The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

RLF Reflection: Leadership Lessons from Ernest Shackleton

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On January 7th, RLF fellow Will Dickerman gave a presentation on the leadership of Ernest Shackleton, a polar explorer who led three expeditions to the Antarctic. Will recounted the Shackleton’s third and last expedition in 1914, when “The Endurance” ship sunk due to violent weather conditions, and Shackleton heroically led the entire crew out of the quandary. Will highlighted a few of Shackleton’s actions. First, Shackleton foresaw the sinking of the ship and preemptively evacuated the ship; second, when the crew drifted on ice to the uninhabited Elephant Island, he bravely led a small portion of the crew to sail to South Georgia, the closest inhabited island, to look for provisions and rescue; third, when his crew arrived at the wrong side of South Georgia, he decided to lead a few men to traverse the island on foot and eventually reached the populated side.


These decisions of Shackleton revealed his incredible leadership skills. Will emphasized Shackleton’s perseverance, good judgement, and willingness to take risks. When Shackleton left men on Elephant Island and took a smaller crew, he faced potential casualties from both groups: the men on the Island could die of starvation, and the small group could die on the sea. However, he did not hesitate. Instead, he acknowledged the inevitable sacrifices, weighed the risks, and decided quickly. Moreover, Shackleton persevered and inspired others around him to do the same. Only in this way could the crew maintain its faith and continue the arduous journey.


Over a century later, Shackleton’s story is still highly relevant today because he embodies the above leadership skills. He suggests to us that even though there are no perfect solutions during crises, decisions need to and can be made fast. Moreover, as leaders, we need to believe in ourselves and our missions and radiate the energy and hope onto others in our communities, especially during difficult times.


-Written by Coco Chu, Class of 2021 Rockefeller Leadership Fellow 

As Rockefeller Leadership Fellows, seniors gain a better understanding of the qualities and responsibilities expected of leaders. As Fellows take part in the workshops, discussions, and team-building exercises, they examine their skills, qualities, and attributes as leaders and analyze how these influence teamwork and achieving goals. 

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences