Explorer and Leadership Study: Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica


I remember my Dad dropping Shackleton’s name into the conversation often when I was little.  He was, quite rightly, very proud to have ‘connections’ to this great explorer, albeit it on my mother’s side rather than his own.  I grew up knowing we were related and that this was a good thing.  However, I had not given it much thought until our Antarctica unit, when we inevitable began to study the great explorers of this vast, white continent.  We learnt about Captain James Cook’s three voyages to Antarctica’s edges, James Clark Ross’ explorations and the race to the South pole by Scott and Amundsen, all from our Polar Explorers for kids.  I decided that I wouldn’t go anymore in depth than simply reading about them:

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However, when we reached Shackleton I paused, did a bit of research and found he would make a great explorer to study, particularly if I focused on his leadership skills.

Shackleton the Explorer 

I found a fabulous book called ‘Ice Trap! by Meredith Hooper.  It has a full and vivid text describing Shackleton’s Incredible Journey really well.  It includes a map at the front detailing the exact route Shackleton took as well as fabulous illustrations which accurately depict the hopelessness of the situation:

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Sir Ernest Shackleton was an explorer most well known for his failed trip to Antarctica.  Whilst he and his team never actually set foot on Antarctica’s shores on his expedition in 1914, against all the odds he managed to bring every member of the 28 man strong team home.

His ship, aptly named Endurance sunk just off the coast of Antarctica, having been trapped in ice floes for some time.  His expedition immediately changed from one of exploration to one of survival.  He used every tool and skill at his disposal to get his men to shore.  He gave them daily jobs to do, and insisted they ate together for three meals a day and encouraging each and every team member to socialise after dinner.  In this way he was able to keep his team’s moral up and their focus on survival rather than defeat.

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Once they had reached the shores of Elephant Island, he then chose a smaller team to accompany him to South Georgia Island where he hoped to obtain help from the whaling station situated there.  They did manage to make their way there only to find they had landed on the wrong side.  The whaling station was situated on the other side of the Island.

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By sheer grit and determination, Shackleton and two team mates arrived at the Whaling station and were able to ‘return to civilisation’ by having a shower and a change of clothes.  Immediately Shackleton went about finding a boat which would take them back to the two different sets of team mates, one group on the other side of South Georgia Island and the rest of the team on Elephant Island.  Over the course of three months he tried valiantly to save his comrades, only to finally succeed when the Chilean army loaned him an army steamer.  As the weather finally cleared he was able to pick up both teams and all 28 members made it home alive.

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Shackleton had his faults.  He was head strong, sometimes irresponsible and impatient.  But when it mattered, when the lives of his team mates depended on his strength of character and gritty determination, he rose to the occasion, leading them forward, never looking back, until they were all safely home.

If the text, map and illustrations weren’t enough to lure you into the book, the author also includes a timeline of Shackleton’s life events.  She has obviously researched her subject well and has written an excellent historical account of the facts in a very easy to read, interesting and informative way.

Shackleton the Leader


We have done leadership studies before with Hammurabi, King John, Saladin and King Richard I.

Why do leadership studies at all?  One of my main goals in our home school is to raise thinking children, visionary children, children who will grow into adults confident in their ability to live life their way.  True leaders are dynamic, world changing people.  Many of the characteristics one is able to observe in good leadership are characteristics I desire for myself and for my children for everyday life.  Characteristics such as vision, faithfulness, courage, integrity and humility (to name just a few) are some of the most transferable you can possess and are applicable to almost every situation, be it leading at work, leading one’s family or one’s children.  It is my hope that by exposing the children to great leaders they will desire those same characteristics in their own life.

