How to start thinking about tomorrow: hope is not a strategy, but strategy can provide hope.

The COVID pandemic has wrought enormous personal and social damage, upending countless lives. It is serving as a catalyst to embrace the need for greater compassion and solidarity across our society. It is inspiring heroic feats of public-spiritedness and charity, while also providing an opportunity for us to view the competence, morality and ethics of leaders in government and business.

Beyond that, it has unleashed a set of acute economic shocks, laying bare the viability of many businesses, creating the greatest sense of uncertainty ever experienced. Getting our minds around what is happening is difficult, as its effects are paradoxical: it has caused a supply shock and a demand shock.

The pandemic is primarily a public healthcare problem, but one with immense implications for business, and for economic, fiscal and monetary policy. The virus is accelerating powerful existing trends such as digital automation and simultaneously slamming the brakes on trends that had, until very recently, possessed clear momentum, such as globalisation.

Many startups spent the first several weeks of the crisis preparing continuity plans, and assessing the various government stimulus programs. These businesses are now learning to operate in the ‘new normal’ yet continuing to respond to immediate fires. Much of the focus is on implementing tactical steps to preserve business value, including liquidity analysis and operational scenario plans.

Startups need to address vastly weaker balance sheets, steep revenue declines, weakened supply chains and stressed or depleted employee bases. Each of these elements will require triage, and in many instances, attention and resources will be focused on triage for a long time. Of course, some firms will emerge from the pandemic in relatively good shape and thus be in a position to take advantage of opportunities arising.

The central question in every (virtual) startup leadership meeting is how to grapple with the short-term consequences. The challenges are philosophical and intellectual, as well as physical and practical. Simply, we are wondering how to go about restarting, repairing what was broken and readying ourselves to cope with a host of urgent demands as we build bridges to a post-pandemic future for our embryonic ventures.

Ian Burbridge of the RSA has developed an approach to thinking through the measures that we’ve taken in response to Covid-19 in four categories that can help us focus on what’s worked and what can last – stopping activity, pausing activity, temporary activity, and innovative activity – and I’ve adapted it for startups.

1.     Obsolete activity

The crisis has afforded us the ability to stop doing some things, either because we already knew they were not fit for purpose or because the crisis has rendered them obsolete. Emerging post-crisis, the challenge is to let go of these obsolete aspects of pre-existing systems and functions that we know are no longer fit for the new ways of working.

As Peter Drucker said, the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic. Letting go of what we no longer need releases trapped resources for work that is a better strategic fit.

Rethinking starts with the context in which the repair efforts needs to happen, so be ruthless on what you can eject from your business model. Every organisation needs to reimagine the future at both a practical and a conceptual level.

Startups need to be strategic at a time when grappling with an intense crisis and coping with day-to-day emergencies. Redesigning a boat while bailing water from the hull may sound ambitious as you’re sailing in a storm, but it is necessary.

Organisations need to rethink technology strategy, geographic footprints, and business models to make them more robust and to recognise the strong pressures for localisation emerging. They will need to evaluate their portfolios from the standpoint of the products or services needed in a very different economy.

Move your orientation from physical in-person processes into digital or virtual tactics;

You may have a new business sales focus, but this is a time to be our best selves, and customers need more from us. They don’t need to be sold to, they need to be heard and supported. We’re all now in customer support. They need us to put humanity above profitability.

2.     Paused activity

We have had to bring a halt to doing other things in order to divert capacity to the crisis response, but we have to restart these again. Potentially, this is storing up significant challenges for the future, so we need to figure out how to reboot these activities in ways that are relevant to the new, emerging context and are not simply a blind copy and paste of the pre-virus approach.

It will be impossible for our structures and systems to cope with the next challenge if they remain in the same state in which they entered this one. The next step is to quickly begin reimagining and adapting strategy. All this must be done with a keen eye toward understanding trade-offs and building the capacity to navigate the disruptions that are bound to arise in the future.

This is an opportunity to refactor your business model, focused on competitive and collaborative strategies dramatically different from those we might have imagined a few months ago. Rethinking paused activities ensures that startups are repaired in a way that makes them more resilient and more successful by bringing considerations about the future into the present.

