Few collaborative groups faced tougher circumstances than Ernest Shackleton’s crew during the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition of 1914.

Determined to become the first to cross Antarctica from west to east — one of the final great feats of polar exploration left to be accomplished — Shackleton and his men set sail aboard a stout wooden vessel named the Endurance in August of 1914.

All went well until the Endurance was trapped in Arctic pack ice in the Weddell Sea in January of 1915.

Realizing that the brutal Antarctic winter (which runs from March through October) would make breaking free from the ice impossible, Shackleton ordered his men to prepare the ship — and themselves — for months of freezing conditions in the near dark of the long polar night.

By early May, the sun was gone for good and the men were left in almost total darkness.  While they were well provisioned — they’d spent the past two months hunting seals which were now well preserved by the frigid conditions — optimism is difficult in such a bleak environment.

As Alfred Lansing — the author of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage — explains:

In all the world there is no desolation more complete than the polar night.  It is a return to the Ice Age — no warmth, no life, no movement. Only those who have experienced it can fully appreciate what it means to be without the sun day after day and week after week. Few who are unaccustomed to it can fight off its effects altogether, and it has driven some men mad. (Kindle Location 461)

Shackleton’s men DIDN’T go mad, though.  In fact, they weathered the Antartic winter in remarkably high spirits — together as a team and stronger for having faced down a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

The logical question, then, is what made Shackelton’s crew unique?  Why were they able to grow stronger even as they were battered by circumstances beyond their control?

The answer is surprisingly simple:  They spent the winter playing together.

They made carefully frosted balloons into cakes that exploded on unsuspecting birthday boys; They sang along to tunes played on a zither banjo brought onboard by the team meterologist; they gave each other buzz cuts.

They put one another on trial for fake crimes like stealing trouser buttons from church offering baskets — and then openly bribed the judges with promises of extra liquor rations to win verdicts in rowdy fictional “courtrooms.”

Almost everyone had a nickname — whether it was Mick, the cosmopolitan aristocrat that always carried himself with aristocratic airs or Buddha, the one-time victim of a practical joke that saw him dressed as a monk in a sheet with a teapot strapped to his head.

Perhaps most importantly, Shackleton — the man known only as Boss to his crew who took his responsibility for keeping every man alive seriously  — played along with them.

In fact — shaved head and all — he was nearly lost to the entire expedition when he fell out of a dog sled going around a turn in a high-stakes “Antartic Sweepstakes” that took place during the longest and coldest nights of June.

Do you see the leadership lesson hidden in Shackleton’s story? 

Supplies and training certainly played a role in keeping his men physically strong.  So did their surprisingly resilient ship, which proved to be a sturdy refuge for months before finally succumbing to the ice in November of 1915.

But it was play that kept their spirits alive. 

They truly looked forward to working together no matter what each new day threw at them.  They learned to laugh — and that laughter served as a reminder that simple joys could be found regardless of their circumstances.

And Shackleton played right along with them.

He didn’t hide away in the officer’s quarters intentionally keeping an arm’s length distance away from his men.  His decision to participate — and more importantly, his decision to play — built trust and served as a constant reminder to his men that they COULD survive and thrive no matter how cold and wet they really were.

How often do YOUR learning teams play together? 

Are they finding ways to enjoy each other?  Can they laugh with one another even when the collaborative going gets tough?  What are YOU doing to encourage a playful and light-hearted spirit in your building?

If not, can you REALLY be surprised when commitment levels are low, frustration levels are high, and survival seems impossible?


Related Radical Reads:

What CAN Educators Learn from Amazonian Explorers?

More Amazonian Lessons for Educators

Leadership Lessons from a Himalayan Sherpa

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