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A Response to the Zeitgeist: the (de)construction of Shackleton’s Leadership

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Essay title: A Response to the Zeitgeist: the (de)construction of Shackleton’s Leadership

A Response to the Zeitgeist: The (De)construction of Shackleton’s Leadership


The story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s, an adventurer of the ‘heroic age’ of polar exploration has captured the imagination of generations of armchair readers. This paper is presented as a response to a current zeitgeist within leadership literature; namely that the “secrets of Shackleton’s leadership success … are ready for application by anyone in a position of leadership today” (Morrell & Capparell, 2001). Through the deconstruction of a key element of the ‘heroic’ narrative, the sailing of a 22ft long boat across 800 miles of the Southern Ocean, I am able to present alternative interpretations of the ‘facticity’ of the voyage. These interpretations throw new light onto the role of the ‘greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none’; they will position other, displaced, actors within the central roles and explore how the construction of this leadership ‘myth’ should impact upon the relationship between the audience, the leader and the leadership narrative.


Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) was an Edwardian polar explorer who took part in the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-04) under Robert Falcon Scott and subsequently led three other expeditions to the Antarctic (1907-09, 1914-16 and 1921-22). Eleven years after his death during the unveiling of a memorial statue at the Royal Geographical Society’s headquarters Lord Zetland stated that the outstanding achievement of Shackleton’s career was his ‘farthest south’ journey of 1909 when he ventured to within 100 miles of the South Pole. However in the current era the story of Shackleton has once again emerged and his reputation has never stood higher since his own lifetime (Shackleton, 2000). However in the current era our gaze is not drawn to the ‘farthest south’ journey but towards his leadership enacted on the Endurance expedition (1914-1917). During this audacious attempt to cross the Antarctic on foot the expedition ship “The Endurance” was caught in the pack ice before the explorers could set foot on the land. Whilst initially this was seen as a set back (it was hoped that the northerly drift of the ice northwards would result in a thaw of the ice and the release, similar to the fate of the Deutshland in 1912) the situation became infinitely more serious when the Endurance was crushed by the pack-ice nine months later. After this devastating blow the Shackleton and the other 27 crewmen had to live on the pack ice for a further five months before they could take to their lifeboats to reach the temporary sanctuary of Elephant Island. This odyssey of ‘Homeric’ proportions culminated in six crew men, including Shackleton, navigating a 22Ѕ foot open boat across over 800 miles of the Southern Ocean; followed by the first crossing on foot of South Georgia. An illustration of our attraction to this episode of Shackleton’s life is the cover of the ‘official narrative’ of the ‘farthest south’ expedition, see figure 1.

Figure 1: Cover of “The Heart of the Antarctic”

published by Carroll & Graf Publishing

Rather than promote this account with an illustration pertaining to the expedition the publishers have chosen to market this less ‘popular’ expedition with a dramatic image of the Endurance after it had been crushed by ice; an event that occurred six years after the ‘farthest south’ expedition.

The research question I am examining is where, and on what is this ‘leadership’ based.

The creation of a leadership myth through narrative is not a modern phenomenon. Narratives of leaders exploits are at the heart of myths and legends stretching back thousands of years and are emergent within diverse cultures. This is illustrated through the legends of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Beowulf, Icelandic sagas and the Chanson de Roland (Bass 1990). The word leader first appears in English in about 1300 (Oxford English Dictionary) as ledere, which is formed from the Middle English leden meaning “to cause to go with one”, the etymology of this word leads us to an Old Icelandic derivative leidha meaning the “person in front” and referring to the individual who could guide the ships through the pack-ice in the spring time. It feels appropriate to engage in a study of leadership narratives through an investigation of Shackleton, who did successfully lead his followers through the pack ice.

The emergence of modernity and the economic state saw a transferral

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