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Shackleton by Ranulph Fiennes — My Highlights

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Nimrod expedition

How you get along with crewmates is a life and death question
‘The temperament of the various members of the expedition is one of the most serious and important factors in such a case as ours,’ (Location 2108)

‘I feel that the success of our work depends as much on the general attitude of the members to each other as on the work they individually have to do.’ (Location 2109)

Author’s style of hiring: “Ultimately, I found it better to search for conventional people with everyday jobs who score highly under three criteria: levelheadedness, patience and good nature towards others. (Location 2127)”

None had expedition experience, but all seemed suitable personality-wise. (Location 2130)

Shackleton’s interview style was telling in this respect. He was clearly looking for certain types of character who he felt could be of value during a long expedition. (Location 2131)


key sponsors, give significant brownie points for expeditions with solid scientific research programmes rather than those which are just macho stunts. (Location 2140)

Sir Philip Lee Brocklehurst was not only a budding geologist, he was also an Etonian baronet from the manorial Swythamley Hall in Staffordshire. After being introduced to the young baron, Shackleton swiftly saw that he not only had the necessary qualifications to serve on board as a scientist but he also had vast wealth and connections. (Location 2146)

Why Shackleton was great

Shackleton was clearly a rare breed who could lead men from different backgrounds, whether hardened seamen or scientists, and earn their respect, by force of personality or by strength. Buckley recalled that he had a ‘magnetic influence and soon he was known to all as “the Boss”’. (Location 2578)

He did all he could to remain optimistic, and show that he was relaxed, cracking jokes, telling stories and taking an interest in each man to keep their spirits high. This seemed to rub off on the men, who believed that if Shackleton thought their goal was still possible, then all was well. (Location 2743)

Men first: “Shackleton’s decision to turn back when he did showed remarkable courage and intelligence. It is for reasons such as this that he continues to be so revered. (Location 2994)”

Continued, his men came first: “It was all Wild could eat, and Shackleton knew it could make the difference between life and death. It was a tremendous gesture, when each morsel of food was vital to each man and a biscuit was considered a real treat. Afterwards, Wild would proclaim his devotion to Shackleton for the rest of his life. ‘I do not suppose that anyone else in the world can thoroughly realise how much generosity and sympathy was shown by this,’ Wild wrote. ‘By GOD I shall never forget it. Thousands of pounds would not have bought that one biscuit.’ (Location 3059)”

Overcoming fear

When fearing failure, and sensing the gradual spread of panic, I have discovered that the best way to combat such negative thoughts is to mentally rehearse how I would react in a worst-case scenario. For example, when approaching a crevasse field, I conduct a mental rehearsal of what exactly I will do, step by step, should I happen to plunge into the maw of a 100-foot fissure. Feeling that you are prepared, no matter what, has a tremendously positive effect. (Location 2854)

Fame and motivation

He might not have achieved his ultimate goal of reaching the pole, but he had certainly carved a name for himself in history. He had travelled further south than any other human being, charted an area of unknown terrain, and discovered coal. This would surely cement his reputation as an explorer and a scientist, while his leadership skills had been proven to be of the highest calibre. (Location 3155)

The Canadian government was set to fight a general election and was not willing to back any venture to the Arctic that could blow up in its face. However, there was a sliver of hope. They told Shackleton that if they were to remain in power, they might give him permission to travel the following year. This was no good. Shackleton had a boat and supplies ready to depart and he couldn’t face the prospect of another year at home. He needed to get away. (Location 4845)

Shackleton certainly had plenty of failures under his belt, not once having reached his intended main goal, but crucially, he had not died a heroic and romantic death in the course of an expedition. Indeed, his greatest achievement, saving the men of the Endurance, was largely overshadowed by the war. (Location 4958)

Endurance expedition

Hiring, continued: “Shackleton was immediately taken by the forty-two-year-old New Zealander. He certainly had a wealth of experience at sea but, far more than that, he appeared to be the sort of adventurous personality who would suit the unique pressures of sailing in the Antarctic.” (Location 3665)

I remember he asked me if my teeth were good, if I suffered from varicose veins, if I had a good temper, and if I could sing. At this last question I probably looked a bit taken aback, for I remember he added, ‘Oh, I don’t mean any Caruso stuff; but I suppose you can shout a bit with the boys?’ (Location 3700)

Shackleton was a master of mood shaping

Shackleton knew from experience that this could adversely affect his crew’s mood. He therefore strove to remain as optimistic as possible. Always seeking to lighten the mood, he went from group to group, eager to show no favouritism, leaving laughter in his wake. Worsley said that the man known to them all as ‘Boss’ was a ‘cheery chief, leading his men in a great adventure’, while former Royal Marine Thomas Orde-Lees, the expedition storekeeper and ski expert, praised him for bringing the men together and not allowing cliques to form. (Location 3868)

He is a wonderful man. He looks after me himself with all the tender care of a trained nurse, which indeed he seems to be far more than merely my leader and master for the time being. He attends to me himself, making up the fire and making me a cup of tea during the night if I happen to say that I am thirsty, reading to me and always entertaining me with his wonderful conversation, making me forget my pain by joking with me continually, just as if I was a spoiled child. What sacrifices would I not make for such a leader as this. (Location 3876)

Shackleton still gave the air of being totally in control. ‘For most of the time,’ Orde-Lees remembered, ‘he stood on the upper deck holding on to the rigging smoking a cigarette with a serious somewhat unconcerned air.’ Macklin also remembered that Shackleton showed no ‘emotion, melodrama or excitement’. (Location 3922)

Shackleton could sense the gnawing anxiety among the men and knew the cold would not help their mood. At 5 a.m., with the ever-faithful Wild, he went from tent to tent, handing out hot cups of coffee, always with a smile, offering words of reassurance, downplaying the sinking of the ship by calmly saying, ‘Now we’ll go home.’ Hussey remembered it as ‘Simple, moving, optimistic and highly effective,’ while Macklin said, ‘It would be difficult to convey just what those words meant to us.’ It was a masterclass in disaster management. (Location 3945)

Leading by example

I have often found that when there is dissension in the group, the leader can often break the deadlock by getting up and personally tackling the task. Shackleton did exactly this, taking the lead the next day and hauling the boats harder than anyone, encouraging others to do the same. (Location 4013)

Sometimes no action helps; waiting to see the storm pass. “The ice-covered mountains were no doubt difficult to traverse at the best of times, let alone in foul weather. However, Shackleton could find no other solution. Once more, he had no choice but to be patient and pray there would be a break in the weather. (Location 4363)”

His ability to motivate his men and put the interests of the group above all else has since been studied far and wide. Shackleton modules are taught at Harvard Business School, and the introduction of Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell states that Shackleton ‘has been called the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none …’ (Location 4977)