Leading in crisis: Lessons from legendary Ernest Shackleton

He conveyed optimism in a seemingly desperate situation: British expedition leader Ernest Shackleton and his team survived a two-year struggle for survival in the Antarctic Ocean. What can leaders learn from him in times of crisis?

Unlike Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott, he did not become a popular hero. To learn about Ernest Shackleton, you have to take a closer look at polar expeditions in the early 20th century. None of Shackleton’s expeditions reached their destination. His merit lay less in his pioneering achievements than in his level-headed leadership under extreme conditions.

In 1914, Shackleton undertook a major polar expedition. With a crew of scientists, craftsmen and sailors, he wanted to cross Antarctica for the first time in history. But the mission failed already on the journey: The sailing ship Endurance got stuck in pack ice. After months of waiting and hope, it was finally crushed by drifting ice masses. From then on, the men’s only concern was to return home alive. They tried to proceed on foot, the heavy lifeboats in tow – but as it turned out, with no chance of reaching safe mainland. For months, the team camped on the ice until the summer came. In their lifeboats, the men made it across stormy seas to the barren Elephant Island. Together with five men, Shackleton sailed on, under high risk, to South Georgia, where they found rescue in a whaling station. After a two-year odyssey, the entire team returned safely to Britain in 1916.

Presence, structure and humor – essential under uncertainty

Thanks to the records of crew members, it is well documented how the expedition leader acted in critical situations. In the book “Shackleton’s Way” the authors Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell derive a number of managing principles for companies. Among others the following:

  • Responsibility and optimism. Talk to your employees as often as possible. Right at the beginning of a crisis, emphasize that you take responsibility for everything that comes your way. Convey confidence that your company will overcome the crisis.
  • Weigh up and make clear decisions. If you are dealing with concrete problems, think through various options in detail. Involve the team in finding solutions but make decisions yourself.
  • Forget failures and look ahead If something does not work as you planned, leave it behind. Regrets only waste energy.
  • Involve “difficult” colleagues Take care of the pessimists in your team and resist the impulse to avoid them. Try to win over these people so that they follow your plans.
  • Avoid boredom. Make sure that all employees have tasks. It is important that the working days maintain their structure, as routines provide stability during a crisis.
  • Bring back cheerfulness. The higher the stress level, the more important is a humoros way to deal with it. When you chat with your colleagues in a lighthearted tone this will help them to relax.

How Shackleton implemented these principles can be seen, for example, in a 1991 National Geographic documentary with original film footage by expedition photographer Frank Hurley.

Reflecting on leadership will bring one or two new good ideas

You may think: That’s fine, but our professional world is not a matter of life and death, and no employee is exposing himself voluntarily to extreme situations. How can Shackleton’s rules be applied to a corporate crisis? To achieve this transfer, we have implemented management workshops with some of our customers – due to Corona containment measures also in online meetings. Among other things, the workshop participants form tandems, each bringing together two managers from the same level but different areas. They discuss whether and how they could change their leadership practice; afterwards they share their most important insights with the group. For example, the intention to communicate directly with as many employees as possible and to offer dialog even when there are no new developments. This can be done, for example, in daily check-in meetings via audio or video conference.

The purpose of this reflection is not to put additional pressure on leaders, but on the contrary: They get the chance to recognize what is already going well, and usually take away one or two new ideas, which help them to perform their role even better in times of crisis.

Book recommendation:

Margot Morrell, Stephanie Capparell: “Shackleton’s Way – Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer”.

14.04.2020, Grosse-Hornke

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