Stories of Resilience: Lessons from History

December 2, 2021

Two years after Sir Ernest Shackleton left England, he returned, having failed his mission. Shackleton had left Europe with a crew of accomplished explorers and seamen, hoping to be the first to walk across Antarctica. He didn’t even reach the Southernmost continent.

Shackleton failed to accomplish his objective, but a century after his mission, we still uphold him as one of the most resilient leaders in history.


In the face of overwhelming adversity, in arguably the harshest environment on the planet, he saved the lives of every single crew member. No matter what challenges the savage Antarctic ocean threw at them, he took each event in stride. 

He may not have walked across the antarctic circle in the end, but his unwavering resilience helped him conquer 11 months trapped in the ice, months camped on an ice flow, and an 800-mile row in an open vessel through the Antarctic ocean. His story tells us of how people, processes, and patience can help us all navigate the most hopeless of situations.

Antarctic explorer staring at new horizonts

What are other lessons of resilience hidden in our history books?

Thomas Edison and His 1,000 Failures

According to the old saying from by American educator Thomas H. Palmer, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This commonly repeated adage was exemplified by Thomas Edison, the American inventor responsible for the lightbulb and the phonograph. 

In his own words, he didn’t view the hundreds (if not thousands) of failed inventions as mistakes. He famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

He persisted through thousands of attempts and near-successes because he knew that hard work was essential to the final result. Without his patience with the process, he would have likely never flicked the switch on the first incandescent lightbulb.  

Not only was his resilience in the face of failure apparent by his dedication to hard work, but it was also evident in the way he viewed his work. Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” 

What’s the lesson here? Edison tells us that hard work and persistence pay off. Even when faced with 1,000 failures, 1,001 may just succeed.

Inspiration - Light Bulb Hand Idea Blackboard

Emmeline Pankhurst, A Strong Voice For All Women

Today, women owe much to women like Emmeline Pankhurst and her leadership within the suffrage movement. 

Born in 1858 in Manchester, England, Pankhurst followed the example of her mother to become an avid supporter of the early suffrage movement. At the time, women had few if any civil rights compared to their male counterparts. Under most jurisdictions, women were not even considered persons under the law. 

Pankhurst demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of extreme adversity throughout her decades of work for the female vote. She led window-smashing campaigns to get attention, she was arrested and later, force-fed in prison. None of these experiences changed her opinion.

She traveled the world to speak with other women’s rights movements. As she told a crowd in Connecticut in 1913, “You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact, you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under if you are really going to get your reform realized.”

Pankhurst’s constant push for political and civil reforms eventually led to the women’s right to vote. No matter the resistance she faced politically, socially, or otherwise, she continued to pursue what she knew was right. Her life is a lesson worth taking to heart.

Francisco Toledo, An Strong Voice in Civic Leadership

Francisco Toledo was an artist and civic leader beloved within Mexico. Many have called Toledo, Mexico’s most important artist in modern history. Still, it was his constant fight to protect the traditions, culture, and historic center of Oaxaca that perhaps made the most lasting impact.

Toledo could trace his heritage as far back as pre-Columbian times. His cultural history played into his art. It also made him a fierce advocate for his city, Oaxaca. Throughout his life, he witnessed the destruction of much of Mexico’s rich cultural heritage and fought hard to preserve his home’s unique history. 

He willingly gave his time, money, and powerful voice to the fight against modernization in Oaxaca state. He prevented it from getting paved over for parking lots and resorts. He tirelessly stood up for the people during the state’s 2006 civic unrest. Toledo was continually working to protect the history, people, and environment around him.

Toledo’s resilience came from his unfaltering commitments. Throughout his entire life, he stayed true to his morals and inner-mission. It takes a strong person to walk the same line from one decade to the next.

Resilient Leaders From History Continue to Teach us Lessons Today

From Shackleton’s resilience in the face of a hurricane in the Antarctic ocean to Pankhurst’s hunger strike in prison, history is filled with lessons in resilience. 

In every history book, and from every corner of the planet come tales of people standing up in the face of insurmountable adversity. Stories of resilience are what make history lessons so valuable for navigating today’s troubling times. 

From yesterday’s leaders, we learn patience, perseverance, and an unwavering commitment to their values. As authors of the book Leadership Today: Practices for Personal and Professional Performance, tell us, “Resilience is not an end state of being, but rather a process of adaptation and growth within a risky landscape.” Shackleton, Pankhurst, Toledo, and Edison each teach us about the process and demonstrate the potential for growth.

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