4 Lessons in Crisis Leadership from a Captain
1. Pursue engaging distractions.
The Boss kept the group engaged, for example, with a lively discussion about—remarkably—the prospect of an expedition to Alaska! For a group stranded in the middle of a frozen Antarctic sea, the idea of another polar undertaking could have seemed preposterous. But the prospect provided an engaging alternative to dwelling on their predicament or thinking about the potential dangers that lay ahead.
Planning an expedition to Alaska was clearly a method for entertaining the expedition during the long empty hours. In this sense, it was an engaging distraction. But it was more than that. It provided a future focus and a promise that there would be other adventures—with the obvious implication that they would triumph over their present situation. It represented just one way in which the culture of the expedition encouraged confidence and hope.
2. Find things to celebrate.
In addition to instilling a spirit of optimism, Shackleton had established a sense of shared identity from the very beginning. This sense of team unity, which began with cheerful social events before Endurance sank, was only to grow as their adventure continued.
During sled marches, the group advanced in relays to ensure that the party would remain together if cracks appeared in the ice. On Patience Camp, the tents were kept together. Still later, during the open boat journey to Elephant Island, the lifeboats stayed in constant contact.
3. Create a culture of "sharing your milk."
This sense of unity was remarkable. Crew members often performed acts of caring and self-sacrifice for each other, showing a concern that rarely occurred in accounts of other expeditions I have studied. In one of the most dramatic moments at Patience Camp, the food supply had dwindled to dangerously low levels. They had less than a week’s supply. Conditions were so dire that the waste meat generally used to feed the dogs was examined for any edible scraps, and several of the crew had tried eating frozen, raw penguin meat.
Under these desperate conditions, and after a wet sleepless night, an argument broke out among four crew members. Caught in the middle, Greenstreet, the First Officer, spilled his tiny ration of powdered milk. They were on the verge of starvation, and it was a tragic moment.
The loss was so monumental, he seemed almost at the point of weeping. Without speaking, one by one, each crew member reached over and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug. They finished in silence. Emulating the caring behavior that Shackleton had modeled, and in the face of death and starvation, the bonds of teamwork held.
4. Diffuse conflict immediately.
Another important method for creating mutual respect came from insisting on common courtesy, even under the extreme conditions when it might have seemed unnecessary. There were conflicts, of course, but the crew managed to maintain a sense of civility. Shackleton reminded the crew on more than one occasion that “a little thanks will go a long way.” And so will “please,” “excuse me,” and the other familiar phrases that lubricate social interaction.
When Things Get Bad, Who Do We Want to Be?
Living conditions at Patience Camp continued to deteriorate, and there were more dangers ahead. It would be almost four months before Shackleton was able to reach the whaling station at Stromness Bay on South Georgia Island. And it would take another 128 days and four separate attempts for him to reach the members of the expedition left behind. But he never gave up hope, and every member of the Endurance expedition survived.
So, yes, the familiar phrase that has been running through my mind, We are all at Patience Camp, reminds me of our current situation – living life during this pandemic. We don’t know when we will reach open water, and we don’t know what lies ahead. We may have to sail through the waves of the Scotia Sea, and climb the uncharted glaciers of South Georgia Island to reach Stromness.
But we can look for engaging distractions. We can find things to celebrate. We can recover from conflict, and say “excuse me” when tempers flare. And we can share our milk, even after a heated argument. We are all, in the end, on the same expedition.
We need to do this together. We need to stand together at Patience Camp. And we need to believe that we will one day reach the safety of Stromness, and make it back. Shackleton did it. We can too.