This is one of many biweekly columns I've ghostwritten for a B2B client specializing in trend forecasting.
So You’re Stuck in Antarctica
Crisis Leadership Lessons From a Master
Senior executives just can’t catch a break, it seems. First a pandemic, then massive supply chain problems, and now serious staffing and leadership issues abound. And it isn’t relegated to one industry or geographical location: it’s everywhere, meaning that we know not to expect quick and simple solutions. This week, we provide ideas for actions you can take to begin mitigating some of your most difficult scenarios.
And because inspiration is critical during times of great stress, we’ll also share five mindsets and behaviors that leaders would do well to emulate now, as famously modeled by Ernest Shackleton. (If you aren’t familiar with Shackleton, here’s what you need to know: he was an explorer who led a team of 27 men on his ill-fated Antarctic Expedition in 1914. The goal was to be first to cross Antarctica. The reality was that their ship, the Endurance, struck ice. It then sank, leaving the crew, its gear, and its sled dogs trapped on the ice for two years. It was, without question, a wildly dire situation. Yet every single man returned alive and relatively unharmed.)
Layers of Ice
Global leadership consulting firm DDI recently cited a survey of executives from around the world, identifying their top challenges.1 They are, in order: concerns about the quality of frontline and mid-level leadership, dwindling C-suite leadership quality, a need for more development and support for senior executives, and senior executives not leveraging HR strategically.
We’re hearing about these issues firsthand, too. One of our colleagues is a 20-year-plus veteran of the transportation and supply chain industry who, along with the rest of his company’s executive team, hasn’t had a day off (aside from weekends) in nearly two years now.
“We can’t seem to find qualified people for any position,” he says.
Adding to that, he explains, are the various people who’ve been hired and then promptly displayed a pronounced lack of basic knowledge, to say nothing of experience (or, Heaven forfend, excellence) in their field.
Time to Triage
Clearly, there are various issues tangling with one another in what is already a difficult scenario. There are no big fixes to be had in this moment: it is all about amelioration.
So, what can CEOs do right now to ameliorate the immediate situation and batten down the hatches as much as possible?
- Work with HR to make sure new people are being properly vetted. Review the vetting process with them as well as with the executive team. Maybe some SOPs have fallen by the wayside because of everything else that’s occurred during the last not-quite-two-years. Identify the correct process and ensure that everyone involved knows what it is.
- Review HR’s existing job descriptions for accuracy. Add any particular duties or methodologies that will make the current scenario even a little bit better. Offer to provide HR with any/all details about the roles that they may need or want, in order to better portray and sell the position.
- Determine what your top performers have in common. What can they learn from each other? What crucial knowledge sharing can be done between departments?
- Get comfortable with the idea that you’ll need to send some people for training. And then do it.
- Have each department determine best practices and compile the information, making it readily available to everyone.
- Assign mentors as needed.
Some of those are much easier said than done, but if ever there were a time to pull out all the stops, it’s now.
Endurance is Just the Beginning
In that spirit, we’d like to share with you those leadership concepts displayed by Ernest Shackleton during the time he and his men were stuck in Antarctica. In his diary, he wrote, “How do I manage the energy of my team as the stakes increase, the situation worsens, and morale plummets?”
(Possibly that question resonates with you.)
Varga Communications, in a post called “Shackleton: Crisis Leadership Lessons for Today,” categorizes his mindset and behavior in the following ways.
- CONFIDENCE: Shackleton showed up every day focused on his mission to get his men home safely. He carried himself with confidence and exuded strength.
- EMPATHY: He is empathetic throughout and demonstrates his care for his men. He takes time to have one-on-one conversations with individuals that touch on what they care about (families, food, books, etc.). When he would see one man struggling, he would order up hot milk for everyone as to not single out the individual who was in pain.
- ROUTINE: He knew that routine was important for stability, so he gave every man a job and created a daily roster to be followed. He imbued a sense of purpose every day.
- TOGETHERNESS: Shackleton was firm that no one would retreat to their cabin or tent after meals. They would spend time together playing games, doing theatrical productions and reading aloud. The camaraderie was key.
- SELF-BELIEF: Shackleton wrote: “My most important resource is my men’s self-belief and the confidence that we will get home safely.” When survivors were interviewed 20 years later and were asked how they survived they said, “Boss (as they called Shackleton) made us each believe we could do it. His faith in us made it possible.”2
There are times that require subtlety and understatement, and times that require sharper and clearer statements and actions. This moment we’re in is one of the latter. If you’re accustomed to operating in a laissez-faire style, you may find it challenging to switch gears. But it’s crucial that you do. Despite how much we all long for precedented times, we haven’t quite made it there yet.
ITIS (If Time Is Short): Precedented times are still a ways off. Right now, leaders need to take a firm-yet-kind “brass tacks” approach to ameliorate the personnel issues that all sectors are experiencing.