Redeploy physical event spend, leaning more heavily into digital and account-based strategies, focused to maximise pipeline generation potential in the short term, mapped out in 30, 60 and 90-day priorities;

Create online content that is informative and responsive to current landscapes, be valuable to both current customers and potential prospects by investing in general customer experience improvements.

3.     Temporary activity

Some things that we have done in responding to the immediate demands of the crisis are inappropriate to become part of the way forward. Ending temporary measures should be a focused endeavour, remove them before they become systematised, and burn valuable resources.

Identifying your own revealed weaknesses unearthed by crisis will undoubtedly have exposed needs for greater preparedness, resilience, agility, or leanness in your business. Those weaknesses also signal opportunities to renew your products and business model and serve customers better. They may also help you understand broader customer needs, since others are likely to be experiencing similar stresses.

On the plus side, you may have adapted new activities that offer future value – for example, reducing customer friction in terms of unnecessary delays, costs, complexities and other inconveniences.

In terms of messaging, shift the focus to emphasise more of the WHY – not just your own WHY as a business, but the bigger WHY for your audience;

Revisit your temporary pricing strategy, you may need to continue to offer more options at lower price points to accommodate customer’s tighter budgets.

4.     Innovative activity

Emergencies will have opened up the need for innovation and rapid experiment as a result of the crisis. These will have shown the imperative for an agile way of thinking and working, removing barriers and inertia, with the demand for instant change. The post-crisis task is to find ways to amplify and embed the most promising changes and innovations into your new business model.

The crisis has put into strong relief the uncomfortable truth that many startups are simply not as nimble or as adaptive as they anticipated. What does this mean in practical terms? To a degree, this means jumping on the trends that have suddenly gained currency in response to the pandemic, including remote working and the localisation of supply chains, but now is the time to become a maverick, a small outlier enterprise that thinks and act differently from incumbents.

Seek out maverick activity. Startups sit on the edges of an industry, and as such can make bets predicated on new customer needs or patterns. Look to EasyJet as an example.

EasyJet, now the fourth-largest airline in Europe, built its business as a no-frills, low-cost carrier by pioneering a novel business model and ignoring many of the industry’s unwritten rules. EasyJet shook up the business model of the airline industry by moving from a hub-and-spoke model with a diverse fleet to a point-to-point model with lean operations and high-capacity utilisation. By removing or charging extra for all noncore elements of the customer experience, EasyJet was able to cut costs while focusing on what customers care about most – flight availability and punctuality.

Organisations tend to become myopic and insular when under threat, but crises often mark strategic inflection points, and a necessary focus on the present should not crowd out considerations of the future. The key questions are what next, and with what consequences and opportunities? The keys to success are to harvest good ideas from every layer of an enterprise.

Don’t just seek to reducing costs to maintain viability, adapt and innovate around new opportunities. Invest in growth drivers in order to capture opportunity in adversity and shape your own future.

Certain back-burner projects will have become more relevant given current events, so shift resources to make these a priority;

Reposition your product from pure revenue growth or churn mitigation to a more defensive posture to focus on helping businesses curtail losses and retain customers longer.

Summary

COVID-19 has provided a rare moment of pause, albeit a hazardous one, an opportunity to make changes that previously seemed too daunting or even impossible to execute. We should not lose the potential benefit of the natural reflection we are going through, but be mindful not to simply recreate the business we had before – consumer-led disruption will have an even greater impact than previously expected.

Stepping out of the crisis will force startup leaders to activate transformation plans, shrink execution timelines and experiment at lightning speed. Some startups are more immune to short-term shocks, such as those with subscription models. This presents an opportunity to further strengthen engagement and loyalty with existing customers, supporting them with attractive discounts or expanded service offerings.

However, for sub-sectors that rely on transactional revenue, the concerns are more immediate. They need to extend their liquidity runway to remain solvent while covering costs, and managing the emotions of their people. In these cases, give emphasis to simplification of all aspects of your enterprise. For example, you’ll need more adaptive digital strategies that can change and respond quickly, and an empowered management team that has greater responsibility and is less siloed. Steadying the ship is only part of the story, you must also look to the horizon.

