Pray for Shackleton


“…when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

–Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mt. Everest

This quote opens the HBS case study on Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated (and badly planned) Antarctic expedition, a case developed by Nancy Keohn during a resurgence of interest in the explorer at the beginning of the new millennium. Shackleton’s voyage is arguably the greatest story of crisis leadership that’s ever been documented, and we thought we were going through some “turbulent times” (a favorite corporate euphemism) at the turn of the 21st century. Those were the days.

Sir Hillary himself didn’t shy away from disaster management, but he knew what Shackleton’s men came to know, and what students of his expedition learn early in the story – when the world as you know it is falling apart, this is the man you want in charge.

The world as we know it may be falling apart, and it begs the What Would Shackleton Do question. Inspired by the frigid Boston temperatures, I revisited the story this week. Shackleton’s insights into leading during high-stakes uncertainty seem more relevant than ever. Among other things, he teaches us that emotional leadership – the ability to influence the feelings of others, to channel their anxiety productively and keep them focused on the possibility of success, however improbable — matters just as much as making good technical decisions in times of crisis.

We’re understandably fixated on getting it right as a nation right now, and I’m all for informed choice and timely action, Mark Fuller’s working definition of good strategy. But for many of our most important decisions, we won’t know for sure that we got the analytics or timing right until, like Shackleton, we start counting the crew at the end of the journey to make sure we didn’t lose anyone. In the meantime, we still have to lead. A central part of that challenge will be to tap into the emotions that will improve the probability of our collective success – optimism, resilience, empathy. And make sure we don’t eat each other along the way.

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