Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Ernest Shackleton: Explorer and Entrepreneur

One of five (yes, five) new musicals I saw during my recent Memorial Day weekend trip to NYC was an off-Broadway show called Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, and yes, it got me thinking about the qualities of a successful entrepreneur.

For those who don’t know, Ernest Shackleton was a famous British explorer who wanted to be the first person to lead an expedition to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. In August of 1914 he departed with a crew of 28 people. After his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in ice (and later sunk), he and his crew were forced to abandon their quest. Remarkably, the entire crew survived the trip, which took over two years and included 497 days without touching land, mostly stuck on floating ice!

So, what does this have to do with entrepreneurship? Well, many people have written about Shackleton, even about Shackleton as entrepreneur. Most reference how his eternal optimism—even in difficult times—and keen leadership ability were the reason for the successful ending to the story.

Yes, Shackleton was flawed. His ego was part of the reason the expedition ran into trouble in the first place—he refused to wait out the predicted ice floes in the winter of 1914-15. But his ability to recognize that the goal of his enterprise had shifted from crossing Antarctica to mere survival, and to keep his crew focused on the new goal, is often credited for the happy ending. 

There are many examples of a successful pivot by a flawed entrepreneurial venture. You can read about a few interesting ones here. Unfortunately, many others fail because their leader is unwilling to recognize that the business or business model is too flawed for a successful outcome. 

Speaking of a successful outcome, “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” was terrific. A two-person musical about a modern day single mom who is stuck in her life, much the way Shackleton’s crew was stuck in the ice. She manages to connect with Shackleton (through her freezer) and they help each other to find a path forward. A strange concept for a musical, no doubt. But definitely one that was clever and engaging.  In fact, they just announced a Livestream of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” tonight at 7:00 p.m.  Click here if you want to check it out!

Since I know frequent readers are wondering, it wasn’t the best show of the trip. That distinction goes to the Tony nominated “Come From Away,” a brilliant musical about the true story of the kindness exhibited by the 9,000 residents of Gander, Newfoundland, when 38 jumbo jets carrying almost 7,000 “visitors” were diverted to Gander airport on September 11, 2001, when the FAA closed US airspace due to the World Trade Center attacks. There are many reasons it’s such a great show. including an incredible ensemble of 12 actors all playing many parts, terrific book-writing, a likeable score and, above everything else, a true story that, in the aftermath of an event showcasing the worst of which humans are capable, restores faith in the goodness of humanity.

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