Leadership lessons in a crisis from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.

This statement was made by Rahm Emanuel, then the incoming Chief of Staff of the Obama administration. He famously channeled Stanford Nobel Laureate Paul Romer’s saying, A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Waste it they did not. Acting with speed and purpose, coming into office the Obama administration pushed a wealth of transformative legislation.

Over the last week I’ve been speaking with startup founders about how the COVID-19 crisis is catalyzing their businesses thinking into make stuff happen. We agreed it is all about decisive leadership, and many are looking for stories of great leadership outside of business for inspiration.

I’ve referenced to many the most dangerous moment in human history: the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 1962. President John F. Kennedy had reviewed photographic evidence of the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off America’s coast, and thus began thirteen days of existential crisis. The whole nature of life, the shape and future of humanity, was at stake.

The Cuban missile crisis is a chilling tale, for the showdown could easily have gone another way, but for Kennedy’s leadership. Kennedy was cool, rational, careful and willing to compromise. Check out Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it relates the key leadership lessons from JFK: he was a leader driven by facts, not preconceptions, by the larger good, and not by his own ego or pride, wanting to be seen as a hero.

In our own hours of slow-motion, there’s real value in engaging with the stories of how leaders have reacted amid tension and tumult in their moments of truth. The vicissitudes of history show us that the past can give us hope that human ingenuity and character can save us from the abyss and keep us on a path to broad, sunlit uplands.

Alas in our current crisis, Boris Johnson hasn’t given me feelings of reassurance and confidence as Kennedy gave the American people. Over the last weeks I’ve not heard a speech from him that assured me with its moral seriousness, depth, or authentic presentation of facts. His utterances are invariably political rhetoric.

Leaders in a crisis need to be able to command authority, trust and respect, implement a coherent strategy, instil confidence, and reassure a nation for whom normal life has been suspended. Johnson is clever but essentially unserious. He seems ill prepared and ponderous. What is striking is just how inarticulate he is when not working from a prepared script.

Johnson can’t find an appropriate tone or method of persuasion. He tried to be statesman like – I must level with the British people – and he tried to be optimistic – We can turn the tide in 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident we can send coronavirus packing in this country – but he lacks gravitas and sounds like quick fire, jejune soundbites from a raconteur.

In the political arena the obvious examples of successful crisis leadership are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Both were somewhat erratic decision-makers, but they made up for it by being brilliant communicators. Their styles differed, but the public had little difficulty in understanding their core message. Roosevelt made clear that he was willing to try any combination of new ideas in an attempt to end the Depression; Churchill was unambiguous about the need for Britain to resist Nazi Germany, whatever the cost.

For me, startup leaders should resist the temptation to give Churchillian speeches and learn from the calm authority of Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’, aiming to connect with the individual whilst speaking to the masses. A leader is a dealer in hope during a crisis, and being calm provides more reassurance than a rebel-rousing call-to-action.

So, let’s look at a story of truly great leadership, applying the lessons of someone who has come before us, and be inspired by their performance to shed light on our paths to the future for our own startup.

Ernest Shackleton was an Irishman of Yorkshire parentage, and one of the greatest Antarctic explorers. Shackleton’s most famous expedition was that of 1914-1916. Lessons have been drawn from his leadership style in this expedition, and how they can be applied to crisis situations. It’s a remarkable story.

Shackleton set out at the age of forty on a self-funded voyage to make what was considered the last great expedition left on Earth – an 1,800 mile crossing of the Antarctic on foot. His ship was the aptly named Endurance, after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. The Endurance expedition lasted from August 8, 1914 to August 30, 1916. It was one crisis after another.

All was well at the outset, until just one day’s sail from its destination on the Antarctic coast when the ship got stuck in pack ice. 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, as the pack ice dragged the ship north for ten months, 600 miles, and then crushed the Endurance. The men were forced to camp on the ice shelf and watch as the ship sank.

