Startup leadership lessons from A&E

At 10.15 am, semi-reluctantly, I was helped out of the back of the ambulance with an itchy grey blanket draped around me, and stepped into the Accident and Emergency Department. Within minutes I was sat on a bed as a nurse took me through a questionnaire in a calm, structured fashion that ranged from the names of my next of kin to denominational preferences. I joined the club and signed the forms.

From somewhere another nurse appeared and proceeded to take my blood pressure and pulse, strapping and tightening a wide black band around my left upper arm with needless ferocity. She smiled in a friendly and reassuring way, committing the findings to a chart with such nonchalance to suggest that only the most dramatic irregularities could ever give her occasion for anxiety.

She turned her attention to my temperature and pressed a small device onto my forehead, its digital reading consulted and apparently satisfactory. I recalled the old days when an instrument was placed under your tongue and shaken three time, similar to a backhand flick in a ping-pong match.

Am I going to survive? I asked. You’ve got a temperature was the response. I thought everyone had a temperature? I enquired, but she looked away ignoring my attempt at humour.

Next a white-coated consultant arrived to put me through my paces, standing beside the bed and silently scanned the reports. He spent the next few minutes still in silence, as he prodded, squeezed and kneaded my abdomen and lungs, his eyes reflecting inner contemplation of what he was encountered.

The diagnosis was pneumonia, and I was detained for two days of observation. An overnight stay gave me a snap shot of hospital life, with its byzantine array of moving parts layered on top of the unpredictable rhythms of patient comings and goings. I could see that a hospital is in a permanent state of flux.

Bound by paperwork, short on hands, sleep and energy, nurses are never short on caring or love of humanity. Equally, I concluded that the character of a physician is just as important as the medical knowledge he or she possesses. Whilst nurses are the hospitality of the hospital, leadership from the physicians is reassuring and offers firm guidance.

Being at the centre of emergency clinical service delivery, physicians are an ideal leadership role model for crisis leadership in a startup, which shares the same characteristics of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty typical of the environment.

While medicine typically focuses on decision-making at the individual physician–patient level, A&E leadership involves stepping back and examining problems at a higher level with an immediacy that adds pressure, requiring the ability to view issues broadly and systemically. This has immediate parallels to a crisis in a startup, arising from either customer, cash or staff challenges.

The person who assumes the role of leader in either crisis setting must be able to readily analyse a complex environment, to make informed decisions rapidly, and be capable of ongoing assessment and adaptation to unfamiliar and rapidly changing conditions. So what are the leadership traits I observed during my 48 hours under medical care, that are needed for a crisis in a startup?

Trait 1: Operate with clear vision and values This is important for every leader in any situation. Since the primary focus of physicians is on their professionalism and practice, the importance of this trait increases intensely during emergency scenarios, when uncertainty and time pressure emphasise the need for an almost automatic judgement, responses and calls to action.

Trait 2: Take a moment to figure out what’s going on Often the first response when you get into a crisis if that everyone starts talking at once. The chatter is a nervous response, not constructive, so you have to quickly assert your judgement to impose order and leadership on a chaotic situation. Do nothing maybe the best immediate response until you’ve assessed the moment. I saw physicians putting order into noise, creating a structured analysis.

Trait 3: Listen Leadership means asking and listening, rather than doing the talking all the time. It’s trusting the people who know best at that moment in time. Your job is to quieten the noise of your own point of view in order to hear those with relevant information, and apply judgement. I observed some great action listening skills.

Trait 4: Act promptly, not hurriedly Following on from the points above, I saw doctors providing direction and responding to the situation in a timely fashion, but not acting hurriedly. You can act with deliberateness as well as speed. Be quick but don’t hurry. The antichaos effect is important for startup leaders in their decision-making, even when it may be tempting to back out, and avoid knee jerking to a quick-fix solution.

Trait 5: Demonstrate control When things are happening quickly, a leader must assume control even though they may not have control – that is you can control the response. A leader puts herself into the action and brings the people and resources to bear. If trouble strikes, you can direct the response with the perspective that comes from seeing the situation as a whole and the conditions that are having an impact. I saw a lot of this during my time in A&E.

Trait 6: Keep loose A hallmark of a leader in a crisis situation is their ability to change quickly; your first response may not be your final response. In these situations, a leader cannot be wedded to a single strategy. She must continue to take in new information, listen carefully and consult with the frontline folks who know what’s happening. The measure of a leader is often tested during a crisis, and those leaders who can engage directly, but still maintain their sense of perspective, are the ones that will help the organisation perform.

