Leading Through Crisis – Shackleton Expedition & COVID

It has been six months since I changed my job and moved to Bangalore. Shifting in COVID times was itself a big planning task and then emotions of leaving city of dreams Mumbai ! We squeezed with family between two inter-state lock-downs and have been home confined since last one month ! It also has seen some torrid times for our country , where COVID has raged a war against humanity and we have been all fighting our own battles at different levels.

When I compare this to last year we were all making an effort to stay connected , help each other by making all sorts of home-made food and reinventing ourselves…compare this to what is now , we have all been brought to ground , fighting hard to hang-in there emotionally , physically and bodily ! COVID this time has touched our close ones in unfortunate ways and caused a level of trauma that cannot be described in words. As I say Time itself has not got enough Time to overcome losses around us !

Many of you would recognize one part of title and be intrigued to know more about Sir Ernest Shackleton and his mention in this post. Sir Ernest Shackleton was a polar explorer. SHACKLETON is a role model of leadership in crisis , even though his expedition judged by its initial objectives, was a colossal failure. His ship, the Endurance, never reached Antarctica. None of its 28 crew members set foot on the continent. The journey strained Shackleton’s finances to the breaking point, and at the end of it, in late 1916, its fame-seeking protagonist found his accomplishments eclipsed by the horrors of World War I.

Shackleton’s journey was amazing. The early 1900’s was the age of polar expeditions. It was common for men to die during the journey but Shackleton would not accept death. He used a systems approach to create a strong team that could handle the difficult situations they facedShackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances was a great testament of crisis leadership. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it became a mission of survival. Sir Ernest Shackleton is always remembered as a man for tight spot when it came to providing leadership in adverse settings and crisis repeating itself one after the other.

Ernest Shackleton’s failed quest to reach the South Pole is still a management tutorial in how to face repeated crises. The crew of his ship, the Endurance, was photographed in July 1915 while trapped by an ice floe. Credit…Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute

While today’s coronavirus crisis doesn’t involve shipwrecks or glaciers, leaders throughout the world are navigating through unprecedented challenges. This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans. This is required at all levels of community living ranging from living as a family , neighborhood , corporation , city , state or country.

My mum contracted the virus a month back and since then it had been tough times as family with news now being good around us. Six hourly counsel for weeks and taking course of action with my elder brother on ground to pull our mum out of this has been at my level the smallest example of trying to hold the fort in crisis and working between today / tonight mode. As much we think we are prepared to handle crisis , it always exposes fissures that force us to re-imagine our response. You can never be prepared for the worst.

During Endurance expedition, Shackleton’s management was crucial in saving the lives of the 28-strong party after the ship was crushed by ice. He was an inspiration who instilled a belief that the marooned men would survive and get home. It was a simple message that Shackleton frequently reinforced to ensure the men never lost sight of the goal – safety and survival.

I have made some under-pinning thoughts for us to react as leaders but there are simple lessons of leadership also that we can put in practice to create an environment of self-restrain and teach our generations on how to handle crisis like COVID now and in future.

Shed Privileges Exercise Equality

Shackleton instinctively understood the importance of teamwork, and threw a protective cloak around his men. All were treated equally and he took particular care with anyone struggling to cope. When winter clothing was distributed, Shackleton ensured the crew was supplied before the officers. Everyone shared supplies, sailors took scientific measurements and scientists would share cleaning duties with the crew and with Shackleton himself. In such times we have to operate from high moral grounds to ensure that we do not isolate larger society by exercising privilege’s at smaller levels.

Preach What You Can Do

Talking about theoretical aspects , sharing un-verified information and causing over-loads during crisis can be very difficult. If you do not believe in doing something yourself , do not pass same message to others. Shackleton never assigned any task to his crew , which he would not do himself. Home chores have to be done by everybody , it is not one person’s job.

Routines Are Important

Having a 40-hour work week is not considered routine. There is much more to life and , one needs to ensure that time and space are given due respect to keep brain active , fresh & alert . To maintain morale, Shackleton had the crew exercise on the ice, play soccer, and participate in indoor games. After dinner, the sleeping quarters in the hold — which they mockingly called “The Ritz” — were used to stage parties, games, and some other unusual competitions. Establishing Routines are important to stability.

It is a Marathon

If we continue to push our thinking limits that this is over tomorrow , we are going to set ourselves for false optimism and expectation. For us humanity here is in for a marathon , so try to carve out some personal time to recover every day because this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Remember my statement around today / tonight.

Shackleton believed in his mission and in his team. His optimism was contagious. He intentionally made decisions to inspire optimism in his crew. He was enthusiastic, clear in his vision. He encouraged singing, games, fun antics, and other merriment during the expedition. Similar to this as families and companies we are in this together and we should play our part in creating our own definition of an engaging environment that allows us to function sanely with maturity! The quote from Sir Ernest Shackleton on his return should inspire us to preserve what we have and put safety first !

On returning home, his wife Emily asked Shackleton why he had turned back with the Pole in sight, he simply said:

“I thought you would prefer a live donkey to a dead lion.”

8 responses to “Leading Through Crisis – Shackleton Expedition & COVID”

  1. Nicely and aptly correlated two otherwise distinct crisis times ! I pray for the equality factor to be exercised instinctively in india. Every life is important.

    1. Yes Kapali , we all should strive the goal you have reflected upon here , every ife is important .

  2. Very apt to the current situation and definitely a lot of learning. Getting priorities right and when it involves people, they are the highest priority!!

    1. Thanks Vidya for the read and yes you are 100% correct on people and priority.

  3. Interesting facts Abhishek👍. Choosing between Short term losses vs Long term benefits. Leadership is not necessarily being right or winning always but being decisive , loss is ok at times.

    1. That is true Srini , very correct.

  4. A very nice comparison drawn here Abhishek. Only someone who understands leadership like this could have done this. Enjoyed the read, hope you all and your mom’s doing well.


    1. Thanks Shweta , great to get your feedback and with everyone’s wishes mum is fine !

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About Me

Over 20 years of experience developing software to support multi-million dollar revenue scale and leading global engineering teams. Hands-on leadership in building and mentoring software engineering teams. I love History as a subject and also run regularly long distances to keep myself functional.


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