The challenge of choosing between achievements, life

Vantage Point: Leadership lessons from Ernest Shackleton

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Shackleton's ship, Endurance, stuck in the ice pack at the South Pole.

“My greatest example of a leader is Ernest Shackleton,” I read one evening in a German Christian magazine. Intrigued by this name I had never heard, I bought a biography about this great South Pole explorer. The biography, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, has come to mind many times in my journey as a leader.

The story of Shackleton’s exploration and all the adversity that he and his team experienced was so thrilling, it was hard to stop reading. How he led his team and the decisions he made in the midst of difficult circumstances impressed me deeply. The team achieved high goals and survived many dangers because of Shackleton’s decisiveness as he stuck to his values and priorities.

Ernest Shackleton

He was attempting to be the first human to reach the South Pole. On his first attempt he had approximately 112 miles left to the pole. If he had been the first to reach it, he would have been honored by people all over the globe and would have gone down in history. However, the trip took longer than he had planned for. He assessed his supplies and came to the conclusion that they did not have enough food or fuel to both reach the South Pole and return to the nearest supply deposit. He had to decide between the highest honor he had dreamed of and the lives of his crewmembers he would be putting at risk.

There was a lot at stake in the project: time, thousands of pounds of investments, personal sacrifices and painful hardship. Shackleton was racing not only for himself, his team and the investors but for all “400 million British subjects,” in his words. All of this investment would be lost if he turned around. He knew that other explorers were also striving for this achievement and if he turned around, he would never have another chance to be first.

Even with all these considerations, Shackleton decided to put human life first. He saved the lives of his crewmembers by turning back before they reached their goal. On his way home he wrote to his wife: “Better a live donkey than a dead lion.” Three years later, on December 14, 1911, Roald Amundsen from Norway reached the South Pole, and Shackleton congratulated him openly.

How many times do Christian leaders choose to achieve dreams in order to have honor or wealth? They may indeed profit for decades. But in doing so, they risk so many “lives”: physical and spiritual health, marriage, family and relationships. They damage not only their immediate circle, but the church, local or global ministry and much more.

Serving in ICOMB today I’m grateful for the many “Shackletons” I have met around the globe. But I’m sad and burdened for those who decide to reach their goals at the cost of “life.” Sometimes they even proclaim it is done in the name of Jesus.

In my journey I have seen two things that make a difference. The first is leaders who pray not only for God to provide resources but who take time to sit with God and ask the Holy Spirit to speak on whatever is important to God. They let God touch on whatever needs the most care. The second is leaders who invite someone to be brutally honest with them. This is a place where a leader gets to see the difference between achievement and life.

“The LORD says, ‘I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you’” (Ps. 32:8, NLT).

 

Rudi Plett
Rudi Plett, from Asuncion, Paraguay, has been the International Community of Mennonite Brethren executive director since 2018. Plett served as half-time associate director of ICOMB from 2017 to 2018. From 2011 to 2017, he served as chair of the ICOMB executive committee while serving in a pastoral roles at Mennoniten Brueder Gemeinde Concorida, Asuncion, Paraguay. Ha and his wife, Ruth Ratzlaff de Plett, have five children.

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