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.

Pray for Shackleton

January 28, 2009


“…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.