The open-mindedness, flexibility, and faster clock speed of startups make them showcases of future development when an industry is at a turning point. So adopt the four strategic themes identified earlier, but be a maverick, be an outlier, and look to the periphery, be different and challenge your industry’s core beliefs and assumptions. Create the shocks, avoid being taken by surprise, bet against your existing business model. Think big, act small. Hope is not a strategy. But strategy can provide hope.

Startups are like a game of chess: what to do now and next?

Startups need to out-manoeuvre the uncertainty hanging over them from COVID-19, but what to do now and next? The containment policies aimed at controlling it have changed how we work. As startups juggle a range of new priorities and challenges, founders must act quickly and lay a foundation for the future.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our experiences―as customers, employees, citizens, humans – and our attitudes and behaviours are changing as a result. Once the immediate threat of the virus has passed, what will have changed in the way we think and behave, and how will that affect the way we design, communicate, build and run our startups?

History shows crises can cause fundamental shifts in social attitudes and beliefs, which pave the way for new thinking, ways of working, and consumer needs and behaviours, some of which persist in the long run. How then can startups prepare for a post crisis world, rather than hunkering down and simply waiting for a return?

Entrepreneurs follow their instinct, driven by curiosity, leading to the conversion of new ideas into new products and services, moving from imagination to impact, from innovation to invoice. For innovation to flourish in these uncertain times, both freedom and discipline must be present – freedom to imagine what is possible and discipline to turn ideas into action. Now if freedom and discipline are to be a duality rather than a dichotomy, how do you get the balance right?

Garry Kasparov, Grandmaster and World Chess Champion shares how he combined disruptive and disciplined approaches to bring him success in chess – a result of calculation, foresight and intuition. His book How life imitates chess is a must read for chess players and entrepreneurs alike.

It’s about having the vision to see your moves ahead, but you don’t need to appreciate chess to enjoy this book. Kasparov highlights long-term strategy, short-term gains, being creative in the ‘middle game’ in terms of chess, and how important decision-making is at any stage of the game. We do need to think ahead in business, if not for ten moves, but at least truly think through options and the consequences – that’s not calculating, it’s common sense.

Chess is really about psychology and intuition because the mathematics get complex very quickly. For me, the main take away of chess to startups is the ability to execute strategy, which can be exploited through practice and repetition. Kasparov illustrates that the subtle and intricate potential moves that lie within the 64 squares of a chessboard are totally applicable to business, and how the game can help you step back and evaluate yourself to identify you strengths and weaknesses and thus better your game.

Kasparov is probably the greatest chess player of all time. His 120 games in a three-year struggle against Anatoly Karpov was one of the most intense head-to-head rivalries in chess history. Nobody has played chess so aggressively at such a high level for so long.

So what are the entrepreneurial learnings we can take from Kasparov’s thinking, to help reboot us from the doldrums of coronavirus?

The first phase in a chess game: the opening The purpose of the opening isn’t just to get through it, it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want. The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for startups.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame.

After a bad opening, there is hope for the middle game. After a bad middle game, there is hope for the endgame. But once you are in the endgame, the moment of truth has arrived. In business, it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan.

Decision-making: understand the rationale behind every move Chess is the gymnasium of the mind. We all make our decisions based on a combination of analysis and experience. For your startup, take a similar wider view so that we can evaluate the deeper consequences of our tactical decisions.

The best move The best next move on the board might be so obvious that it’s not necessary to spend time working out the details, especially if time is of the essence. However, often when we assume something is obvious and react hastily we make a mistake due to complacency.

Chess is the struggle against the error. More often we should break routine by doing more analysis, not less. These are the moments when your instincts tell you that there is something lurking below the surface, but take a moment to validate.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down my mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Kasparov was a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas.

Avoid the crowd. Do your own thinking independently. Be the chess player, not the chess piece. For a startup, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you seek to do so, and have the nerve to try them when you find them – but ensure flair doesn’t mean you make fateful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present  Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do; strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do. A chess Grandmaster makes the best moves because they are based on what they want the board to look like in twenty moves ahead.