Trait 7: Communication and collaboration as a strategy Physicians’ daily focus is primarily one-on-one patient interaction. During emergency situations, leading effective team work in the heat of the moment demands coordination from everyone. Here, leadership is about developing the personal qualities of communication to work effectively with others.

Trait 8: Managing people and building their endurance During the frantic activity I saw in tense emergency moments, there was also time taken to continuously look after the team even in a disorganised setting, checking in with everyone as individuals to ensure they were both performing, but also mentally and emotionally coping.

Trait 9: Being assertive never ever involves shouting There is a need for emphatic, potent and unequivocal decision making in the moments of crisis, but shouting out orders doesn’t have a place in any workplace situation. Leaders, build trust which builds respect. No one likes a know it all and a leader is not that.

But in some cases, it isn’t the crisis itself that causes an organisation to flounder, too often it’s the leaders response to the crisis that causes the greatest damage. It’s a time when competent leaders prove their mettle and when pretenders reveal their impotence.

Trait 10: Control your own emotions In times of crisis, leaders invariably find themselves in the midst of a stressful and tense atmosphere. There are enormous mental, physical and psychological pressures that can lead you to become agitated or perhaps even lose patience with those around you. It may appear that giving up is the easier way.

Instead, stop and realise that you have a lot more control than you think you do. Now is the time to take charge of your thoughts, emotions and the way you deal with problems. Allowing emotions to get the better of you can cause your team to lose faith in your abilities, they can interpret this as a loss of control.

The lessons from my observations as in A&E for startups are that leaders should embrace the uncertainty, keep your nerves steady and your head on, keep your tone level and take some immediate and firm actions to control the crisis. Lead to get the situation into perspective.

Calmly and firmly share the facts, speak the truth, and avoid making the crises worse with excuses or made-up stories to your team – face the reality of what’s in front of you. Your colleagues and customers alike will appreciate your straight-forward, upfront candour, confidence and calm as you discover yourself in the midst of rough waters. Your calm is going to help the situation to be resolved with dignity and will rub off on everybody else.

No matter how optimistic you are, how good your ideas are, how skilled your team is, or how careful you are in the process, some things are bound to go wrong in your startup. You might miss a crucial launch date, or accidentally push a massive bug to your software. You might realise a horrible defect in your product just after a new shipment goes out, or make a relationship-compromising mistake with one of your best early customers.

Crises like these are individually preventable but you can’t predict everything, and sooner or later a crisis will pop up to test your recovery skills and put your startup on the line. Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength. You never let a serious crisis go to waste – what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. What you shouldn’t do is let a crisis become a crisis about your leadership.

Startups are like the A&E hospital ward in which I found myself last year, in that they will find themselves facing unexpected situations. The problem or crisis may strike during any juncture, and it may occur in any form. In spite of taking all of the necessary steps and strategies for management, a crisis might catch a startup completely unprepared and unaware, and it’s the calibre of the leaders that most often makes the difference.

Shackleton’s Way

One hundred years ago yesterday, 18 January 1915, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew became stranded on board their ship Endurance, stuck in the ice pack in the Weddell Sea. Shackleton, an Irishman of Yorkshire parentage, served an apprenticeship under Robert Falcon Scott in his 1902 South Polar venture, before setting out on his own expeditions. Shackleton’s ‘Furthest South’ expedition of 1909 saw him reach just 97 miles short of the Pole before turning back, setting a new record.

However, his 1914-1916 Endurance voyage was his most famous expedition.

Shackleton set out at the age of forty on a self-funded trip to make what was considered the last great expedition left on Earth – an 1,800 mile crossing of the Antarctic on foot. His ship Endurance was named after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. All was well, until just one day’s sail from its destination on the Antarctic coast, the ship got stuck in pack ice in the Weddell Sea.

Shackleton and his men were stranded on an ice floe 1,200 miles from land, with no means of communication and no hope of rescue. When it seemed the situation could not get any worse it did – the pack ice dragged the ship north for ten months, 600 miles, and then the ice crushed the Endurance. The men were forced to camp on the ice and watch as the ship sank. We can only imagine the dynamics of this situation.

