The Ernest Shackleton guide to Parenting

Needless to say, I am not a historian. But, I am a massive old romantic, and every now and again a story, an anecdote, a tale of old will resonate with me in a special and I just know that I will always carry it with me. So, please bear with me as I recount this story and forgive me any inaccuracies.

Back in the day when I was a proper career woman, we’d be sent periodically on training courses on fluffy stuff like leadership, communicating, stretching beyond your comfort zone and other such ‘management skills’. Some of the folk there would be total prisoners, eyes rolling and arms crossed, resisting every role play or break out activity, but I was the polar opposite – the class geek. Wide eyed and totally engrossed, these self learning opportunities gave me a precious time to reflect, expand and grow as an individual. We also had the most amazing trainer who I keep in touch with to this day – I came to think of him as a bit of a life coach.

So, on more than one occasion we used the story of Ernest Shackleton as a leadership lesson. Maybe some of you have been through this training exercise too? Maybe not…so here’s a quick roundup of why this guy is such a legend.


Ernest was a Polar explorer in the 1900’s. (Okay, what’s the relevance to a mum blog here you might be thinking? – stay with me on this one). Shackleton set off from a Whaling station in South Georgia with a crew of 28 men aboard his ship, The Endurance, in December 1914. His mission to be the first man to cross the Antarctic continent; In this era of polar exploration it was one of the few good titles left.

The mission didn’t go to plan. On January 19th 1915 the ship became trapped in floe ice in the Weddell Sea 60 miles away from their destination. Just think about that for for a moment. Stranded. Cold. Far from home. And you thought you were having a bad day on the rainy school run.

Glimpse of the Endurance Shackleton Expedition 1914-17 Hurley a090018

Under Shackleton’s guidance they waited out over nine months based on the ship, living on the ship’s rations and hunting for penguins and seals. Until Shackleton gave the order to abandon the ship, and it was smashed to pieces by the ice which surrounded it on 27 October 1915.

The impenetrable icefield which prevented us from reaching the land (showing part of the 'Endurance'), 1915 - photographed by Frank Hurley (3534651393)

With little other option, the crew then camped on the ice at ‘Patience Camp’ for a cold and long six months or so, failing twice to drag their boats and gear to a point they could launch their lifeboats safely. The ice shelf on which they camped grew smaller and more unsteady, until eventually in April 1916 the ice broke away from under them, allowing to sail aboard lifeboats to the nearest land Elephant Island.

Mackintosh and Spencer-Smith

Scene on Elephant Island, after the releasing of the marooned men by Chilean tug Yelcho, 1916 - photographer Frank Hurley (8725111406)

Given the barren landscape and scarce food supplies, there was only one way to survive – Shackleton took a small sub team of men back out on the James Caird lifeboat over stormy icy seas 800 miles back to South Georgia, where they landed on May 20 1916, on the wrong side of the island. Shackleton took the two best men and walked for three days and three nights over mountainous terrain to the whaling station where the expedition had begun, almost two and a half years earlier.


Never forgetting his promise to return to his men, Shackleton sailed back out to Elephant Island, successfully making it on his fourth attempt in August 1916. He then returned his men back to safety, and incredibly the entire 28 man original crew survived; ‘All safe, all well’.


Now, as someone who doesn’t do cold at all well, this historical tale has become one of my favourite inspirational stories of all time. Shackleton didn’t do everything perfectly (in fact he ignored warnings about setting off on the expedition at all). But what Shackleton did do was never give up, keep his team motivated and with a sense of purpose, and most of all – still smiling and with faith in him in the most abhorrent of conditions.

So as a manager, the parallels and leadership lessons were fairly obvious. Yet, as my career stays on hold for an unknown period, I’m still feeling that Shackleton can teach me a few things to retain hope and sanity in the crazy world of parenting.

    • Leap into a crazy adventure. Shackleton’s advertisement for crew on the endurance wasn’t the most appealing. Yet still he had plenty of volunteers.

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

      -Sir Ernest Shackleton

      Given the bad publicity of raising small people it’s surprising anyone even wants to have kids at all. Sleepless nights, ruined body, career down the pan, along with identity, social life and you time. And yet, the entire basis of humanity is our inner drive to go on this thrill seeking adventure. Much like the men desperate to join Shackleton on his adventure.

    • Surround yourself with a decent crew. Given that Shackleton was one of the most famous explorers of his time, his recruitment skills were based more around those he felt would gel well as a team, add value with their personality and bring something special to the expedition. He reportedly recruited based on some of the men’s whimsical ways, looking funny and pure intuition. Compare this to your Mum tribe – that crew might just get you through some dark days. Their wit, ability to present cake and coffee, could just be the survival technique you need to get you through those long bleak midweek winters; maybe not stranded on an ice floe, but nonetheless facing several months of cabin fever.

The Weddell Sea Party

      • Endurance. A prophecy from the offset, Shackleton’s boat was aptly named The Endurance. This was after his family motto ‘BY ENDURANCE WE CONQUER’ and given its definition ‘the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way’ it couldn’t have been more perfect. Maybe I should have named my children Endurance and Patience, as any parent of a small person knows that the relentless cycle of feed, sleep, clean, repeat is the endurance challenge of (most of our) lifetimes.

