On Feb. 26, 2018, I wrote here about one of the most fundamental challenges in leadership. Given our challenging times, it seemed like a great topic to revisit as I return to this column, On Leadership.
The downstream impact of COVID-19, challenges to the global economic outlook, unsettled politics and political brinkmanship across borders can make leading a business of any size seem like an impossible job. Those challenges can take up much attention and focus for any organizational leader. But they often can be a distraction from the real issue. One of the best examples we have comes from Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica.
Famously, Shackleton’s ship experienced delays getting where it needed to go and was unexpectedly frozen into the winter ice cap. While the urgent and obvious issue was about trying to free the ship (something Shackleton understood would not happen until the thaw), the real issue was how to keep the crew alive and able through what would be a very unpleasant winter near the South Pole. The point was made very powerfully in a photo of crew members playing soccer on the ice, with the stranded ship in the background.
Many of the CEOs I have been working with feel equally stuck. The economy is where it is, and the impact of supply chain delays, labor shortages and global unrest isn’t going to vanish any time soon. Shackleton understood that the seasons would turn and roughly how long it would take. We have no such luxury.
One of the most observable traits of strong leaders is their focus on the outcomes that matter most. I’m not talking about single-mindedness or a stubborn unwillingness to face facts. Instead, like Shackleton, leaders today must focus on not only productivity and efficient systems but also the culture and mindset of the organization. The challenging conditions for business leaders today will not reward leaders who deal only with the urgent instead of addressing the critical, if less obvious, challenges. For most businesses, that means using efficient processes and winning the hearts and minds of those who do the work.
Another instructive example from Antarctic exploration is the competing expeditions of Roald Amundsen from Norway and Robert Scott from England, each vying to be the first to the South Pole.
Amundsen had more respect for the rigor required to make the crossing. He was methodical in his planning, steady in his execution and fastidious with his preparations. Scott was less so in all regards and did not share the full plan with his team. Amundsen’s team made the journey successfully. The Scott expedition perished 150 miles from the base camp.
Takeaways for leaders today from the experiences of those early expeditions are clear and compelling:
- Denying the environment in which you are leading will put you and your team at serious risk.
- Adapting to the new reality and remaining nimble as it changes will provide an advantage for survival of the team.
- Remember that the team is more important than the ship.
- Your business may have much more change in front of you than behind.
- Attachment to the good old days can get a business killed.
A leader’s job is to be vigilant about adapting and to provide the team with what they need to remain engaged and focused — even if it’s just a soccer game on the ice.