All they had were three small lifeboats salvaged from the ship, just twenty-five feet long. Temperatures were so low that you could hear the sea freeze. They subsisted on a diet of penguins and seals, spending four months in the darkness of the long polar winter. Eventually when the ice began to melt, the men took to the lifeboats. After four months of mind-numbing boredom and danger sat on the ice floe, they were suddenly pitched into an intense battle for survival that brought them to the limits of human capabilities.

They fought their way through the raging, freezing sea for a week, before making land at Elephant Island, which had no animals or fresh water. Shackleton then took five men and sailed 800 miles in an open boat, the James Caird, over tumultuous seas to reach South Georgia, part of the Falkland Islands, for help. Their journey lasted sixteen days, navigated only with a sextant. When they landed, they had to cross a frozen mountain range to reach civilisation at a whaling station. This climb took another 36 hours.

When they greeted the whaling station manager, Thoralf Sorlle, he looked at them incredulously, Who the hell are you? One of the men stepped forward and replied: My name is Shackleton. Thoraf Sorlle, it is said, turned away and wept. The remarkable voyage of the James Caird was from April 24 to May 10, 1916. It had been 530 days since Shackleton and his team left London.

Having spent four days recovering with the whalers, Shackleton turned round and led the effort to rescue the rest of his crew. It took him four attempts to do so. Shackleton saved the lives of 27 men stranded. Every single one survived. The Endurance expedition lasted from August 8, 1914 to August 30, 1916.

Arising from this, ‘Shackleton’s Way’ – his leadership philosophy from his Endurance expedition – resonates with themes and messages any leader can can take into their business. His leadership style, primarily to focus on the team, saw them survive against the odds. His people centred approach to leadership can be a guide for us all. He built his success on camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination and – above all – optimism.

There are eight elements to ‘Shackleton’s Way’ as follows:

The path to leadership Fortitudine Vincimus  – by endurance we conquer. The values Shackleton learned from his family helped form his uniquely progressive leadership style. He turned bad experiences into valuable lessons and he insisted on respect for the indidivual in a climate that demanded cooperation.

Hiring an outstanding crew Shackleton built a crew around a core of experienced workers. He conducted unconventional interviews to find unique talent. His second in command was his most important hire. He looked for optimism and cheerfulness in the people he hired. He gave his staff the best compensation and equipment he could afford.

Creating a spirit of camaraderie Shackleton made careful observations before acting. He established order and routine so all his staff knew where they stood. He broke down traditional hierarchies. He was fair in his dealings with his staff. He used informal gatherings to build an esprit de corps.

Getting the best from each individual Shackleton led by example. He accepted and understood his crewmen’s quirks and weaknesses. He used informal one-to-one talks to build a bond with his men. He was always willing to help others get their work done. He helped each man reach their potential.

Leading effectively in a crisis Shackleton let everyone know that he was confident of success. He inspired optimism in everyone. He put down dissent by keeping the malcontents close to him. He got everyone to let go of the past and focus on the future. He worked to keep spirits high. He sometimes led by doing nothing.

Forming teams for tough assignments Shackleton balanced talent and expertise in each team. He ensured all his groups were keeping pace. He remained visible and vigilant. He shored up the weakest links. He got teams to help each other.

Overcoming obstacles to reach a goal Shackleton took responsibility for getting the job done. He often took risks. He found the inspiration to continue. He kept sight of the big picture. He stepped outside his role as leader to personally help others in their own roles.

Leaving a legacy Shackleton’s leadership had a lifelong impact on his crew. He made a personal impact on those on board, and made lasting contributions to their lives. His leadership style prompted social change within the group based on his personal self.

Shackleton showed the qualities of strong, effective leadership – enthsiasm, confidence, warmth, integrity, toughness, humility – whilst also recognising the importance of a team, and the trust and respect everyone in a team must show to each other whatever their rank.

It is by building a sense of teamwork and community just as Shackleton and his crew did 100 years ago that we can overcome the unexpected detours and hurdles encountered on our own business journeys. Shackleton faced many of the problems we encounter today as business leaders:

  • bringing a diverse group of people together to work toward a common goal
  • bucking up the perpetual worries
  • keeping the disgruntled from poisoning the atmosphere
  • battling fatigue and challenge when things aren’t working
  • bringing order and success to a chaotic environment
  • working within challenging time scales and finite resources

Shackleton was a pioneer, but also an innovator in terms of ‘thinking on his feet’ when faced with unexpected challenges. Anyone can innovate once, all it takes is a good idea, some hard work, sufficient resources, and a little bit of luck. However, Shackleton did it time and time again on the Endurance expedition, and this is what is required in today’s business environment, which demands on-going innovation to stay ahead of the pack.

