Ernest Shackleton, Problem Solver

“By Endurance, We Conquer.”

This was the motto of the family of early 20th century explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. So when it came time for him to name his ship in the Imperial Royal Trans-Antarctic Expedition, he named it the Endurance. And that name came to define his team’s experience for the next 2 years–the ship sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea, the team lived through unspeakable struggles in some of the roughest conditions on earth, but ultimately, together, every single one of them survived.

When it came time for Endurance Learning Co-founders, Brian Washburn and Tim Waxenfelter to name their company, they looked back at the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Obviously, it’s an inspiring story of ambition and adventure. It is a story of…endurance. But at the end of the day it is really something else. It is the ultimate example of pivoting with success. Sure, it’s easy to be a hero when things go right. But how do you shine when things take a turn?

It is well known that Ernest Shackleton’s story has been studied by business professionals as a case study in effective leadership. But what, specifically, can training professionals learn from it? Like Shackleton, the team at Endurance Learning is made up of problem-solvers. Here are 5 lessons that other problem-solvers in the field learning & development can take from his experience:

  1. Find a team who buys in to your vision. Surround yourself with people that have a spirit that feels right to you. Ernest Shackleton allegedly did not sugar coat the job posting for the Endurance expedition–“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful.”–yet thousands of people applied for the job. Why? People want to be part of something different. People don’t want to be limited. Spirit, drive, attitude and will were what Shackleton was looking for, and I think it helped his team survive against impossible odds.
  1. Do things no one else has ever done. Initially, Shackleton wanted to be the first to lead an expedition across Antarctica on foot. When his ship, and thus the expedition, got stuck in the ice, he changed his vision to being the first to get everyone home safely after being stranded in Antarctica with no possible way of contacting the outside world. Think outside the box and take chances. How can you provide value? You can do something new. You may also want to know when it’s time to pivot what it is that you need to accomplish. 
  1. Be Persistent. Don’t let changing variables stop you from moving ahead. Once you cross one hurdle, another will present itself. If you’ve ever worked with groups of learners, then you know that a training program that worked very well last week can be met with new questions and challenging participants the next week.
  1. Keep your finger on the pulse of your learners. Shackleton had unwavering optimism, or at least that’s what he showed his team. It’s important to make sure those working with you believe in themselves and the mission. Legend has it that when members of the expedition team would show any doubt Shackleton would invite that person to come sleep in his room. It seemed like an honor for that person, but really he was just trying to keep the bad energy away from the entire team.
  1. Have fun. It is said by historians that Shackleton’s real opponent was not the ice, but the morale of his men. The survival of the team is in large part due to how he prioritized this. Singing, dancing, and storytelling were daily activities during the long cold months together. And these skills were so important to Shackleton that he inquired about them during the interview process when selecting his crew. At one point along the journey they had to dump many of their belongings to lighten the load, but Shackleton kept the banjo. When you think of designing or delivering training programs, what might your “banjo” be?

Some people call Ernest Shackleton a heroic failure. But was he a failure? Because he didn’t achieve what he originally set out to? Well, if getting every single member of his crew back home safely and alive equates to failure, then hopefully we can all be so lucky to “fail” this way. He showed greatness when things went wrong, and the lessons from his journey continue to inspire others how to do the same.

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