This study took almost two hours.  I read aloud three pieces of literature.  One was a reread of the book above, another was an article in the NY times ‘Leadership lessons from the Shackleton Expedition’  and finally an article from the National geographic called ‘Famous Failures’.  Before I began reading I gave each child a white board and a pen.  They would be writing a timed essay the next day and needed to choose three characteristics of a great leader  using Ernest Shackleton and his failed expedition to Antarctica as their reference.  I wanted them to think about whether he deserves his accolade as one of the best leaders of the last century?.  The white board and pen was for them to jot down a few ideas for their essays.  I asked them to name the characteristic and then give an example from the expedition of an occasion when Shackleton displayed that particular characteristic.  I also asked them to write down 3 or 4 facts which would make their introduction interesting:

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As I read, I would often stop to discuss or explore something further.  The problem was not going to be finding the leadership qualities but narrowing them down to just three.  I found it particularly interesting to learn that Shackleton really only showed his strength in leadership when under duress.  Prior to the sinking of the Endurance he was egotistical and thoughtless in his decision making regarding the expedition and his team’s safety.  I remember my dad being very much like that.  He tended not to be too thoughtful whilst going about the business of everyday life, but when the chips were down Dad was the man you wanted on your side.  He always rose to the occasion, no matter the personal cost.  I had never seen my father as an example of a good leader but I could see that under certain circumstances he was an exceptional leader (don’t you just love how history can teach you something about yourself or your own life in the present and maybe give you the courage to change your future?).

Before requiring an essay out of them we watched the following you tube clips together:

These gave extra information using a lot of primary evidence (quotes from the crew) as well as focusing on Shackleton’s servant leadership, in particular his ability to lead by example.  It also contains many photos actually taken on the expedition.  Both videos were a brilliant addition to our studies and I’m so pleased we found them.  As a warning there are quotes which are given containing swear words.  For me, whilst I would have preferred no swearing, it wasn’t used unnecessarily.  By that I mean the narrator is simply quoting Shackleton’s own words.  I warned the children beforehand and my littles were not present at the time.

The next day the children wrote the essay under timed conditions using their very clear plan.  I really want them to see how easy a five paragraph essay is when they have a clear, concise plan from which to work.  They all did really well and as a treat we will be hunkering down to watch the three hour plus film about Shackleton’s failed expedition:


Gary and I will be prewatching it (as it was rated between a PG and a 15 – depending on which source I checked), and will jot down the parts we want to skip.  As it is quite an intense film we have decided to watch it in half hour increments over the course of the next week or so.

I think this has been one of my favourite explorer/ leadership studies yet.  Whether it is because we are related to him, or because it was through failure and adversity that Shackleton began to shine, I don’t know.  But there was something about his determination never to give up; his absolute resolve that not one member of his team would perish and the loyalty and near adoration he earnt from his crew members that made me feel proud to be British.  We may have failed but we failed valiantly!  What a wonderful lesson to take into our own lives.

All Things Beautiful


  1. How interesting Claire, thanks for sharing. It is remarkable that Shackleton brought back each and everyone of his team mates – that is incredible determination.

  2. What a great study, especially given that you are related. I’m sure everyone was thrilled to learn all about him. Your Antarctica study has been very interesting. I know my girls love to read your blog, so they are picking up on what you are doing. A nice way to fill in those gaps. THANKS! We studied explorers several years ago and we will come around to them again next year. I’ll have to make sure we add in your Shackleton. You’ll have to let us know about the movie.

    You MUST (:)) read Mr. Popper’s Penguins. I read it every year to my second grade class and we have read it here several times. It is one of my most favorite books of all time.

    1. Oh, how lovely that your girls read my blog. Please tell them I am honoured! And yes I really must get Mr Poppin’s Penguins for the children!

  3. You have done so many interesting things for this study. Can’t wait to try some of these ideas with my son. I am truly blessed by all that you shared about the leadership study, and why you do it. I am going to be praying about how to assimilate this into our studies. Great thoughts, Claire. Thanks. Love your blog!

    1. Thank you Elizabeth, that is so encouraging to hear. I’m so pleased it has been helpful in some way. Do let me know what you try out!

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