Nancy Koehn, Part 1: Harvard Business School Professor’s Personal Crucibles Fueled Her Best-Seller on Leaders “Forged in Crisis” – #25

Warwick Fairfax

June 30, 2020

Nancy Koehn was on track for an administrative leadership role at Harvard Business School, where she taught the history of leadership to the world’s best and brightest. But a series of personal crucibles — the death of her father, a divorce that came without warning and decimated her finances, a cancer diagnosis — caused the floorboards of her personal and professional lives to crumble beneath her. Her career aspirations drydocked, her sleep interrupted nightly at 1 or 2 a.m., she sought solace in the love of her intellectual life: history. When she picked up a book on Abraham Lincoln to help pass the agitated hours, she discovered in the trials of the 16th president that there was not only a way through her setbacks but a way beyond them. In this interview with BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE host and Crucible Leadership founder Warwick Fairfax, Koehn explains how her search for lighthouses of hope in the lives of great leaders who were dented by crucible experiences helped her find healing through FORGED IN CRISIS, her best-selling book about their trials and triumphs. Host and guest take a deep-dive look at the incredible story and important leadership lessons of British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton — a conversation they conclude in next week’s episode.

Highlights

 

  • Her personal crucibles hit her fast … and often out of nowhere (4:40)
  • What led her to write FORGED IN CRISIS (8:08)
  • How her crucible experience fueled her writing of the book (11:17)
  • Why she chose the five leaders she writes about in the book (16:04)
  • Who was Ernest Shackleton? (18:33)
  • How observing poor leaders can teach you to be a good leader (22:37)
  • The surprising way Shackleton recruited his crew (26:39)
  • The beginning of Shackleton’s expedition (30:16)
  • How Shackleton’s impatience led to recklessness (34:15)
  • The importance of leaders facing forward after a setback or failure (34:45)
  • What’s you’ll hear in the next episode about what Shackleton did right (40:50)

Transcript

Gary S:
Welcome everybody to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Gary Schneeberger, the cohost of the show and the communications director for Crucible Leadership. And you have happened upon a podcast, hopefully subscribed to a podcast that deals in crucible experiences. Those are those moments in life that really can change the trajectory of your life. They can be painful, they often are quite painful, they can be failures, they can be setbacks, but what they have in common is they are things that can kind of knock us off balance a little bit, and that we have to recover from. And focusing on crucible experiences here at Beyond the Crucible is the title of the podcast, is to help you the listener get beyond the crucible.

Gary S:
Many times we do that by interviewing guests who’ve had powerful crucible experiences themselves and have bounced back from those experiences to live a life of significance. And today, we have a slightly different, a slightly more in-depth guest that we will tell you about in just a minute. But first, I want to welcome the architect of Crucible Leadership and the host of the show Warwick Fairfax. Warwick, I know that you are personally excited about our guest today.

Warwick F:
Absolutely, Gary, very excited to have Nancy here, and it should be a fantastic discussion.

Gary S:
The Nancy to whom Warwick referred is Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School, where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn’s research focuses on crisis leadership and how leaders and their teams rise to the challenges of high stakes situations. Her recent book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times spotlights how five of history’s greatest leaders successfully navigated crises, and what we can each learn from their experiences.

Warwick F:
Well, thank you. Nancy, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I love what you do in focusing on leadership and in particular, how organizational leaders today can learn from some of the great leaders in history. And you have this remarkable book, Forged in Crisis, in which you have five very different leaders with five different stories but some commonalities in how they approached leadership from within and then without. I love that you teach this and you’re teaching it to MBA students at Harvard Business School. This obviously we discussed, I went there in the ’80s and have very fond memories of the class discussion.

Warwick F:
I also have an abiding interest in history. My dad and I, who grew up in a large family media business, one of the ways we communicated was through history. So I found this book fascinating. So Nancy, before we get into the book, tell me a little bit about yourself and what led you to write this book, because I know you have some personal history that led to this.

Nancy K:
I’m from a middle class family in the Middle West of America. And I went to Stanford as an undergraduate and then went to Harvard and just never left, got a PhD and a masters, a couple of masters, and then ended up at the Harvard Business School in my very late 20s. And as we now knowing how way leads on to way, I found myself recently tenured, this is now about, let’s see, 16 years ago. I’ve just recently tenured, very difficult journey, very important bridge for academics to cross over into lifelong job security and great academic possibility in terms of what you do.

