Business leadership during the crisis. What can we learn today from a hundred-year-old story?

2021 03 19 · 3 min read

Let us agree on the concepts: a manager and a leader are not the same. However, in times of a crisis, it is the managers who are leaders and their qualities that help states and businesses to adapt and withstand.

Ideally, a person holding a managerial position not only manages, but also takes the lead in showing the team’s values, giving attention to individual needs and an emotional atmosphere. Managers very often forget these tasks and choose only to manage, that is to govern. However, in the face of a crisis, it is the managers who are leaders who achieve the best results.

The second year of the pandemic requires stronger leadership

It is managers who are leaders around the world who have found ways to successfully seize the opportunities created by the pandemic. This is especially visible in the digital sector: businesses massively going on-line, growing e-commerce, increasingly popular sharing economy, and emerging multi-channel platforms to help businesses to respond to consumer needs are just a few examples of successful business leadership and adaptation in the first year of the pandemic. However, it is clear that as we enter the second year of the pandemic, more and smarter leadership will be needed – the protracted crisis threatens not only human health but also the economy.

The basis of leadership in a crisis includes 6 elements: open and direct communication, clear values, decision-making, the ability to assess the situation realistically, humanism, and innovation. All of these elements can be found by examining the story that happened more than a hundred years ago, which we can recall today as a lesson of leadership during a crisis.

Six Lessons from Sir Shackleton

Meet Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. In 1914, explorer and geographer Sir Shackleton pulled together a ship’s crew to explore the then distant continent of Antarctica. When assembling the crew, he published a newspaper advertisement with contents like this: men are needed for hard work, low pay, possible illnesses, long months of darkness, dangers, while safe return is questionable. Can you imagine a company writing such an advertisement today? However, it is this advertisement that serves as an example of open and direct communication because Sir Shackleton did not try to hide the fact that the journey would be difficult and dangerous and demand much physical and emotional effort, so those who responded to such an advertisement could assess their abilities and motivation in advance. It is likely that that has prevented people who were completely unsuitable and unprepared for the journey from becoming members of the crews. This decision probably determined the course of further events, as we will see below. The first lesson of leadership is to communicate clearly and exactly to the team what challenges await them.

Soon the crew was assembled, the ship Endurance sailed away for a long voyage but did not reach the destination: In the Weddell Sea off the coast of Antarctica, the ship became trapped in pack ice. Sir Shackleton soon realised that the ice was so thick that the ship would be trapped for ten months that is for the whole winter season. Of course, there were some members of the crew as who hoped the ice would go away; however, the leader of the expedition assessed the situation realistically: the ship will not move from the ice for the next several months. Therefore, the crew began their survival phase by gathering all the items, food supplies, etc., they spent days next to the ship, hoping to wait out or possibly be saved. The second lesson of leadership is the ability to assess the situation realistically.

Life did not stop in the camp set up on the ice: Shackleton understood very clearly that the most important thing was to support the team’s spirit, so he persistently encouraged his men to tell stories, sing, play hockey, and survive not only physically but also spiritually. The third lesson of leadership is humanism: even in the most difficult conditions, one must remember the emotional needs and the team spirit.

However, after a few months, when the ice began to melt and crumble, it wrecked the icebound ship – it became no longer possible to stay onboard or near the damaged ship. Sir Shackleton made a decision: he assembled the crew, boarded them in the surviving lifeboats, and, after five days of a windy and threatening voyage, reached Elephant Island. Although the crew felt the ground under their feet again, the island itself was harsh and uninhabited and could provide no food, so Shackleton realised that no one from the crew would survive long under such conditions. Therefore, he took one boat and five people and set off for South Georgia Island, almost 1,300 km away, to seek help as it was the closest habitable point of land. The fourth lesson of leadership is making bold decisions in response to the real situation.

For sixteen days, guided only by the sun that shone for only a few days between frequent storms, they travelled to the hopeful island. After reaching the island finally, the travellers still had to head to the other side of it to reach a whaling station. It was too difficult for the exhausted boat crew to walk through the slippery ice and deep snow that covered the island but Shackleton found a way to ease this challenge: he unscrewed bolts from the boat, screwed them to his shoes and, together with the two strongest crew members for two more days, hungry and frozen, made their way through the ice and snow to the whaling station. The fifth lesson of leadership is innovation in solving complex problems, innovative thinking to use what is at hand.

It took another three trials and three months to rescue the other crew members who were left on Elephant Island. However, all of them, more than twenty men, survived. Shackleton never allowed himself and others to give up, from the beginning of the difficulties he thought not of himself but of his men, was consciously an optimist and always respected others. By the example of his own behaviour, he passed on to the crew the values that were adhered to even when Shackleton himself was not around. That is the power of a true leader. The sixth lesson of leadership is the clear values that the leader demonstrates by personal example.

Are you ready to place yourself in Shackleton’s shoes?

Being a leader in today’s world full of uncertainty is the most important quality for every manager. At the same time, this does not mean that other traditional qualities of a manager become less important: in the face of a crisis, a manager can and must afford himself to make mistakes, find himself to have no answers and boldly go looking for them with his people, not stop learning and be open to ideas. The most important thing is to stay curious.

As we are entering another year of the pandemic, we need to be realistic – it is possible that many companies’ “ships” will remain trapped for many months to come, so the manager who is a leader has to face the difficult task of supporting the team’s spirit and find other ways to move forward. The most important thing for everyone is to plan and be consistent in his actions. And after this story, I want to ask you: What would you do today if you had to walk in Shackleton’s shoes?