This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where their fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. They work out the step-by-step moves to accomplish those aims.

Have a game plan Chess is rarely a game of ideal moves. Almost always, a player faces a series of difficult consequences whichever move he makes. When you see a good move, look for a better one.

Too often we set a goal and head straight for it without considering all the steps that will be required to achieve it. If you work without long-term goals your decisions will become purely reactive and you’ll be playing your opponent’s game, not your own.

In startup life, as you jump from one new thing to the next you will be pulled off course, caught up in what’s right in front of you, instead of what you need to achieve. Have a vision of success, clarity and focus in your strategy.

Intuition & analysis Half the variations which are calculated in a chess game turn out to be completely superfluous. Unfortunately, no one knows in advance which half. Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. 

But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective, and creating long-term positions can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a great attacker is to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

Going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Kasparov reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. In both chess and in your startup, being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

Chess is eminently and emphatically the philosopher’s game, so let’s translate Kasparov’s chess strategies, into a clear startup strategy for the current crisis:

Hope is not a strategy. Create a real plan together with your co-founders and investors and look the truth straight in the eye. Things could get worse before they get better again. Make sure that your team see eye-to-eye on the vision you have and the measures that you will take in the next weeks and months.

Know your exposure Your first step is to identify areas of vulnerability, and decide which of these can be mitigated early. Have a solid financial model and run financial scenarios – think about what happens if your revenue drops 50%. Can you extend your runway? Plan to stay as lean as possible. This will further help you to know when to pull the trigger on major changes as things play out. Stay optimistic but realistic.

Check in with your thinking Make sure you are transparent during times of uncertainty and that you give your team and investors comfort. Do not make decisions without them, even if you can do so from a legal standpoint. Make sure they are part of the process.

Try to stick to the long-term plan Do not lose focus of your long-term goals, you shouldn’t let short-term external forces unnecessarily influence your path. I know, it can be tough when conditions deteriorate, but staying focused on long-term goals can help you with a frame of reference by which to measure short-term decisions.

Stay disciplined This is good advice always — not just for downturns. Use this time to establish a culture of discipline for all conditions. Be helpful, smart, and prudent. With an established culture of discipline, you will be in a better position for any shock to the business and it will bring your team closer together.

This is a challenging time. When people talk about entrepreneurship being tough, this is what they mean. It’s a true rollercoaster ride. But remember, it’s also a time to grow, and shine. Chess is the struggle against the error, one bad move nullifies the previous twenty good ones, the blunders are all there out on the board waiting to be made – as they are in the maelstrom we are in now.

Chess is a mental game, it requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this, take the thinking that in a startup we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, just what’s needed to move your startup strategy forward in these challenging times.

Startups! Crisis leadership lessons from Jacinda Ardern

In the current coronavirus adversity, being a leader can be harrowing. Managing competing priorities is an uphill battle, mustering the courage to keep going gruelling. You need to be both tough-minded and tender-hearted with people, looking outward and take responsibility, leaning into tough situations.

Leadership is the art and science of influencing others, keeping your own head above water in the midst of an on-going fire-alarm. But no matter what tumult is thrown into your path, your response as a leader is to take responsibility. It can feel like the whole world rests on your shoulders, but fixing the problem and wrestling it to the ground, owning and addressing the issue, is the primary role of a leader in a crisis.

As leader, it’s up to you to take a hard-nosed, clear-eyed approach, to be the stalwart source of reliability and strength. Put simply, you gain trust by taking responsibility, earning the right to influence people positively and advance your organisation to move forward. People are looking to you. It’s your chance to show them who you really are when the chips are down.

Yet not all leaders step up to be counted. I don’t take responsibility at all, said President Donald Trump on March 13, responding to questions about the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus in New York City. Those words will probably end up as the epitaph of his presidency, the single sentence that sums it all up.

Now, Trump fancies himself a ‘wartime president’ fighting the pandemic. How is his war going? By the end of March, the coronavirus had killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. By the first weekend in April, the virus had killed more Americans than any single battle of the Civil War. By Easter, it had killed more Americans than the Korean War. On the present trajectory it will kill by late April, more Americans than died in Vietnam.

