Leadership Training for Practicing Lawyers

Case Study Spotlight: Ernest Shackleton’s Journey to the Endurance

Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton’s first journey to the Antarctic ended in a very public failure. On his second expedition, in a race to the South Pole, Shackleton turned back within 100 miles of his goal. In his third journey, Shackleton not only failed to achieve his goal of a transcontinental traverse of Antarctica, but his ship was trapped and destroyed by ice, stranding the crew on ice floes for over a year. So why do law and business students and executives in legal and business organizations study Shackleton as an example of successful leadership?

“Shackleton’s experience teaches us about navigating through extreme turbulence and what teams can do to survive volatile, changing circumstances,” explains Professor Ashish Nanda, who is teaching Leadership in Law Firms to students at Harvard Law School this spring and chairs an eponymous course offered in the Executive Education program. Although Shackleton did not succeed in reaching the Pole or traversing the continent, Nanda and other management scholars view Shackleton as an extraordinary leader who brought his teams through months of deprivation with their health, spirit, and morale intact.

Photograph from the Nimrod Expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic, led by Ernest Shackleton

Nanda uses his case study on Shackleton’s third journey to prompt class discussions about effective leadership in the face of sudden challenges and environmental turbulence, and draw lessons on leadership in today’s law firms and legal departments. The case study is accompanied with a collection of historical video footage and photographs that take participants through the experiences of Shackleton’s expedition. Leaders of today’s law firms are navigating severe financial challenges and fundamental changes in how law firms operate and how law is practiced. In the last several years, Nanda explains, some well-established law firms have closed, in part because their leaders focused on short-term performance, failed to build resilient teams, and did not inspire confidence and loyalty in their partners and associates.

Nanda explains that the case study and class discussion allows students to ponder deeper questions about the true meaning of success and leadership. Effective leaders, whether navigating the high seas or the business world, must look beyond the horizon, inspire confidence, and build trust among their team members.

Ernest Shackleton leaves Elephant Island on the James Caird with five other members of the expedition, setting out to reach South Georgia Island 800 miles away. Twenty two men remain on Elephant Island, hopefully waiting.

Ernest Shackleton’s Journey to the Endurance is one of over 100 case studies, role plays, and simulations available on the Case Studies website.

About Lisa Brem

Lisa Brem is the Case Studies Program Manager at Harvard Law School.
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