How Will Tough Times Test Your Leadership?


During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance became wedged in an ice pack, leaving the crew stranded and eventually shipwrecked on Elephant Island. Having to drastically abandon their mission and engage in an against-all-odds rescue, Shackleton with the help of a select small team from the ship staged one of the biggest displays of heroic leadership the world has ever seen.

Not everyone can lead to a mountain peak, fewer still can lead through the valleys/pits/crises that befall many organizations and individuals. Not every mountain peak leader can lead from the tough times; Not every leader from tough times can lead to the mountain peak.

These require different leadership skills than during times of smooth sailing. Tough times refine, purifies, hones your leadership abilities in ways that normal circumstances could never do. It is these times that the forging of your mettle will yield a more tempered way of influencing others and addressing the mission at hand.

What can we learn from the tough times through Ernest Shackleton’s rescue attempt:

  • Clarity of purpose. The crew of the Endurance had a mission they set out on – to reach the South Pole. When the ship was stranded and then broken by the ice, the crew had a different mission – rescue and survival. It became a common goal for all, as everyone had a stake in the outcome.
  • Steadfast resolve. Shackleton and 5 of his crewmen set out to a whaling station 800 miles away for help. From the time their small boat sailed from the ice flow until they came back to Elephant Island, they spent 15 days exposed to stormy winds that threatened to capsize the rescue boat, hurricane force winds that prevented an island landing, navigated an island crossing that experts can’t figure out how they survived,  and three attempts to sail to rescue the stranded men only to be foiled by heavy sea ice.
  • Pruning brings forth growth. Sometimes there is an unfortunate loss of personnel, resources, or even momentum, precious things. The main ship was lost. Three men perished during the tragedy. Many dogs died. Food rations and other supplies also perished. But those who survived grew stronger and closer than they had been before.
  • Setting aside of differences. The was a carpenter named McNish that tried to repair the boat on the ice floe before it was crushed. He later became insubordinate with Shackleton. While he had a hard time forgiving McNish, Shackleton put aside the ill feelings because he knew McNish had skills needed to get a departing rescue boat to a nearby whaling station for help.
  • Sacrificing for the needs of the team. One of the crew – the photographer – had lost their mittens during the lifeboat journey to Elephant Island. Shackleton gave his up to keep his hands warm. Shackleton, who suffered frostbite in his fingers as a result of the gesture, didn’t let his needs interfere with the greater needs of the team.
  • Let everyone know their value is needed. Shackleton did so with the examples for the photographer and crewman McNish whom he clashed with. He put aside any differences and thoughts of self as he saw them to be valuable to the rescue mission. Whether for morale purposes the photographer supported or to get the job done as the carpenter did, he let each of his team know that they were needed.

Ernest Shackleton’s rescue heroics brought out leadership skills in both him and his crew that had not been tapped until that time.

We needn’t worry about difficult challenges. We always have within us and around us the skills needed to navigate our teams to the other side.

Tough times do not crush, they merely polish and refine, those skills that may be hidden deep within us.

What difficult situations are you posed with today? Look inside, for your God-given talents are being honed to come out.




(image courtesy of

About Paul LaRue

My goal - To encourage you to lead & influence others with positive impact.

Posted on May.21.2014, in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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