Focus on Education July 2021 No. 2

It is said that in 1912, a small advertisement appeared in the back pages of the London Times newspaper. It read:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

The advertisement had been placed by Sir Earnest Shackleton, one of the great Antarctic explorers of the age. British pride had been badly dented earlier that year, with the news that fellow Englishman, Captain Robert Scott, had been beaten to the South Pole by another great polar explorer, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Worse still, Scott and his party had over-stretched their resources in the race to get there first and they perished on the return journey.

Earnest Shackleton was not on that trip, but he had been to Antarctica with Captain Scott on previous voyages. Now, he wanted to try to complete the one last challenge yet to be accomplished, trekking across the Antarctic continent, from one side to the other.

And so, he was seeking to recruit a crew brave enough for this one last heroic adventure. You would think nobody would be dumb or desperate enough to respond to such a gloomy advertisement but in fact, Shackleton was overwhelmed with more than 5000 applications. He poured over them all to pick the best mix of skills to fill the 28 positions on his team. Choosing amongst them three men called Frank, which must have got confusing at times. More about them in a minute.

Many of you know what happened next. They set sail from England on board a wooden-hulled ship called Endurance in 1914, just as WW1 was erupting, and arrived in Antarctic waters at the start of 1915.

However, the weather turned bad early that year, and by late February their boat became trapped in the ice that forms a solid crust when the Ross Sea freezes over each winter. Undeterred, Shackleton reassured his men that they had plenty of provisions and proposed they sit out the winter on board the Endurance, then set off on their crossing when the ice thawed in the summer.

Sadly, that was not to be. The pack ice that was holding their ship fast buckled and twisted as the ocean currents moved beneath it. It was like being caught in an ever-tightening vice and one night the timbers in the hull could take no more. They splintered and cracked under the pressure, the water rushed in, and the Endurance sank out of sight beneath the ice.

Fortunately, Shackleton had seen this coming and had managed to get all his crew and most of their supplies off the boat into tents set up on the ice floe nearby.

No lives were lost, but it was still a huge set-back. They were now trapped on the bottom of the world with only limited food and three small lifeboats. Floating helplessly on an ever-shrinking iceberg, with no chance of rescue. Not expected home for another year and even then, with the world too caught up in the First World War to be able to assist.

What followed was one of the greatest stories of human survival, courage, and ingenuity of modern times. I do not have time to do it justice here, but I commend it as an example of the power of the human spirit in adversity. Not to mention a role model for great leadership.

In short, the men drifted for another nine months, often breaking camp and hauling their supplies to new sites as the ice floes shrank. Then, realising the last of it would soon melt beneath their feet, they crammed all they could into the boats and sailed stormy seas to a tiny speck of rock called Elephant Island.

Again, no lives were lost, but many were now getting sick and injured from the rough conditions and poor diet. Realising they were still in great peril, Shackleton set out on what has become known as the greatest open boat voyage of modern times. In their one remaining lifeboat, with just a piece of old canvas to keep the sleet and waves out, he and five of his men sailed 800 miles across the world’s most perilous ocean, miraculously navigating to another small island called South Georgia.

Unfortunately, they landed on the wrong side of the island, with their boat being smashed to splinters on the rocky beach. Meaning they then had to spend the next 36 hours climbing over high, snow-covered mountains, exhausted and dressed in rags, before finally raising the alarm in a small whaling station. Even then, it took more than three months before Shackleton was able to get hold of a big enough ship to return to Elephant Island to save the rest of his crew.

In some ways, Earnest Shackleton was an enormous failure. He did not achieve his goal of crossing the Antarctic continent. In fact, he never even set foot on it. Yet, for 3 years, in the face of the harshest conditions on Earth and with no chance of outside help, he kept his entire crew alive and saw them all saved. More than just looking after their physical well-being, he kept them mentally strong as well. Remembered as an inspiring leader, his behaviour offers many lessons in leadership.

Here is one. Good leaders recognise the potential in others and give them the chance to shine. I mentioned that Shackelton selected three men called Frank when he first placed that advertisement. One was an English sailor called Frank Wild. He became Shackelton’s right-hand man. Shackleton was a good ship’s captain, but he had such faith in Frank Wild that he usually gave him the helm. Ultimately, Shackleton had to make the final decisions, but every night he discussed his options with Wild, always seeking and considering his opinions.

When Shackleton made the tough decision to sail off in the only remaining lifeboat, it was Frank Wild that he left in charge of the men on Elephant Island. He trusted him with the job of keeping them alive until he returned.

The second Frank was an Australian called Frank Hurley. He was a photographer, at a time when cameras were a relatively new invention, and Shackleton took him along to document the expedition. Where Frank Wild was steady and reliable, Frank Hurley was passionate and driven. He could also be hot-headed. Yet Shackleton still found ways to harness his energy.

When the Endurance sank and the crew knew they would have to haul everything by hand, Frank Hurley fought with Shackleton over the decision to ditch his heavy, lead-lined, photographic plates. He pleaded to be able to keep them so that, if they did manage to survive, the world would see what they endured.

Rather than pulling rank, Shackleton compromised and showed faith in him, allowing him to keep a small selection. Then, when Hurley could not decide which ones were best, Shackleton sat down next to him on the ice and helped chose. To this day, those 36 photos remain the most iconic images of the age of polar exploration.

The third Frank, Frank Worsley, was another sailor, this time a New Zealander. He was also a phenomenal navigator. So talented that it was him who Shackleton selected to guide the tiny lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia to get help. For two weeks, Worsley lay on his back on top of the canvas sheet, pointing his sextant at the sky as huge icy waves washed over him, trying to steer a course. He only saw the sun to take a bearing three times, yet he managed to cross those 800 miles and pinpoint that speck of an island.

Shackleton was, himself, a very good navigator, but he realised Worsley was better and was not too proud to admit it and entrust the job to him. Therein lies another lesson; good leaders do not need to do everything themselves. They are best when they can delegate, and let their faith bring out the best in others.

I write about this today not just because Earnest Shackleton was one of my boyhood heroes (can you tell?). The lessons of his leadership have been in my thoughts a lot, as I reflect on this past 15 months or so and with the recent appointments of our Prefect teams, House Captain teams and Mental Health Ambassadors. They have an exciting year ahead of themselves, as they will be leading our school community. Student leadership is a vital part of a school and incredibly important. I wish them well in their endeavours and thank them for their service.

Leadership is about being trustworthy and reliable, like Frank Wild. Passionate and determined, like Frank Hurley. Leaders must be willing to make personal sacrifices, like Frank Worsley. Ultimately, some will need to be like Earnest Shackleton himself. Thus, be able to lead the leaders, to draw out the best of their many talents.

What type of Frank will you be? Alternatively, will you be an Earnest?

Stay well and safe.

Be kind to yourself and others.

Best wishes,

Dr Bird