Should Shackleton's Heroism Matter to Today's Entrepreneurs?

Not a man was lost during the expedition's nearly two-year ordeal at sea. Inspiring, sure, but not particularly relevant to today's leaders.

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In the New York Times the Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn has a provocative essay on the lessons of the explorer Ernest Shackleton's heroic leadership of his crew after their expedition became icebound:

In late 1914, the ship arrived at a whaling settlement on South Georgia Island, the last southern port of call before the Antarctic Circle. Local seamen urged Shackleton to postpone his venture because of unusually thick pack ice that could trap the ship if the wind and temperatures shifted suddenly.

Impatient to get moving, Shackleton commanded the ship to continue south, navigating through the icy jigsaw puzzle. In January 1915, the vessel came within sight of the Antarctic mainland. But harsh winds and cold temperatures descended quickly, and the pack ice trapped the ship, just as the South Georgia seamen had warned.

The Endurance was immobilized, held hostage to the drifting ice floes. Shackleton realized that his men would have to wait out the coming winter in the ship's cramped quarters until summer's thaw.

Shackleton's ability to form a new plan, maintain morale, and keep negativity at bay for more than a year and a half after first becoming icebound remains one of the most riveting sea stories ever. But what does it really have to say to executives in today's emergencies? Does it justify romantic business heroism, whatever the possible collateral damage? Historic and recent warning signs abounded in 1914. Shackleton's near-fatal misjudgement occurred only three years after Captain Smith of the Titanic, following then-universal custom, maintained normal speed even amid ice warnings.

Professor Koehn, at least in her Times essay, says nothing about the applicability of one of Shackleton's key principles to the rescue: saving every one of the men. In reality, corporate emergencies recall a less glorious side of shipwrecks. I'm sure some entrepreneurial ventures weather crises with no jobs lost, but it's hard to think of examples. Aaron Feuerstein of the family-owned Malden Mills, producers of Polartec, became something of an American Shackleton after continuing to pay workers following a disastrous 1995 fire. Yet in 2007, facing bankruptcy, the company had to be sold to new owners. Against global competition, warmer winters, and the debt burden of rebuilding, even the most steadfastly ethical and resourceful behavior wasn't enough.

It's true that layoffs, far from being fatal, may be great opportunities -- as is happening in Finland following layoffs at Nokia. But not all fired people start successful new businesses, and the U.S. doesn't have a safety net like those found in Scandinavian countries. The Endurance paradigm, as related by Koehn, also is remarkably devoid of any actors besides Shackleton and the defeatists, hotheads, and prima donnas that he managed so adroitly. Does teamwork really end in an emergency and the genius-leader paradigm take over? And does the Endurance example imply that those bank executives whose decisions helped produce the crisis are the people to save us?

I'm not against using great stories in history. And there's nothing wrong with inspiration, or even with what Koehn calls "smart mistakes," as though there weren't an enormous element of luck in crises. (Jon Corzine insisted in Congressional testimony  that whatever else went wrong at MF Global his underlying bet on European sovereign debt was correct. If it had raised enough capital to satisfy government and private agencies, would he be considered another Shackleton?)  We need other moving stories, too -- about people whose leadership quietly kept themselves and others out of mortal danger in the first place.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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