Nancy K:
And then, two things, first thing is, I was writing a case, a Harvard Business School case we teach in these units of analysis, a strange product called the Harvard Business School case, which has a real-life piece of action, not usually a history case, but I’m a historian, so I write history cases that we then teach to MBAs and executives as a way of drawing out lessons or insights or watch outs or things that they can take unto themselves, absorb in order to make better decisions. Now, I was writing a case about Ernest Shackleton, and I was so caught up in the story and how this person just raised the level of his game so extraordinarily and so consistently over these two years that these men, he and his team, were stranded on the ice in the second decade of the 20th century.

Nancy K:
And then in the middle of that, and here gets to the root of your question, Gary, my life started falling apart very quickly and in very large, as Sylvia Plath would say, hunky blocks. In mid-2002, my father, who was 72 and spry and energetic, dropped dead. My mother, who had always been someone prone to depression, just kind of collapsed inward like a black hole in terms of her own sense of the world and her sense of her place in it. And then not many months, less than a couple of seasons after my father died and my mother’s life was turned inside out and I and my sister with it trying to care for her, and my brother, and my husband, who I had been married to for just about 15 years, one day said, “I don’t love you anymore. I’m leaving. I have a lawyer and we’re going to get all your Harvard retirement and all the money that you made,” because I was the only one who had worked full time during our marriage.

Nancy K:
And those floorboards caving in under me were even harder than my father’s because I loved him so much and I was so surprised. I lost a lot of weight. I kept on teaching at the Harvard Business School and my students were talking about making bets on how much weight I had lost week by week, and they were calling me the disappearing professor Koehn. And then not long after that, same, again, just a couple of seasons, I was diagnosed with pre-cancerous conditions. And not long after that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, even though I had no risk factors.

Nancy K:
So the middle of this, there’s this torturous divorce going on because I don’t have any money other than my Harvard retirement, and trying to hold onto it in a no-fault divorce state, and then I got cancer again. And as all that happened. most of it happened in the span of three years, all of it happened in the span of about five. In the end, in the no-fault divorce, I lost most of my money, and then I had to figure out what to do. And my career at the Harvard Business School, which had this administrative upward trajectory, I was interested in administration, I wanted to be a contributor and a leader at the school, that immediately ended because I was sick. And cancer, “Oh, that’s serious.”

Nancy K:
My whole life was completely transformed and I went through just astounding self-questioning and grief and self-flagellation and the constant asking why, which is not the right question, but I didn’t know that at the time. And in the midst of all this, now to answer the question, this is all important to know. In the midst of the early parts of the crisis, right after my ex-husband had walked out, I couldn’t sleep. Everyone listening to this podcast who’s endured the crucible moment knows what I’m talking about. And so I would go to sleep and wake up at 1:00 AM or 2:00 AM. Well, there’s not much on television, you can’t really vacuum at 2:00 AM.

Nancy K:
And one night in the midst of the existential wanderings I was doing metaphorically, I picked up a book of Lincoln’s writings, Modern Library Edition of Lincoln’s writings. I never read much Lincoln, I was trained as a European historian. And I started reading Warwick at the very back of the book. So this would be the second inaugural, and that’s one speech after that and some memos and some letters, and reading backwards into time. And the more I read, the more I realized… This took about three days, I’m reading a couple hours each night. I remember sitting in bed, my Spaniels were on the bed, and I said, “You think you have problems, Ms. Nancy, Mr. Lincoln had it a lot worse.” And that was the beginning.

Nancy K:
So my quest, which I couldn’t see at the time, it was much more than historical, it was personal, was to find lighthouses, examples of individuals that had just so crushing calamity, crucibles, and then try and understand how they not only navigated through these extraordinary storms. They’re extraordinary, they’re inside and then they’re out, but there’s some… but the most powerful ones, the ones that involve the most suffering and the most change are inside. And I wanted to understand how these people, not only navigated the storms, but then in the process got better. And so that is where Forged In Crisis came from.

Warwick F:
Wow. So as you’re doing this, obviously you’re a historian, but it was part of like, “I’m going through this massive crisis.” Any one of these would derail many people. Most of it was unfair, whether it’s health, husband, father. Were you curious of, “How did these great leaders get through it because A, I would like from an academic point of view to know, but B, maybe that could help me too.” Was there a dual purpose behind the whole analysis and book?

Nancy K:
Completely. Completely. And I don’t think I really recognized the personal so obviously. I had been at Harvard Business School then for, what? I don’t know, 12, 13 years. I’m a very serious historian, I do my homework. I cut my teeth doing serious archival work on my previous two, three books, so I knew how to do the detective work. And I was just fascinated historically that people hadn’t been interested in these questions. No one asked like, “What will Shackleton’s interior life look like on the ice when the ship goes down?” Well, no one had asked, “How did Lincoln really manage this internally when his personal life was falling apart and he’s at the center of the civil war storm.”

