Life is messy! Along with that perfect plan we devised, comes a dose of reality when it all goes awry. Oddly enough, Mike Tyson put it best when he said before a major fight, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
Bryon Johnson wrote a few years ago about Sir Ernest Shackleton and coined the phrase, “The Shackleton Sniff Test”. The sniff test, later unpacked by Tim Ferris on his podcast and in his book Tools of Titans, is touted as a mechanism used to judge your position and outlook on decision making.
The story of Shackleton is about leadership, endurance, sacrifice for the sake of others, and how failure provides alternative opportunities. However, Shackleton’s story is mostly about doing hard stuff that really sucks and the leadership to turn a failed plan into a string of successes.
Sir Ernest Shackleton
In the winter of 1914, Shackleton and a 27 man crew set out with the hopes to be the first to cross the ice covered continent of Antarctica by foot. The expedition soon came into trouble when their ship, the Endurance, became hopelessly stuck in the ice and abandonment the only option. For the next ten months Shackleton and his crew took all they could from the Endurance, using it to set up a camp on the floating sheet of ice. On 21 Nov 1915, the captain and crew watched as their main form of transportation, the Endurance, slipped below the surface into the frigid blue abyss leaving the crew bobbing up and down on a ice-sheet with only three lifeboats and some gear.
The next spring as they still found themselves camping on the melting piece of ice, Shackleton recalls the danger of killer whales, “The killers were blowing all night, and a crack appeared about 20 feet from the camp at 2 a.m. The ice below us was quite thin enough for the killers to break through if they took a fancy to do so.”
The decision to abandon their ice-camp occurred one night when Shackleton had to pull one of the crew, who was still in his sleeping bag, from the bitter cold sea since the ice had broken through. The crew quickly boarded the three lifeboats and headed for the nearest piece of land, Elephant Island. A rugged inhospitable ice-covered landscape, Elephant Island was the first solid ground Shackleton and crew had placed their feet on in almost 500 days. In negative 10 degree weather and with an angry tempestuous South Atlantic Sea raging all around them, Shackleton new he needed to make some difficult decisions. The men were staring to wander insanely around the desolate island and some even capitulating to fits of weeping.
On April 9th 1916, with the original 27 man crew still intact, Shackleton chose five men to sail one of the lifeboats 800 miles through the treacherous South Atlantic sea in hope of reaching South Georgia. With waves measuring 60-feet, Shackleton and his five other crew members navigated for the next 16 days and hit land, but not with out additional hardships. On the southern tip of South Georgia, Shackleton found food, water, and a large mountain range between him and the Norwegian whaling camp he was attempting to locate. Dehydrated and sleep deprived, the five pressed on for the next 36 hours over the mountain range to the spot they had visited two years earlier.
Shackleton returned to Elephant Island and rescued the remaining crew who were huddled under the remaining two lifeboats living on penguin broth. Amazingly, close to 600 days the frigid cast-away group survived in the most austere of environments.
Shackleton safely made it back with all original 28 crew members.
What We Can Learn
Failure sucks, but it’s not the end: Risk takers will always be exposed to the other side of success. Shackleton shows us that you can lose the war but win the battle. In the gym, classroom, work, and life choose the path of most resistance. Be a learner, not a non-learner. A set back can just be information and if you let it teach you, a driver of innovation.
The Team Matters: Shackleton interviewed almost 5000 men before choosing his 28 man team. Additionally, there are those who are looking for challenge, regardless of the monetary compensation. Examples: Rangers, Seals, MARSOC, entrepreneurs, etc…Employers should hunt for these individuals and hire them!
Strive for equality: One thing Shackleton had was the support of his men. When rations were at an all time low, Shackleton gave his last biscuit to his ailing second-in-command, Frank Wild. Wild later wrote in his journal, “I do not suppose anyone else in the world can thoroughly realize how much generosity and sympathy was shown by this; I do, & by God I shall never forget it”.
Leaders have a grasp and passion for equality. They are not afraid to share their rations with their men, call them by their first name, sleep on the same ground with them, and are the first over the wall. As Admiral Grace Hopper stated, ” A ship in the port is safe”, a leader is always exposed.
What defines you: It is the mechanism of being refined through challenge that give our leadership and lives texture. Here is an article that showcases this point.
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