COVID-19 emerged in China in late December. The Trump administration received formal notification of the outbreak on January 3. The first confirmed case in America was diagnosed in mid-January. Financial markets in the United States suffered the first of a sequence of crashes on February 24. The first person known to have succumbed to COVID-19 in the United States died on February 29.

By March 20, New York City had 5,600 cases. But it wasn’t until March 21 that the White House begin marshalling a national effort to meet the threat in earnest. What they’ve done over the last 13 days has been really extraordinary, Trump said on April 3, implicitly acknowledging the waste of weeks since January 3.

As late as March 9, Trump was still arguing that the coronavirus would be no worse than the seasonal flu, and on March 27, Trump spoke about reopening the country by Easter. But he finally glimpsed the truth through his mental fog: having earlier promised that casualties could be held near zero, Trump then claimed he will have done a very good job if the death toll is below 200,000.

Of course, that the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault, but the unpreparedness of the United States is Trump’s responsibility. He spent ten weeks insisting the virus was a harmless flu that would go away on its own. The strategic fault is more widely shared, but leadership responsibility rests with Trump. He could have stopped it, and he did not. He has blathered, bluffed and bullied his way through a test of leadership that has utterly overwhelmed him.

Compare this to another leader, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern. When New Zealand had just six confirmed coronavirus cases, Ardern brought in a 14-day lockdown and the toughest restrictions in the world. At the time of writing, they have had just over a thousand cases and five deaths. Leadership matters in a crisis, and Ardern can take considerable credit for this thus far hugely encouraging outcome.

Of course, New Zealand is a small country, but the principles in leading a country of five million people are the same as leading a country with 65 million (UK) 330 million (US). You have to set out difficult choices, make the unpopular decisions, take the country into your confidence about why you are making them at this moment. You have to show sincere empathy for the difficulties your people are facing, show emotional intelligence and take them with you on the journey into the unknown.

Ardern’s public interviews, statements and social media posts are a masterclass in empathy, crisis management and earning the trust and respect as a leader. She gets the big moments right. On the Covid-19 crisis, the two biggest moments for Ardern came two days apart.

On 21 March when Boris Johnson was still resisting a lockdown for the UK, and he and Trump was continuing to send all manner of mixed messages about public gatherings, work, science, schools, and much more besides, she did a broadcast to the New Zealand nation spelling out the strategy for protecting the country. In this rugby-obsessed nation, unsurprisingly, one of the central messages sounded like an All Blacks team talk: We go hard, we go early.

She emphasised the need for firm action to stop the spread of the virus before it really took hold. She set out and explained in detail but in clear, simple language, the four stages of Alert, her strategy, and what each would require of the people, and what the Government would be doing. Her manner was calm, authoritative, engaging and friendly. She talked with the people, not at the people, creating a genuine sense of community all-in-this-togther.

She didn’t use the repeated phrase we hear from the UK Government representatives – we are relying on the scientific advice – thereby ducking absolute responsibility, which you know will come back in the future to deflect failure. Instead, she focused on the human as much as the economic consequences of the changes that would come as the country went through the different Alert gears.

She spelled out clearly how difficult it would be for everyone, making a personal connection. She spoke to New Zealanders’ sense of self-belief – creative, practical, country-minded – and she ended by urging everyone to be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID-19.

Two days later, moving from Alert level two to three, giving the country a further two days to prepare for the lockdown of Alert level four, she delivered this memorable line, which helped frame the public’s understanding: We only have 102 cases – but so did Italy once. Admitting she was demanding the most significant restriction of movement in modern history, she set out how lockdown would close all organisations, from schools to businesses.

She said without it New Zealand could see the greatest loss of life in our history and she was not prepared to let that happen. She said other countries had chosen not to go early, go hard, and she was not making that mistake. Ardern gave immediate clarity sadly lacking in the US and UK, and spelled out and shared her plan in a way I have never felt the US and UK leaders have done, which has allowed an impression to develop that they are rather making it up as they go along. Yes, there are unknowns, but show open, clear leadership.