Nancy K:
And then I started looking for other people like this and the same questions and this great personal again, largely being at the time, personal fuel, helping me move forward. So I was extra conscientious as a historian and as someone who was becoming so interested in leadership about doing my homework, because I was feeding off of what I was learning.

Warwick F:
Wow. So you had a powerful motivation and this is again, probably blindingly obvious, but as you were researching it and thinking about these great leaders, it probably took your mind off what you were going through and what for most normal people would be a combination of anger, bitterness, or to use a Lincoln word a little melancholy, perhaps that would be normal for most people. Did it take your mind off it as you were researching and-

Nancy K:
Yes and no, it’s like a toggle switch. You go, “Oh yeah. Like I could use that” or, “Oh yeah, that happened to me too, Mr. Lin… But here was something that happened to me early on. And I do think it was grace that happened. So this was early on in the beginning of this terrible years. You can’t say annus horribilis because I had so many years that were so awful so I can’t use the Queen’s expression for the Royal family. Anyway, I had this moment of grace and it was really early on, my ex-husband just walked out. And I remember him standing there by my car and I thought of Oprah Winfrey, who I had… Really didn’t know very much about. And I remember thinking to myself and I shook my hand at the sky a little bit like Scarlett O’Hara halfway through Gone with the Wind, Vivian Lee.

Nancy K:
And I said, “With God as my witness. I’m not going to get angry. I’m not going to be a victim. I’m going to make something good out of this. Even if I have no idea what.” And I returned to that over and over it was like a personal covenant. I didn’t have any idea I was going to try and get better. I didn’t have an idea what was going to happen in my life. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the next day, much less the next month. But I just knew that. And I kept coming back to that over and over and over again. And honestly it saved me. That was really… It was grace. I don’t think it was Nancy. It was really powerful.

Warwick F:
No, that is so big. And I want to get to these five leaders that you mention. When I think of some great leaders, obviously Lincoln is one, Churchill was another, they knew how to deal with bitterness. With Churchill, I mean, he had some challenges with Baldwin and obviously Neville Chamberlain. He disagreed with what he did, I remember there was one instance when I guess Clement Attlee as you know, won the 45 election and Churchill is thinking, “Hey, I saved Britain. This is the thanks I get, thank you so much.”

Warwick F:
And so then one of his buddies started laying into Clement Attlee and Churchill basically said, “Don’t you dare do that. The people voted for him.” So he disagreed with his policies, but he wasn’t bitter. And so I think of a Lincoln or a Churchill, they have many attributes, but the ability to not be bitter and to tackle the issues of the day, that seems to be a number of hallmarks of great leaders.

Nancy K:
I could not agree more. Lincoln says at one point in the war and at one of the nadirs of the Union Army’s fortunes, he says, “What I traffic in is too vast for malice.” And over and over you … We’re not Martin Luther King. There’s so many great leaders who understand this. You just can’t, you got to close that bitterness vitriolic eye for an eye door most of the time, because it won’t take you and the people that you influence because Churchill still exerted enormous influence. Even 45, it won’t take them… 95% of the time. It takes them nowhere good. Maybe 99% of the time, the emotional awareness and discipline Warwick to do that I think is one of the pillars of people who make themselves into great leaders.

Warwick F:
Absolutely. So one final comment before talking about the five, and then we’re going to focus on Shackleton. What I love about what you do, because I’m not a historian, I love history, but definitely not a historian. But when I read history, whether it’s Lincoln, Churchill… even my dad loved English history. So I was brought up on Wellington and Nelson as even though I’m Australian as Anglophiles, I guess are. And so when I read about them having gone to Harvard Business School and in my own little way, write and think about leadership, I read about people in history and think what are the key leadership attributes? What are the lessons today? Which I feel like that’s the lens you’re looking at. Because you teach at the Harvard Business School. And historians, they’re wonderful at what they do, but they don’t always look at it through a leadership lens because that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to write a history and that’s fine, but you look at it through a different lens, which I think is amazing.

Warwick F:
So let’s talk about these five because they’re very different. I mean, Shackleton, Lincoln, Douglas, Bonhoeffer I’d heard of them, I must confess Rachel Carson in your book, I hadn’t, but her story is equally amazing.

Nancy K:
It’s unbelievable.

Warwick F:
So yeah, it’s a race against time to write Silent Spring as she was going through cancer. There are so many leaders, but why these five? Because it’s an interesting selection.

