Three men led expeditions to be the first to reach the South Pole in the early 1900’s: Robert Falcon Scott (1902-1903 and 1911-1912), Ernest Shackleton (1908-1909) and Roald Amundsen (1911-1912). Shackleton was actually part of Scott’s three-man party in the first failed attempt, and during the long, exhausting and disappointing march back, the two grew into rivals. Shackleton returned five years later with his own team and bested Scott’s first attempt by leading his men 366 miles closer to the South Pole. Although Scott was the one who ultimately achieved the Pole, Shackleton proved to be the better leader precisely because he did not.
Shackleton’s journey toward the Pole was costly. All four in his party were slowly starving to death. Each time severe weather conditions (temperatures reaching lows of -57 degrees Fahrenheit with blizzard winds over 90 mph) and dangerous terrain slowed their progress, Shackleton had to reduce their rations to ensure that they had enough food to last. The party originally had four horses to pull the heavy sledges full of supplies, but three horses succumbed to the elements and one fell into a deep chasm that almost claimed one of Shackleton’s men, as well. The men were forced to man-haul the sledges, and the few handfuls of food a day were just not enough.
Shackleton got within just 97 miles of the Pole before he turned his team back. It was a huge disappointment for all the men, but it was the right decision. While they were only a few days’ journey away from being the first explorers to reach either of the planet’s poles, they would certainly have lost their lives in the attempt. Courageously leading his men back to the shore, Shackleton kept them all alive through expert leadership, tenacity and skillful rationing of their remaining food supplies.
Shackleton never made it to the Pole, but Scott would not accept a second failure when he returned a few years later. He was determined to do what his rival could not. Like Shackleton’s party, Scott lost all his horses along the way. Dog sled teams and their leaders were forced to turn back in December, and only five men were left to make a final assault on the pole. He and his men marched a total of 1,842 miles before they finally reached the Pole on January 17, 1912. But to their utter disappointment, they found that Amundsen’s team had already been there five weeks earlier.
Dejected and exhausted, Scott’s men began the long trek back to the shore, but they would never make it. In February, one of the men died after a fall caused him to have a swift physical and mental breakdown. In mid-March, the weakest member of the team realized he was slowing the others down (he had lost the use of a foot to frostbite and gangrene) and sacrificed his life for them by leaving the tent and marching out into the snow, never to be seen again. A severe blizzard trapped the three remaining men in their tent a few weeks later, and there they all starved to death. Conquest of the Pole had cost them their lives. Ironically, they were within eleven miles of the next food and supply depot. Their bodies were discovered eight months later by a search party.
When Scott’s diary made it back to England, he was celebrated as a hero and even knighted posthumously. In the eyes of his countrymen, his failure was a success in terms of its boldness and daring. Shackleton’s accomplishments just two years before were all but forgotten. But Shackleton was not surprised. He had counted the cost when the Pole was in reach, and he chose the health and safety of his men over the glory of accomplishment.
Leaders who are only interested in their own achievements see their team members as a means to an end. They are willing to sacrifice their followers if their loss will bring them closer to their goals. But the best leaders are not in it for themselves. They can’t conceive of success at the expense of their teams, and the goals aren’t worth achieving if the team can’t celebrate the accomplishment.