Friday Risk Reading: Shackleton

I was catching up on holiday reading and came across this excellent New York Times piece on Ernest Shackleton written by Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn.

Shackleton’s ambitious journey to reach the South Pole ended in failure but became a triumph of leadership, courage and determination as he brought his entire crew safely home after a nearly two-year ordeal in the most difficult conditions on the planet.  (It’s an astonishing story, and for a complete account of the saga, Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, is superb.)

Shackleton is a rich source for lessons in leadership, ambition, planning, risk-taking and human behavior, and Koehn draws many parallels to recent crises, from the BP oil spill to the financial crisis.   (I had the pleasure of attending Koehn’s course when she taught the case on Shackleton’s voyage.)   Few leaders today are as visible and accessible as Shackleton, whose daily actions and words shaped the lives of his crew.  Koehn writes:

After the Endurance sank, leaving the men stranded on the ice with three small lifeboats, several tents and supplies, Shackleton realized that he himself had to embody the new survival mission — not only in what he said and did, but also in his physical bearing and the energy he exuded.

He knew that each day, his presence had huge impact on the men’s mind-sets. He managed his own emotional intelligence — to use a modern term — to keep his own courage and confidence high; when these flagged, he never let his men know.

Today, an embattled chief executive is more likely to be on a sailboat (BP’s Tony Hayward) than on the front lines.    Surrounded off by protective advisors and walled inside boardrooms, crisis-wracked CEOs today rarely see the people they lead – even though their actions and attitudes are vital in responding to the crisis and ensuring the company’s success.