To make innovation a way of life for your business, get to work developing these five ‘innovation leadership’ skills, which Shackleton also showed:

Challenge your assumptions With the changes in circumstance, Shackleton had to change his working assumptions. The biggest enemy of innovation is the unspoken attitudes and beliefs we cling to about our businesses, and the more success we achieve based on these, the more we tend to focus on protecting the status quo versus exploring what could be.

To develop the skill of challenging your assumptions, ask: What has changed with our customers and markets? What assumptions are we continuing to make about our business simply because we ‘know them to be true’? What ideas for new products or services have we come up with recently but didn’t follow through because ‘that will never work’?

Change your perspective Stranded on Elephant Island, Shackleton had to take a fresh perspective to their situation, and be open-minded. We tend to rely on information that proves us right and screen out anything that contradicts our prevailing point of view. As a result, we often filter, distort or ignore the information coming in, so that we only see what we want to see.

Ask yourself What if? Break out of rigid thinking patterns and see the world in new and different ways, focus on what could be rather than what is or what was. Changing your perspective doesn’t mean throwing out all your old ideas, just the ones that get in the way of on-going innovation.

Ask the right questions Questions open you up to new ideas and possibilities. Too often, however, we get stuck in the past by focusing on the problem rather than the solution. Instead, ask future looking questions: What does the new product look like? What problems is it solving for our customers? How is it bringing new value to the marketplace? Shackleton had to ask himself the right questions, before even thinking about solutions.

Question the right answer In business, almost all problems have multiple solutions. Some are better, easier, cheaper, or more feasible than others. But very rarely do we encounter situations where there is only one right answer. Forget about finding THE right answer. Instead, focus on identifying as many potential answers as possible. Then choose the best one (or combination of ones) that most supports your innovation goal. Never settle for the first good answer, even when it seems like THE right answer. Good often gets in the way of great. Shackleton had to identify and then evaluate his options, looking for good and bad points within each.

Stop jumping to solutions Today’s fast moving business world creates pressure to make quick decisions. So we often tend to go with the first feasible solution rather than looking for better or different ideas. Not a good recipe for on-going innovation, nor equally seizing one way to rescue your stranded crew. Work on options, and look at it from another angle – what if we looked at it from the customer’s perspective; how would they solve this problem?

The core of Shackleton’s leadership philosophy was persistence, so whatever you do, don’t ever use a crutch, and don’t ever think of having an excuse for not having said, Yes, I did my best, not giving up because you have road blocks and also not giving in because other people tell you that you should give up.

For me, he embodied all the attributes of best business leadership. He opened new doors and took his people with him. Shackleton’s strategy is the antithesis of the old command and control model, his brand of leadership insisted on values of flexibility, teamwork and individual triumph.

Shackleton was a truly inspirational leader. He made his men want to follow him – he did not force them to do so – and in the process he changed the way his crewmen saw themselves and their world. He left a lasting impression on each of his crew, and continued to inspire them as long as they lived, long after they lost contact with one another. There is no greater tribute than this to a leader. Despite the two years adrift on an ice floe, and the blame for the extreme hardship they could have attributed to him, Shackleton was their role model and there are volumes of memoirs of survivors paying tribute to him.

The Endurance expedition dispersed on October 8, 1916. Most of the men returned to Britain and as World War I raged on, almost all entered into the service. Cheetham and McCarthy – the latter able seaman of the James Caird – were both killed. The last of Shackleton’s men, First Officer Greenstreet, died in 1979.

Endurance is a quite remarkable story about focusing on a goal, setting objectives, working as a team, and overcoming unexpected hurdles. Throughout the Endurance voyage, Shackleton kept a scrap of paper with words from Prospice by Browning, his favourite poet: When things seem the worst, they turn to their best, I was ever a fighter, so – one fight more, The best, and the last. Shackleton failed only at the improbable, he succeeded at the unimaginable: I love the fight and when things are easy, I hate it he once said.

Shackleton was essentially a fighter, afraid of nothing, but overall, he was human, overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to all his crew. So imagine the situation 100 years ago today, the realisation you’re stranded on an ice floe 1,200 miles from land, with no means of communication and no hope of rescue. Shackleton’s personal motto was reach beyond your expectations. That’s Shackleton’s Way. That’s leadership. You wait, everyone has an Antarctic moment.