Don’t Cut the Coffee

November 24, 2009

Antarctic explorers have discovered two crates of Scotch trapped in the ice, which Sir Ernest Shackleton abandoned during his disastrous attempt to cross the frozen continent in 1909. The bottles are appropriate artifacts of his exceptional leadership instincts.

The journey never should have been attempted, for all sorts of reasons, but Shackleton emerged as perhaps the greatest crisis leader the world has ever seen in action. I’ve written about Shackleton’s emotional leadership before, which I believe explains his success.  As his men faced unspeakable odds, Shackleton stalked their despair relentlessly, snuffing it out in skillful and creative ways.  He turned their fear into faith, rage into love.

Food and drink played a starring role in Shackleton’s management strategy.  Ship cook was a high-status position in Shackletonia, and meal rituals were followed religiously, even as doubt began to threaten the team’s discipline. Rations were rarely cut, even when it wasn’t clear where the next meal would be found.  And just when the team’s endurance was about to give out, just when exhaustion was about to prevail, a round of snacks and hot milk would magically appear.

Food was fuel, of course, but its emotional nourishment was often just as valuable.  Shared meals affirmed the team’s interdependence and replaced unproductive animal spirits with reminders of everyone’s dignity and humanity.  Shackleton’s men were absorbing unimaginable stress, and feeding them was a way to both honor and reduce it.  Nothing says, “I feel your pain” like a glass of warm milk.

Shackleton has lots to teach us about leading in crises, and I’d put sharing a good meal at the top of the list.  I fear this lesson is being lost as cost pressures rise in today’s economic uncertainty.  That daily investment in coffee and donuts may seem like a painless thing to cut, but I think most organizations grossly underestimate the real value of feeding their people.  Take it from Ernest.  Wine and dine the team.  They may even deserve a toast of well-chilled, 100-year-old Scotch.


Showing Up

November 5, 2009

abraham-lincoln-antietam-battlefield

One of the most powerful acts of leadership is often the easiest to overlook:  the decision to remain standing.  As my obsession with Lincoln continues, I find that I’m most moved by his ability to simply endure.  Lincoln revealed a pattern of political brilliance, but he often chose the wrong spaces on the moral and military chessboard.  Those missteps arguably delayed a Union victory and weakened the movement to end slavery.

But the man showed up.  He showed up even when he was crippled by despair, even on days when his army was routed, his soldiers were sacrificed by mediocre generals, his country was burning, his children were dying, his wife was descending into madness, his political future was doomed, his life was threatened (Booth was not the first one to take a shot at him), and his God had seemingly forsaken him.

Lincoln made it into the office. Sometimes it was on the emotional equivalent of his hands and knees, but he managed to get back up, and that choice saved the fact and idea of America.  For all the talk of his strategic mind and silver tongue, Lincoln’s daily decision to stand may have been the one that made the difference.

These aren’t easy times.  The burden of leadership is weighing heavily on many people right now.  There are countless reasons to abandon the task, to retreat to a fetal position and fend for yourself.  Lincoln gives us a model for resisting that call. He challenges us to simply show up. On many days that will be enough.


Hidden Risks of Crisis Leadership

September 14, 2009

The NYT’s Adam Bryant delivered an interesting interview with Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.  Blankfein offers some suggestions for leading in a crisis, which can be summarized as keep talking, to everyone, both to better inform your choices and to communicate changing conditions and strategies.  Blankfein walked the halls constantly during the height of the financial crisis and left a daily voicemail for the entire organization.

Blankfein also speaks to the need to “be good” to your people without lowering standards, a theme I explored in an earlier post.  In his words:

…being good to them doesn’t mean you pay them more or you’re more liberal, or you let them get away with things. Most people, what they want is to be better.

Getting this right is a central part of good leadership, but it’s harder to do in a crisis.  There is often intense pressure to care too little about your people — to become distracted by anxiety and external events — or to care too much and lower your expectations of their performance.  The first reaction is more common, but the second is more insidious.

Anxiety is a deeply selfish emotion. We don’t think of it that way because it’s often threats to other people that trigger the sensation, but anxiety’s unique rush of hormones and chemicals is biologically designed to promote our own survival.  The response is self-distracting, by design.  It’s almost impossible to focus on the experience of other people in these moments, to perform the very act that makes leadership possible, and so we end up hardening ourselves to the people who need us most.  Anxiety is an indulgence that destroys our capacity to lead.

In contrast, a crisis tempts some of us to become overly sympathetic and lower our standards.  When people you care about are going through a tough time, it can feel reasonable to compromise and let them off the hook a bit.  But there are two significant costs to that choice.  First, it denies your team the opportunity to learn.  People, like muscles, need to push themselves beyond their comfort zone to grow.  They need to bump up against their perceived limits in order to break through them, and protecting them from reality disrupts that growth process.  Second, lowering standards signals your hidden belief that maybe they’re not up for it after all.  It reveals a lack of confidence in your people when the stakes really matter.  They will internalize the message.  Their performance will rise only to the level of your diminished expectations, and everyone will conclude that you were right.  It is hard for organizations to recover from those dynamics.

A provocative way to think about it is that a crisis tempts us all to become anxious mothers or protective fathers.  Leadership requires that we reject both of these unproductive stereotypes.