Natural empathy has always been a strength for Ardern – in the current crisis, could any other leader have stood at a Government live broadcast as she did recently and talked directly to children about how yes, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny were key workers, but they might not be able to get everywhere because they were so busy in these challenging times? Ardern is the only leader I’ve seen who seems to be smiling in this crisis, which gives a feeling of positivity to the people. A leader is a dealer in hope.

I’d argue Jacinda Ardern is giving most Western politicians a masterclass in crisis leadership. But how can we assess her leadership in making such difficult decisions? A good place to start is with American Professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadership communication. Their model highlights direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy as the three key things leaders must address in a crisis. Ardern’s response to COVID-19 uses all three approaches.

Direction giving In directing New Zealanders to lockdown, she simultaneously offered meaning and purpose to what people were being asked to do. Importantly, her four-level Alert framework was released and explained early, two days before a full lockdown was announced, in contrast with the prevarication and sometimes confusing messages from leaders in the UK and US. She shows empathy about what is being asked of her people.

Make yourself available Ardern’s press conferences comprise a carefully crafted speech, followed by extensive time for media questions. In contrast, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pre-recorded his March 24 lockdown announcement, offering no opportunity for media questions. Where Ardern blended direction, care and meaning-making, Johnson largely sought compliance. Trump just seems to apply bombastic rhetoric.

Lead with empathy, not the argument Ardern’s approach is to use daily televised briefings and regular Facebook live sessions to clearly frame the key questions and issues requiring attention. She has regulated distress by developing a transparent framework for decision-making – the four stage Alert framework – allowing people to make sense of what is happening and why. Much of her communication has been dedicated to persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems. It’s worked, at a time when we have police in the UK patrolling the streets to enforc social distancing and ‘stay at home’.

When dealing with problems which are complex, evolving and cannot be easily resolved within a set timeframe, leaders must ask difficult questions that disrupt established ways of thinking and acting. It’s clear this has happened in New Zealand. Of course, not everything has been perfect in Ardern’s response, and independent scrutiny of any Government’s response is essential. But expecting perfection of leaders, especially in such difficult circumstances, is unreasonable, when speed and enormous complexity are such significant features of the decision-making context.

But Ardern has got more right than Trump or Johnson. Watch her Facebook video post from her sofa, answering people’s questions as they come in to her iPad. It is a masterclass of compassion, clarity and calm. She is taking responsibility on behalf of her country, for her country. She cares, and that creates a sense of calmness and confidence. The fact the number of infections and deaths is so slow, is quantifiable evidence she got her strategy right in terms of its implementation and timing.

So the next time you’re in the midst of a crisis, don’t try to deflect or underestimate it. Choose to take responsibility as the leader. Own the problem, take a hard-nosed, decisive approach but reach out with compassion to your folks, present a solution, get to work, build trust, and sort it.

You have to take responsibility for your choices. This is the real test of our maturity and emotional intelligence as a leader. Jacinda Ardern hits the mark for her open, transparent communication that oozes humanitarian concern and asserts ‘the buck stops with me, I am your leader’ responisbility, and if you add the outcome of that single-figure death toll to her performance as a strategist, Ardern is the standout global leader of this awful crisis.

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.

Our iceberg is melting: a call to action for startup founders facing adversity

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress. It’s a call to action which has resonance with the current COVID-19 driven turbulence, where the need for new leadership attitudes and new thinking to face the challenges is needed, a ‘can do’ spirit in the face of adversity.

But most businesses hesitate to adopt new thinking and look outwards during a crisis, instead they focus on hunkering down and a low-key ‘back to basics’ existence, defaulting to a cost-reduction focus. Whilst this can secure short-term protection, it rarely offers a life-saving strategy, and certainly impedes thinking beyond the immediate time horizon – plans for new ideas and investments are put on the ‘wait and see’ pile.

However, there is a tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship in times of great hardship. The Great Depression of the 1930s saw several successful companies that did not delay investment in their future. One was DuPont. In April 1930, Wallace Carothers, a research scientist, recorded the initial discovery of neoprene (synthetic rubber). At the same time, DuPont’s financial performance was suffering, with sales down 15% that year. However, maintaining a long-term view on their strategy, DuPont boosted R&D spending.

