Twenty seven men had been recruited. Many by this simple notice, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success”, and on December 5, 1914 the crew of the voyage ship Endurance left South Georgia navigating towards the Weddell Sea. The crew’s ultimate destination: Vahsel Bay, where a team of six, to be led by Captain Sir Ernest Shackleton would lead an “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” across the frozen continent. Shackleton was a seasoned sailor and explorer having previously explored Antarctica. When Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first expedition leader to discover the south pole in December 1911, Shackleton saw one remaining great conquest in Antarctic exploration: crossing the continent from sea to sea, via the pole.
This sense of challenge and adventure spoke to the core of what Sir Shackleton was all about. He possessed a courageous pragmatism, and felt compelled to achieve great feats, not just for the pride of his country, but also because of a driving internal need to test the limits of his personal endurance. He once stated that “difficulties are just things to overcome, after all”. This sentiment would come to define the Trans-Antarctic Expedition as the crew met early ice as they voyaged southward. This early ice slowed the Endurance’s passage, eventually causing the great sea vessel to become frozen fast in an ice floe.
Realizing the severity of the situation, Shackleton ordered the crew abandon the ship in February 1915. A temporary camp was established on the ice and the crew waited, breaking the monotony by hunting seals and penguins. The crew’s rations were stable as they were able to get much of their supplies from the ship. Shackleton had hoped that the ship would eventually be released from the ice and they could work their way back towards Vahsel Bay. However, in October 1915 water began flowing in, and shortly thereafter the once sturdy ship submerged into the sea’s icy depths.
The crew was now in a very precarious position, and as an astute leader Shackleton knew that human despair was just as dangerous as the moving ice mass below their feet. They established a temporary camp on a large flat ice floe, hoping that the floe would drift towards nearby Paulet Island, where additional rations were located in whaling camps. After multiple attempts to march across the ice floe, and re-establishing base camps, the crew was running short of rations and hope. There was a small supply of seals and penguins for meat and fuel, but they needed to come up with an escape plan soon or else their brave intentions would be vain and the entire crew would perish.
On April 9, 1915 the ice floe they had been camping on broke into two. Shackleton ordered the crew on the three lifeboats that they had salvaged from the Endurance and they headed toward the nearest island. After five nightmarish and exhausting days at sea the men landed on Elephant Island, nearly three hundred and fifty miles from the shipwreck. Elephant Island could only be a temporary stay, as it was far from established shipping routes and it was nothing more than an inhospitable mass of ice and rock. In an act of courageous desperation Shackleton decided to risk his life in an open boat journey 800 nautical miles to South Georgia’s whaling stations. A tiny, 20 foot lifeboat, which they christened the James Caird, was reinforced with improvements to make the daunting journey and together with six of the bravest and most able sailors, Shackleton launched off Elephant Island April 24, 1916.
For more than two weeks this frail vessel tossed against the strong winds, vicious waves and icy chill of sea, constantly in danger of capsizing, but the crew persisted, undeterred, and eventually landed on the unoccupied southern shore of South Georgia. Rather than risking another dangerous sea voyage Shackleton decided that a land crossing of the island, where they could meet up with Norweigan whalers on the other side, was the most prudent course for the crew’s rescue. Leaving three to camp behind, Shackleton and his two most trusted companions, conquered mountainous terrain for 32 miles and 36 hours until they finally reached the whaling station at Stromness on May 20, 1916.
All of Shackleton’s men were eventually rescued, with Shackleton himself returning to Elephant Island for his men. Although the land passage of Antarctica was never completed, Shackleton, and his crew’s bravery, leadership, and heroics have been continuously celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s greatest feats of endurance, persistence, resilience and determination. His leadership tactics and abilities have been studied in business schools and written about in many books. His commitment to attempting a great challenge, and the way that he responded to difficulties, brought out his inner greatness.
Each of us has inner greatness, but for many this greatness will stay dormant. It will never be unleashed. Very few of us will attempt a literal voyage of Shackleton’s magnitude, nor will we have to deal with the types of physical and mental hardship that the crew of the Endurance overcame. If we want to find out what is inside of us, if we want to channel whatever greatness is inside, we must first decide to attempt something difficult and challenging. Our inner greatness is not unleashed in a comfortable routine. Iron sharpens iron. We need a challenge to bring out the greatness that is inside of us. If you have ever wondered what you can endure, what you can accomplish, what greatness is inside of you, you will never know unless you embrace a great challenge, and commit to that challenge with as much fortitude and determination as Shackleton and his men.
There are opportunities for challenge all around you. You can take a risk and build the business you have always dreamed about. You can learn that new skill that will change your prospects. You can heal that relationship. You can overcome that difficulty. You can conquer that fear. Take the challenge head on, channel your inner greatness, but know the path you are on and accept it. A great challenge will be difficult, it will involve sacrifice, it may bring pain, and it most certainly will bring fear. But if you never try, you will never know the greatness that is inside of you.