Early Antarctic explorers and how they can still help today’s business leaders

When your life depends on it

Guest Post by Brad Borkan
Co-author of:
When Your Life Depends on it

Ethical leaders across the world in business face a major test over the next 12 to 18 months.

The world pandemic and its social, economic, financial and personal impact will trigger many new risks and unknowns. People of all ages may face personal challenges and even hardships. Never have business leaders needed a potent source of personal and organisational inspiration.

The early Antarctic expeditions in the 1900’s led by men like Captain Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen could provide just what’s needed:

An inspiring vision of what it means to be an ethical leader– in the most extreme circumstances.

These famous early explorers and their adventures provide valuable lessons to ethical business leaders for coping with adversity, handling difficult decision making and dealing with ethical choices.

Tough Choices

Antarctic crevasses

The various expeditions faced huge uncertainties, risks and hardships. These included scurvy, frostbite, snow-blindness, falling through a “snow lid” into a crevasse, starvation, blizzards, and other appalling hazards. There were no certainties. For example communication to the outside world simply did not exist.

Something else was missing. Despite incredibly challenging situations that would surely test any person’s patience, there was a complete absence of fist-fights, murder, mayhem or sabotage. This contrasted with the Arctic expeditions and even other ones to the Antarctic and elsewhere on the globe.

Lessons to be learned

So, what made these icy expeditions different? What useful lessons do they offer today’s ethical business leaders? 

Lesson 1: Clear Goals and fast decisions

Over half a dozen major expeditions, spanning sixteen years, and involving over 160 men, each began with clear goals. Their leaders were also willing to take difficult decisions quickly. How these leaders faced life-and-death choices, fraught with ethical and moral implications, offer powerful learning for ethical leaders in business.

While the early Antarctic explorers were far from perfect decision makers, at certain key moments they strived to do the right thing.

Lesson 2: Be inventive in your decisions making

Dividing up the sleeping bags:  On Shackleton’s Endurance expedition (1914-1917), his aim was to lead the first team to walk across the continent of Antarctica.  Tragically his ship got crushed in the sea ice surrounding Antarctica, and the trekking part of the expedition never got underway.  With no one coming to rescue them, they had to set up camp on the ice floe, knowing they could be there for many months. Shackleton was determined to maintain moral.

Shackelton’s doomed ship at the very moment the masts fell.

There were 28 men, but only 10 fur sleeping bags. The rest of the sleeping bags were heavy-weight cloth.  In those days, the expeditions were like military operations where there were “officers”, which included the scientists, and “men”. The latter was a the phrase used to describe everyone else. 

The officers always had better accommodation on the ship and better food. In the situation in which they found themselves, a common expectation was that the officers would receive the warmer, fur sleeping bags.

Instead, Shackleton announced to everyone that they would draw straws to see who got the fur sleeping bags. Once issued, there would be no further discussion about it.  To the men’s surprise, not one officer “won” a fur sleeping bag. Shackleton had rigged it to ensure that would be the result.

Lesson 3: Never ever give up; and be willing to break the rules

Do you leave a man behind? There was a telling incident on Scott’s expedition.  Three men, Lt. Evans, Tom Crean and William Lashly were 200 miles from safety when one of them came down with scurvy. A debilitating, and ultimately fatal disease. 

They continued man-hauling their sledge. They often needed to put the dying man on top of it, adding his weight to the already heavy sledge. They were running out of food and all becoming weakened.

With 70 miles to go, the dying man knew that at their present travelling rate they were all destined to die. He asked them to leave him behind in his sleeping bag and suggested that other two continue onwards to save themselves.  

When they hesitated to make a decision he said that as their commanding officer, he was giving them a military order to leave him behind. To disobey would be mutiny.

What the men did was as remarkable as the officer’s self-sacrifice.  Crean and Lashly decided to stay with their officer, and the story of their mutual survival is unforgettable.  Lt. Evans had a long history of military service. He later said that the only order he ever gave that was disobeyed was that one.

Lesson 4: Do What’s right

Robert Scott in polar gear

Acting nobly right up to the end: Captain Scott and his companions lay dying in their tent.  They reached the South Pole in 1912, five weeks after Amundsen claimed the prize. Scott’s return journey was beset by injuries, frostbite and bad weather.

Knowing their fate, Scott wrote about their combined successes, the greatness of his companions and the expedition team, and his praise for his sponsors and others who believed in him.  His prose were uplifting, not dispirited.

Lesson 5: Despite the risks, still make ethical choices

It is easy in business nowadays to say competitive pressures, the drive for profits, the need to meet board approval or compliance are so great that they justify short cuts, and to make unethical decisions. 

While there are many pressures today, the early Antarctic explorers too faced massive pressures: the drive to succeed, the expectation of King and country, to be first to the Pole, and the natural instinct to survive.

Yet in every case, in these six expeditions in the early 1900’s the leaders and the men on their expeditions made ethical choices, even when the risks were enormous.

Their stories can be an inspiration to all of us, at whatever level of a corporation or business we work at, when facing ethical leadership dilemmas.

Antarctica’s pure white snow

Brad Borkan is co-author of When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic, Terra Nova Press, ISBN 9781945312052. 

Available in print, kindle and audiobook. Brad’s website is www.extreme-decisions.com.


When your life depends on it

Andrew Leigh’s review of this book at:



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