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COVID-19 Resilience Lessons From Sir Ernest Shackleton

COVID-19 Resilience Lessons From Sir Ernest Shackletontest
Written by:
Rebecca Stephens MBE
Rebecca Stephens MBE

A business leader’s duty of care stretches beyond honouring any remuneration agreement; it is also to ensure an employee’s mental and physical health – something of a challenge in today’s COVID-19 lockdown, with the economy on the floor and employees geographically dispersed and isolated in make-shift offices in corners of their homes. Lessons might be drawn from another leader who found himself in lockdown, over 100 years ago, on a ship stranded in the Southern Ocean for a period of nine months, followed by a further five months camped on the ice. His name, Sir Ernest Shackleton, honoured by one of his crew as ‘the greatest leader that ever came to Earth, bar none’, and in today’s parlance, a master of emotional intelligence.

Relentless Optimism
Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 was thwarted before even reaching the continent it had intended to cross. Shackleton’s ship Endurance was clenched in the jaws of the frozen ocean and he and his 27-strong crew stranded 1200 miles from civilisation with no means of communication and no hope of rescue. Unlike most polar expeditions of the day, every one of the 27 men survived. Not only that, but to read their diaries is to learn that the majority were, for the majority of the time, happy. So, how did Shackleton hold everyone together and sustain morale when the opposite seemed much the most likely?

First, for Shackleton, comradeship was all-important; ‘A Viking with a mother’s heart,’ is what his second-in-command Frank Wild called him. Building trust and talking frankly, openly, were keystones of his leadership. Teamwork was more than an ingredient for success, but a goal unto itself. And if there was one overriding characteristic that defined Shackleton, it was his optimism. Even with the Endurance truly wedged in the ice, Shackleton didn’t convey disappointment. Rather, he spoke to his men calmly, explained the dangers and possibilities, and projected optimism that the Endurance would be freed in the spring thaw. Business leaders today need to invoke this same optimism, strength and vision, to see their teams through these difficult times.

A Structured Approach
While some companies have plenty of work through this crisis, others have little, or none at all…just hoping to hang on. More than anything, Shackleton dreaded the effects of boredom on a crew with no responsibilities or routine. His answer: to maintain structure. Set meals and Saturday night sing-alongs. Ordinary duties maintained, as closely as it were possible on an immobile ship. And, importantly, ensuring each man had challenging and meaningful work, even if the work might not have been considered a priority in the normal run of events. The ship’s carpenter, for example, was asked to make furniture, scientists to study atmospheric, ice and water conditions. For businesses, meaningful work might be updating its website, developing new products, writing a proposal for that book…

The Emotionally Intelligent Leader
But perhaps the most important lesson from Shackleton in these troubled times is the deep understanding and empathy that he had for his men. He invested tremendous effort in developing personal relationships with each one of them, even with those with whom he had little in common. He loved his books and read not just for his own pleasure, but also to gem up on subjects that were of interest to others, so that he might always have a point of conversation. His was always an open door policy, listening to his men’s concerns and keeping them informed about the ship’s business. In this crisis, with physically distancing, compounded with very real challenges of childcare, isolation and concerns for the future, one could argue it is all the more important to be regularly in touch, to listen, and to give constant feedback. Many workers feel they don’t get enough encouragement in the best of times, now might be a time to put that right.

For Shackleton, any lingering hope of fulfilling his mission to cross the Antarctic continent vaporised with the sound of creaking timbers as the ice crushed the Endurance, and he and his men stood on the ice and watched it sink to the bottom of the ocean. ‘I cannot write about it,’ he said. Nonetheless, still, he kept his cool. As the men settled into their tents, he spoke to them from the heart, once again explaining their options and offering a plan of action. He left them in no doubt that they would get though the crisis if they stuck together and trusted him to the end. That trust was surely put to the test when 22 of the crew had to wait more than four months on a tiny dark strip of beach on Elephant Island while Shackleton and five of the crew undertook an outrageous journey across 800 nautical miles of Southern Ocean in a 23ft open boat, to seek help. Every morning one optimist would roll up his bed in their make-shift hut constructed from an upturned boat, and say, ‘Get your things ready, boys, the boss may come today.’

Shackleton’s extraordinary journey of high ambition turned into one of survival stretched over 18 months. We won’t be in lockdown that long, but it will take at least this period, and more, to clamber out of the human and financial devastation of this crisis. Leaders who show the truest of colours will, like Shackleton, be mindful of individual circumstances. They will lead with compassion, and a never-failing optimism that despite the appalling loss of life, and devastation to our economy, we will collectively pick ourselves up and do everything possible to extract something positive from the mess.