Disaster Doesn’t Have to Mean Defeat

The equation to refuse defeat is simple: HOPE.


800px-Ernest_Shackleton_before_1909I first heard about Sir Ernest Shackleton when I read Nancy Koehn’s book Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.

In the early 1900s, Shackleton had a single goal and desire: Lead the first team to find the South Pole, mark it, and claim his fame as an amazing adventurer and explorer

He would NOT be known for accomplishing this.

Instead, he would be known for something FAR GREATER.

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He found a sponsor, a captain, a ship, supplies, and a team of men. They set out with highest hopes; he was already tasting victory. They failed. Illness overran them and they had to return to port. TWICE.

Shackleton’s competitor, Scott, had ill men as well. He simply swapped out teams in port and headed back out on the water. Shackleton, however, cared about his men; he focused on solving why they were all so ill: scurvy. He studied, researched, and reviewed all his notes from sea; he was convinced fresh meat and lime juice would solve it. He was right.


As he happily announced this victory over scurvy, and prepared to set out on another mission, Scott scooped the South Pole credit; he ALSO declared himself the one who solved scurvy, even though he left his sick men behind and did not do any research to solve their plight.

Shackleton pivoted in his dreams and goals. The South Pole had been found. Fine. Now he wanted to be part of the exploration that was the first team to go from ocean to ocean across the South Pole.


The ship’s name was the Endurance. In a head-shaking gasp of fate, how epically true that word would become for him and his men.

In August, 1914, they set out, and within months, their ship was trapped in pack ice. Frozen tendrils of the continent pressed in, encircling, crushing. The ship was dead. The leader and his men were in the middle of nowhere. Freezing land as far as the eyes could see.

In nautical practices of the time, the ship should be abandoned and the men should try to walk to safety, to be found—every man for himself.

The men had no hope:

  • They knew their pay stopped because the ship did
  • They knew hundreds of men had died frozen at sea
  • They knew they were on their own


What they didn’t know was Shackleton had a new goal:


THIS is what Sir Ernest Shackleton is known for. He is the ONLY leader to save all his men from a failed expedition in Antarctica. The only leader to refuse to leave a single man behind.


Shackleton saw his men as individuals that were multi-dimensional. They weren’t simply grunt workers. They weren’t an extension of the ship. They weren’t the steps to stand on for victory. They were his men. They were his responsibility.

He ordered them to unload the ship as it was trapped in the ice. It would be months before it sank completely. He scheduled out jobs and chores — train the sled dogs, feed the men, clean up after. He even set up teams of men to compete against each other with their sled dogs.

In the MIDDLE of the frozen desert of hopelessness, he brought a reason to keep going. Daily life. Structure. Responsibility. The men rose up under his leadership as the captain of the ship wandered in uncertainty. He didn’t know how to lead men through crisis.

With all the supplies out on the ice, and the men prepared for the journey, the mass of humanity set out, uncertain, but fully trusting their leader.


In the how-to-survive Antarctica manual that all nautical teams lived and breathed, it said when a man is freezing to death, serve him warm milk.

Shackleton was wise.

He knew if he handed warm milk to a dying man, that man would accept the defeat and die.

Instead, every night, Shackleton walked amongst his men. He talked with each of them and saw who was in deepest and scariest need of warmth. Then, he stood back and held his hands wide as he invited ALL to partake of warm milk.

No one was singled out. No one knew who was dying. All consumed hope together. Each man warmed and feeling a part of the whole.


Shackleton’s leadership was human-focused. He cared about his men. One man lost a glove and Ernest took his own off to give him. The man refused to accept it, and Shackleton told him, “Then I will throw mine away. No man of mine will be losing fingers while mine are still warm.” The man accepted the protection of the glove.

After months of surviving the frozen land and slowly making their way to civilization—through bitterest troubles and hardships—Shackleton realized the men could go no farther. He needed to sail across the way in one of the lifeboats they carried with them and then walk the final route to get a ship.


pexels-photo-358562Shackleton left his men on the shore with their supplies and he called five men to him. These men were not leaders. They were not hard workers. In fact, these men were the ones most likely to give up and declare things impossible to survive. He knew he could not leave them with the others. So he told them he had hand-selected them to join him. They still had enough strength to endure the journey.

Instead of feeling called out, they were honored. They joined him. And he knew they would be near him where he could speak into their apprehensions and uncertainty. He would not be leaving them with the others to sow doubts where he would no longer be able to weed.

They sailed in a tiny boat with only four weeks of supplies. They pressed through a hurricane, through giant waves, and through being shoved off course. Finally, they landed. Their shoes had screws driven through them to get traction on the ice. Their feet were wounded, their souls exhausted, but they made it.


Finally arriving to a port of ships, Shackleton and his men did not rest. They immediately got a ship to head to their stranded men. Due to storms, it took multiple attempts. But on the day they sailed around the cove and the beach came into sight, Shackleton’s back was tight, his arms shaking, as he held an eye piece up, counting the moving dots on the ice.


They had continued to share in chores and challenges, in warm milk and discussions, in seal meat and melted ice water. They had persisted in consuming hope at every breath. Because their leader had allowed them to believe. And their leader was back.


pexels-photo-1170601Their ship arrived safely in port, and Shackleton’s men disembarked. Their weary eyes took in the landscape, the civilization. Some kissed the solid ground. Others screamed and beat the air.

A man leaned in to tell Shackleton something. As his bag was still held on his shoulder, he looked at his men. He saw hope resting at the inn on the shore. Peace was a few feet away. Warm and solid food within reach.

Their leader turned to them and told his men about a ship that had sunk and the stranded men had made it to an icy shore. But there was no hope for them. Who could save them?

The weary men stood taller, they set their jaws, and they looked at their leader. They would not leave men to their fate. They would not walk away. Together, they boarded the ship and sailed into the darkness to bring hope. To bring light. To bring warm milk and seal meat.

And again, Sir Ernest Shackleton brought every man home alive.


If you have a shipwreck you have survived, you are not alone. The darkness and cold can be scary. The depths of the ice and the distance to safety can be overwhelming. And. You are not alone. Let us all drink the warm milk of hope. Let us all gather around and commune in real life as the chaos builds around us.

And most importantly, let us remember the others still out on the ice. Let us bring them hope. Together.


If you are encouraged by this message, please share! Pass the warm milk.

There are lots of different ways to support BilliJoy to make sure these encouraging videos and blogs keep coming (books, T-Shirts, Patreon—with exclusive content available for Patrons).

Featured image by permission. Image of safely arriving: by permission. Image of Shackleton: by permission. All other images from Pexels.com.

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