A lack of competitor ambition and low raw-material prices helped the company keep the cost of its research investment manageable. Neoprene, which DuPont publicly announced in November 1931 and introduced commercially in 1937, became a major C20th innovation. By 1939, every car and plane manufactured in America had neoprene components. Alongside this, DuPont discovered nylon in 1934 and introduced it in 1938 after intensive product development.

When Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the assembly line, listening to music in the car meant the passengers were singing. Then two brothers, Paul and Joseph Galvin, who had started Chicago’s Galvin Manufacturing to sell electric converters for battery-operated radios, needed new revenue after the Wall Street Crash.

By teaming up with William Lear, who owned a radio parts company in the same factory building, and audio engineer Elmer Wavering, they installed the first car radio in May 1930. The next month, Paul drove 800 miles to a radio manufacturers’ convention in Atlantic City. He parked uo near the pier and cranked up the radio, coaxing attendees to look and listen. Orders began flowing in. In 1933, Ford began offering factory-installed radios from the brothers, and Galvin Manufacturing changed its name to Motorola.

Thus although deep downturns are destructive, they can also have an upside. The Depression-era economist Joseph Schumpeter emphasized the positive consequences of downturns: the destruction of underperforming companies, the release of capital from dying sectors to new industries, and the movement of high-quality, skilled workers toward stronger employers. For companies with cash and ideas, history shows that downturns can provide enormous strategic opportunities.

So how are you going to face the COVID-19 challenge? Let’s use Harvard Professor John Kotter’s seminal book, Our iceberg is melting. On the face of it, it is a simple tale of a group of penguins who are scared about losing their home and lifestyle because their current habitat – their iceberg – is melting, and yes, even more scared of the changes that could entail – it’s a useful analogy to the challenge we currently face.

The book narrates how the penguins discover a major problem which highlights a need for radical action, and how they adopt a process to secure survival, captured in Kotter’s eight principles. Through this simple allegory of their struggle for finding their new home, the story delivers a powerful message that is relevant for startups as they search for their sustainable icebergs of opportunity in today’s COVID-19 environment.

In the story, Fred is an observant and curious penguin – maybe a data scientist in a penguin’s disguise? He observes that their iceberg home was melting. Not one to just wait for his daily quota of squid, he spoke to Alice.

Alice is one of the leaders of the colony, practical and mentally tough. Alice initially wondered if Fred was suffering from a personal crisis – had he missed his morning fishmeal? But she was patient, and she rapidly became alarmed when she saw the cracks and fissures in their iceberg.

Alice brought Fred’s concern to the rest of the leadership team, and eventually the colony waddled their way to a miraculous solution, enjoying quite a few squids on the way, showing that in order to survive in the face of adversity, you need a vision, a process and teamwork.

Let’s cut back to the reality of our COVOID-19 world, where the tech market is the iceberg and is melting in a maelstrom of new, emerging economic paradigms, contradictions, red herrings (Alice’s second favourite food) and more twists and turns than a King Emperor swimming at 30mph in the Antarctic sea.

Facing a startup founder this Monday morning is a mass of data, noise and emotion, looming from customer information to cashflow to marketing. Then the blogs, podcasts and twitter offering insights, opinions and comments. Against this backdrop of a constantly changing situation, a founder has to balance cash, tech and well-being of their people, to survive in the near term.

Let’s look at the eight steps for survival and adaption outlined in Kotter’s book, and see how they apply for your startup trying to survive and evolve in today’s shifting, mutating market.

1. Set the scene

Create a sense of urgency – don’t wait until your iceberg starts to melt Fred discovered the iceberg where the colony lives is melting. He tells Alice, who is initially sceptical, but she sees how urgent the situation is. Alice tells the leading council of penguins, most of whom don’t believe her. But Fred shows the penguins the urgency of the situation.

For startups, it’s a combination of instinct, hunches and data. But the message from the iceberg is that difficult problems won’t go away, and you need to help others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately.

