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Jean Gamester

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Mutiny on the ice: Earnest Shackleton and the trust equation


After the ship Endeavour sank, crushed by ice in the Antarctic 100 years ago, Sir Earnest Shackleton faced the beginnings of mutiny amongst his men.

Shackleton and his crew had been sailing towards the South Pole so that they could seek to be the first ever to cross the Antarctic. On the way, their ship had become surrounded by ice and they spent a long dark winter unable to move. 

In spring, the ice began to free up but rather than releasing them, it broke the ship apart.  

The crew took to the ice in time with the minimum of provisions and possessions. 

Shackleton drove them to keep moving north towards what would be solid land when the ice finally melted.  He had accepted that their goal of an Antarctic crossing was lost. 

As they travelled through disappointment in the bitter cold on uneven terrain, McNish, the ship’s carpenter challenged Shackleton. 

McNish’s view was that without the ship there was no expedition and therefore Shackleton was no longer in charge. 

How is it that Shackleton managed to provide the leadership to overcome mutiny and save all of his men despite the desperate nature of their predicament? 

What can we take from it that would be useful in business today?  I believe it came down to trust – the trust that Shackleton’s men had built in him, and the environment of trust that he created in his team.

There is a Trust Equation defined in the book The Trusted Advisor that shows the elements needed for trust to exist. 

It’s this: Trust = (Credibility x Reliability x Intimacy)/Self Orientation


Shackleton was an experienced explorer who had journeyed previously towards the North Pole and had only just missed being the first ever to lead an expedition there. 

He had also experienced disaster before and had been one of the few to bring his crew back alive when most others would perish on the ice. 

Therefore, not only did Shackleton have credibility, his crew did too.

In order to raise the funds and support for this expedition he needed to be very persuasive about what they were seeking to achieve, and their ability to make it happen. 

It was that persuasiveness that also drove thousands of people to seek to be part of his crew, and also allowed him to select the best of the best to join him. The best skipper and navigator, the best scientists, the best photographer.

Therefore, not only did Shackleton have credibility, his crew did too.


Shackleton was consistently focused on their mission and discipline required to get there. 

As soon as the mission turned to ensuring the survival of his men, he could be relied upon to allow nothing to get in the way of making that happen.  

Shackleton was consistently focused on their mission and discipline required to get there. 

He understood that the men had to keep moving despite the toughness of the terrain otherwise they would run out of provisions and have too far to sail in dangerously small lifeboats. He got them to let go of their most valuable possessions and focus on survival.


These men spent so long journeying together and so long stuck in the ice together, so it’s not surprising that they got to know each other very well.

That said, it was the issue of intimacy that led to the beginnings of mutiny. 

It was 1916 and the divide between the classes in society existed on the ship too. 

That said, it was the issue of intimacy that led to the beginnings of mutiny. 

On the ship Shackleton’s senior team socialised together, separate from the working crew.  So the working crew were more exposed to the cynicism of McNish than the influence of Shackleton. 

When they lost the ship, Shackleton could have maintained those divides. However, he did not. He realised that in these tough times, morale and intimacy would be more important than ever. 

He chose to have McNish share his tent so that he could stay close to him and deal with any negativity face on. They ate together, slept together and struggled through the ice together. He started to build the one team he needed to be able to save them all.


You can build up all the credibility, reliability and intimacy you like but if you are seen to be prioritising yourself above the group you lead, trust will be eroded.  

Early on, the focus was to achieve something together that had never been achieved before, traversing the Antarctic. 

Some challenges to trust did come in as Shackleton made risky choices. 

Some challenges to trust did come in as Shackleton made risky choices. Those choices led to them being stuck in the ice because he was so focused on the mission he did endanger their lives. 

However as soon has he switched the mission to saving all, there was no doubting that his orientation was to the team, not to himself. 

From mutiny to safety

That day on the ice in 1916, when McNish challenged Shackleton’s authority, all of these factors – credibility, reliability, intimacy and self orientation came into play. 

Shackleton had built credibility and reliability already, there was a measure of intimacy and team orientation which was already being improved on now they were on the ice together.  Shackleton stood against McNish with strength and then gathered his men around him. 

He pledged that he would get them back safely and they put their trust in him. 

On August 1st 1914 twenty-eight men set sail from London, on August 30 1916 they were all saved, almost a year after they abandoned their ship to the ice. 

100 years on, if we want the trust of our people in difficult times, Shackleton is there for us to learn from. We need to:

  • be credible and reliable
  • build credible and reliable teams. 
  • foster the human bonds across all levels and across organisational divides. 
  • make sure our teams know that they are our priority, not our own success and glory. 
  • When we do that, trust will flow and we will get through the tough times together.

One Response

  1. Hi Jean
    Hi Jean

    Love the article, especially since I have previously read the book on the expedition.

    Would love to include it as part of training on trust with your permission. Also wondering if you have developed anything further based on the article?


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