscles, he trained and ran a marathon in a 59-foot commercial freezer. To condition his mind, he embraced the difficulty.

“I thought if I could run a marathon in a frozen metal box, I could do the real thing,” he said. “But ability is only half the job. If people are going to do a world-class job, they need the ability and ‘want’ to do it.”

So how did Pierce remain motivated to ‘want to’ stick with his training?

“One more hour in the freezer is one step closer to walking in the shoes of your heroes,” Pierce said.

“Everybody has an Antarctica,” he explained. “We all do… The question is, ‘What is it?’ And why are people running toward it?”

“People are generally driven by one of three things: what they are going to learn, do or become,” Pierce said. The hardest and most important job a leader has is to help people identify what they’re running toward and enable them to achieve their goals.

Make sure to join us for the next PSA Partnership event, “Game of Stones,” on June 27, 2017.

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About the Author: Justin Hoffman is PSA’s Chief Marketing Officer. He oversees business development initiatives and PSA's Marketing Department. His focus includes sales leadership, Account Executive support and recruiting, sales training and CRM technology. He supervises PSA’s awareness, community-building and demand-generation efforts. The majority of his 14-year career has been spent at financial services firms, managing brand development initiatives, advertising, public relations and electronic marketing. Prior to joining PSA in 2007, he led M&T Bank’s sports marketing assets, overseeing relationships with the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills and other sports franchises. Justin holds a Master’s degree in Marketing from Johns Hopkins University. You can reach Justin on LinkedIn or via email.