Pull together the guiding team A team of five penguins is put together to deal with the situation, they immediately start brainstorming ideas. This team has to focus on driving a balance between creativity and data driven decisions. Unexpectedly, their inspiration for a solution comes from a passing seagull, which happened to land on their iceberg.

For startups, the lesson is to ensure there are problem solving skills, not just creative thinking skills in the team, and to maintain a sense of balance around domain expertise and outward looking curiosity of your immediate environment for potential disruptive ideas. Never get complacent that you have all the questions – let alone the answers.

2. Decide what to do

Develop the crisis vision and strategy The inspiration from the seagull led to a solution, which would change the way the penguins lived. They would become a nomadic colony that moved to locations suitable for living, rather than being static. This would be a big change to the penguins, who had lived in one location for years, and were used to their current way of life.

The business learning here is to keep an open mind, and be prepared to pivot – in essence to start again. To find a sensible version of a better future, hold you vision – keep all the penguins together – but have a strategy that responds to the changing environment, and one that isn’t constrained by previous thinking.

Communicate for understanding and collaboration Though the team had now found a potential solution, they needed to get the buy-in of other penguins. There were penguins that were very sceptical and thought either the whole thing about the melting iceberg was nonsense, or it was too dangerous to move.

In a startup, avoid hierarchies and promote open communication at all times, change makes people nervous, and uncertain times combined with gaps in communication makes this worse. Ensure frequent and open communication with regular and personal attention.

3. Make it happen

Empower others to act The team found ways to include other penguins to become part of the solution, and because others felt part of the solution, the opposition decreased.

Opposition to change arises because of a lack of engagement and inclusion, and creates a feeling of not being valued. Remove as many these barriers as possible – a change of direction in a startup, as a result of the iceberg melting, needs everyone to be engaged, empowered and together.

Produce short-term wins When other penguins got involved they started achieving short-term goals, which were necessary on the way to the end result. This encouraged and motivated the penguins to keep working towards the solution.

Create some visible, unambiguous successes as soon as possible. Short-term wins create a positive atmosphere that everything will be ok, even if there are some tougher challenges ahead.

Don’t let up The colony finally moved to a new iceberg, but they didn’t stay there. They found a better one and moved again. They were not giving up but kept looking for better living situations for the colony.

The lesson for startups is to remain restless and ambitious, never resting on your laurels, adopting a culture of continuous learning, pressing harder and faster after the first successes. Be relentless with initiating change until the vision is a reality.

4. Make it stick

Create a new culture Actions were taken to cement the new culture in place, there was no going back to old ways of living.  This ensured that the changes would not be eroded by stubborn, hard-to-die traditions or a lack of focus on the future.

As a founder facing the COVID-19 crisis, constantly looking forward to new horizons and don’t get stuck in a way of being that was successful in the market of yesterday. Ask yourself whether you are living on a potentially melting iceberg and getting stuck in pack ice.

The reality is that you maybe fit for purpose today but recall Darwin: it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. As the Roman poet, Horace, so eloquently said: Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it

I am going to remain optimistic, and that’s because adversity is what breeds innovation, a mother of necessity. Facing difficulty is a time when people’s best is brought out in them, as shown by the examples of innovation earlier.

These are nervy, volatile times. Are you struggling to find the right balance between caution and optimism? No one knows what will happen next, but taking less risk and hunkering down is actually more dangerous than investing to preserve a number of future-focused options.

There are lessons for us all in the attitudes of penguins – in the face of a meting iceberg, everything-is-possible and optimism rules. A similar strong sense of the impossible is essential to driving startups this week, positive energy and exuberance is needed against the constant stream of maudlin and misery we could sit in.

In 1923, economist John Maynard Keynes observed that in tempestuous times we only tell ourselves that when the storm is past, the ocean is flat again. Let’s tip that out, rather than merely resisting COVID-19 and economic collapse, you must pivot sharply and prepare for the new future ahead, and do that now.

Confidence and certainty are lacking currently, we’re running a severe optimism deficit. We’re never the most upbeat of nations. Adversity introduces a man to himself, face to face. In times of adversity, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of. Hardships prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny. Now is your moment.