Sailing ship Endurance trapped and crushed by ice in the Antarctic, 1915 (exbt-ice-LongNight)

    • Lead by example. Shackleton’s leadership style was to be standing alongside his men as opposed to giving out orders. By showing he too would graft hard with his team, he earnt their respect and they in turn were loyal followers to their leader. One account details Shackleton encouraging the men to leave behind as much as possible – whilst allowing them to keep personal items for their mental wellbeing. He then threw on the ice gold coins, a watch and cigarette case. He was also seen to sacrifice his own gloves, when members of the team lost theirs – threatening to throw them overboard rather than be his offer be declined. Leading by example is something we, as Mum and Dad folk should bear in mind…whilst scoffing crisps and biscuits and attempting to assert a healthy eating mindset into our children. (Also evident when you overhear your child drop an F-bomb and go on to explain it’s what Daddy says). Self sacrifice knows no limits as a parent, and it goes without saying who will always come first. Clue: it’s not you.
    • Set up routine and structure. Given that the Endurance crew faced hours, days, month even years trapped on a sheet of ice, it’s incredible they didn’t go throw themselves in the water to end it all. Shackleton quickly established a daily routine of exercise, hunting and chores – essential to both keep the men alive and sane. When it comes to babies, toddlers, life as a parent I can see where he was going with that. Babies love a bit of routine, but so do Mums. Knowing what you have ahead for the day, the week, the month can be enough to stop the four walls closing in on you (like a sheet of ice around a stuck ship) and make each day somewhat more manageable.
    • Keep your enemies close. There were of course some low points for the crew. If and when any of Shackletons men started to show weakness or negativity, he made sure he kept that member close by him and did not allow bad vibes to spread through the camp. He shared a tent with the most abrasive of the team and whist he let small moments of venting pass, to keep sanity, he made sure major altercations were dealt with. As he set off with a sub crew to seek rescue in South Georgia, he took with him any men he felt might add more difficulties to those left behind, who already had a task ahead of them purely to survive. If you have ever had to split the family up temporarily for any reason – you may recognise this tactic. Keeping the hardest work child with you, whilst you leave the ‘easier’ offspring with some hired help…so as not to cause unnecessary stress to your helpful friend / family….and potentially put them off ever helping again.
    • Be prepared to alter objectives. Shackletons initial goal to cross the polar cap was clearly needing to be adjusted. Rather than being overcome by a sense of defeat, Shackleton approached the situation by simply re-assigning a new objective to the mission; to get his men home alive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard pregnant mothers talk about their high expectations for motherhood: cloth nappies, organic only diets, pure BLW and so and so on. Needless to say this soon evolves into a more simple outlook. Keep myself and the baby alive. On a diet of coffee, biscuits, formula and jar food…whatever it takes.
    • Allocate tasks. Shackleton and his men divvied up the tasks required to keep the crew alive. There was no hierarchy, everyone – especially Shackleton mucked in. Giving the men a sense of purpose did as much for their mindset as it did their practical needs. Maintenance, cleaning, hunting, cooking were all essential duties and everyone took part. Shackleton himself asked for no special treatment and got his hands dirty with his men. Even highly qualified scientists and surgeons could be found scrubbing out the decks. How do you divide up tasks in your household? I imagine the healthiest approach to dividing out age appropriate tasks to be that everyone has a little role. Laying the table, making beds, washing up after meals, even putting coats and shoes in their rightful place – if we all pitch in, we all have a sense of pride and purpose in our role. I believe raising good people, like Shackleton, involves getting them to get their hands dirty from a young age. No ivory towers, and no special treatment…I’m not talking child labour here, just teaching a little sense of pride in one’s own accomplishments.
    • Trust your instincts. One remarkable part of the Endurance expedition was when the crew were camped on an unstable floe for the night, during their transit to elephant Island. It was written that Shackleton feeling uneasy, left his tent in the night to wander around the camp. As he stood, the floe started to crack. Hearing strange noises from a collapsed tent, he investigated and discovered one of his men struggling in his sleeping bag, in the frozen water as a crack had appeared under where he had been laying. Shackleton dragged him to safety. This ‘gut feeling’ to investigate is something every parent can relate to – laying awake in the night, and popping out to check on the children, just as Shackleton had done with his crew.
    • Smile in the face of adversity. Surely one of the most incredible parts of the Endurance adventure, is the snapshots of life for these me, seeming to have fun, in the most appalling situation. Inside ‘The Ritz’, (their nickname for the living quarters deep inside the hull of the stuck ship) music, jokes, celebrations, games and frivolities were high up Shackleton’s agenda. They threw parties, performed shows, held haircutting tournaments, even educational talks. Shackleton realised smiles and laughter would cut through the deep depression and keep the men’s hopes alive. Now if you have lived a tough hour, day, week…sleepless nights, illness, tantrums, juggling work, financial worries…you can always find something to laugh about, to smile about. Find some happy music and literally dance that bad mood away. If Shackleton and his boys could find it in them to be silly and have fun – then so can you.

Shackleton nimrod 27

  • Capture your adventure. In signing up Frank Hurley on his crew, Shackleton secured the first step in creating a set of images which would tell the tale of the remarkable adventure for over a hundred years to come. These images bring this somewhat unbelievable story to life – it takes you right there with them, and allows the characters to become real to you and I. The everyday moments passing us by right now will one day become a distant memory, and yet they can be frozen in time forever at just the click of a button. Capture your adventure, and don’t let the digital pixels get lost at sea – like Hurleys almost did, if it wasn’t for the good spirited team around him who went and rescued his negatives from the sinking ship. Make albums, scrap books, and memories for your future generations to treasure.

Hurley shackleton at camp

Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

-Raymond Priestly

However you interpret the lessons of Shackleton and the crew of The Endurance, one thing is for sure, and that is that the legacy of these men will live on. Not in what they achieved in terms of their mission, but the example they set us in survival, in humanity and of course, in endurance.


‘Shackleton Centenary video with Thanks from @shackletonvideo


Endurance, Shackletons Incredible voyage to the Antarctic, Alfred Lansing, 2002, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Leading at the Edge; Leadership lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackletons Antarctic Expedition, Dennis N T Perkins, 2000, Amacom.

My rusty memory

All images sourced from wikimedia commons with no known copyright restrictions.

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