All they had were three small lifeboats salvaged from Endurance, just twenty-five feet long to upturn as somewhere to shelter. Temperatures were so low the sea froze. Subsisting on a diet of penguins and seals, they spent four months in the darkness of the polar winter. And then the ice began to melt. After four months of mind-numbing boredom and danger sat on the ice floe, they were suddenly pitched into an intense battle for survival.

In the lifeboats they battled raging, freezing seas for a week, before making land at Elephant Island. It was inhospitable, with no animals for food or fresh water. Shackleton then took five men and sailed another 800 miles in one of the lifeboats, 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 greeted the whaling station manager, Thoralf Sorlle, he looked at them incredulously: Who the hell are you? The remarkable voyage of the James Caird was from April 24 to May 10, 1916. Spending just four days recovering, Shackleton led the rescue effort of his stranded crew. He saved the lives of 27 men stranded. Every single one survived.

‘Shackleton’s Way’ – his leadership philosophy from the Endurance expedition – resonates with themes and messages any startup leader can can take into their venture today. His people-centric leadership style saw them survive against the odds. He built this on camaraderie, loyalty, responsibility, determination and, above all, optimism. The key elements to ‘Shackleton’s Way’ maybe summarised as follows:

Be values based Fortitudine Vincimus by endurance we conquer. Shackleton’s family values shaped his uniquely progressive leadership style. He turned bad experiences into valuable lessons and he insisted on respect for the individual in a climate that demanded cooperation.

A spirit of camaraderie Shackleton created spirit and intimacy between the men. He established order and routine so all his staff knew where they stood, but broke down traditional hierarchies. He used informal gatherings to build an esprit de corps, and spent time with every one individually.

Coach 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 from the front 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 sometime led by doing nothing.

Build self-managing teams 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 together 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.

Shackleton faced a personal crisis but was famous for ‘thinking on his feet’ time and time again on the Endurance expedition, developing six ‘crisis leadership’ skills:

Challenge your assumptions With the devastating changes in circumstance, Shackleton had to constantly change his thinking. The biggest challenge of leadership is our unspoken attitudes and beliefs we cling to about our businesses, and the need to challenge these.

In the current crisis, rethink your assumptions and attitudes, don’t cling to the past.

Change your perspective Stranded on Elephant Island, Shackleton had to take a fresh perspective 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, so that we only see what we want to see.

Changing your perspective doesn’t mean throwing out all your old ideas, just the ones that get in the way of on-going change.

Ask the right questions Questions open up new ideas and possibilities. Too often we get stuck by focusing on the solution rather than the problem. Instead, ask future looking questions. Shackleton had to ask himself the right questions, before even thinking about solutions.

What if? Is a great way of unblocking the boundaries to your thinking at the present time.

Question the right answer Most problems have multiple solutions, some are better, easier, cheaper, or more feasible than others, but rarely is there only one right answer. Never settle for the first good 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.

Don’t jump to solutions, ask yourself What are the options here?

Be honest with empathy Shackleton faced each new crisis head on, topmost on his mind was being honest but optimistic. There are the obvious key concerns, and silence on such matters is dangerous. In the end, failure to tell the truth rapidly erodes trust and confidence. It’s also important you adopt the right tone, it can matter as much as having the right message.

It’s also essential you tell the truth. Shackleton was calm and transparent, and told his men he didn’t have an immediate plan to get them home safely, but was working on one. Shackleton was emphatic about accepting where they were at a given moment, and dealing with that.

You can promise everything to the many until you are unable to deliver even a little to the few. Don’t back yourself into this corner.

Listen Shackleton took time to listen to his men’s concerns and answer their questions. He recognised that the quieter you become, the more you can hear. At a time of a highly infectious disease, an online virtual coffee gathering of your team enables you to listen to their voices, listen to their concerns.

In the midst our own current crisis, startup founders need to grab Shackleton’s mantle, and take inspiration from Intel’s Andy Grove who famously said, Bad companies are destroyed by crisis; good companies survive them; great companies are improved by them.

Shackleton was essentially a fighter, but he was overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to his crew. His personal motto was reach beyond your expectations. So push yourself forward, be a Shackleton not a Johnson. COVID-19 sees us all facing our Antarctic moment.