Gary S:
And I’m going to jump in for just a second to say these five leaders are profiled in Forged in Crisis. So here’s the book that that we’re talking about. Just want to make sure …

Nancy K:
Paperback and hardback. Audio and ebook.

Gary S:
So the five leaders that Warwick is speaking of are masterfully profiled in this book. Sorry. Yes.

Nancy K:
Thank you, Gary. I love you. So what’s interesting is that Churchill by the way, was on the cutting room floor. And there were a number of people that didn’t make the book that were close… because I probably had 12 that ended up as five. The book was… I originally going to write about seven and then it was, that was like was year 10. And I thought, God, I’m never going to finish. So it got a little bit, I’m a slow writer, I’m just a slow writer. I’m a careful writer. And I think I’m a better writer for being a careful writer in terms of reader, comprehension and these… but in any event, I think they chose me. Warwick I think they chose me.

Nancy K:
There was something early on about reading just a little bit, for example, of Carson’s story who about whom I knew almost nothing. Rachel Carson, the woman who more than any other single individual, just for listeners that don’t know her story really founded the modern environmental movement with it, just an extraordinary book, a path breaking book, a revolution making book, she published in 1962 called Silent Spring while she was battling metastasizing breast cancer. And so it was a race against time. But I didn’t know much about her. I remember my mother reading the book when I was a little girl and loving it, but I just read a little bit, I thought talk about unexpected calamity. Talk about the world caving in around you, talk about someone who’s going to access her courage and resilience and mission purposeful like worthy mission muscles. And I just … something I knew, I just knew.

Nancy K:
And so these people chose me and it wasn’t… the hard part was making it only five, but I needed to publish the book before I died. So I could have been at this for 20 years as it was, it was 15. So that’s really what happened. I got to know each of them incredibly well. And just one last thing, because I care so much about these people. I know them. Mr. Lincoln will always be Mr. Lincoln, not Abe, not Abraham. Rachel will always be Rachel, Dietrich is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think about them all the time. Because I spent a couple of years with each of them. There was a moment… whenever I’m at the edge of the cliff or however big the fall is I think about them and I take sustenance or I take a lesson from myself from one of these people. So they have made a major impact on my life.

Warwick F:
That’s amazing. I want to focus a bit on Ernest Shackleton because I’d heard of him and the whole polar exploration race. I know you talk about this, but for modern listeners, they may not be aware in the early 1900’s’ the whole polar race was a bit like, I guess the space race in the ’60s. And I guess it was an era of King and country and glory and Britain, Norway, and I guess US and some other folks, it was pre World War I, a very different era. So talk a bit about Ernest Shackleton and who he was and what made him tick. I know that the real story begins in 1914, but there’s a backdrop to who he was and Scott and that whole deal.

Nancy K:
So he was Irish born. Born in 1874 and his father wanted him to be a doctor. But from a young age, he loved the sea, even though he was born in County Kildare, North of Dublin. And he spent some time as a ship’s boy and then as an officer on the Merchant Marine, and then he gets a chance right after the turn of the century, this was the 1800’s into the 1900’s to join, what, as you were saying Warwick, was one of the ships from Britain racing, South against ships, from other countries and teams from other countries trying in what is called the heroic age of Antarctic exploration or polar exploration to be the first team to discover the South Pole for their country. That’s why it’s a lot like the space race, who we’ll get to the moon first, who will get the ship up for the man’s spacecraft first.

Nancy K:
And he does this, he tries this twice two different efforts in the first 10 years of the 20th century, learns a lot from a bad captain in the first expedition, a lot from a failed expedition that he captains between 1907 and 1909, and then comes home short of the pole, doesn’t get to the pole in either expedition and then comes home and the pole was actually discovered in 1911 by a Norwegian named Roald Amundsen in what today is still an unequaled feat of really a polar exploration on either end of the earth. Astounding story of really courageous leadership and very smart decision making and great bravery and team cohesion. And after the pole’s discovered Shackleton motivated, this is important, motivated by fame real narcissistic drive to do this for God, King and country and be the man, the man, who does it, gets a new idea.

Nancy K:
He’s like, “Well, the pole’s gone darn it. Didn’t get that. I need to do another first.” And he gets this idea beginning in, I think that’s really as early as late 1912, that he’ll be the first to lead an expedition that will sled across the entire Antarctic continent from one end from the South American end to the Australian end and cross literally the magnetic pole in the process, collect scientific samples, but be the first and they’ll do it for Britain. And that is the beginnings of this extraordinary story, a story of failed mission on the one hand, but the story of a different kind of even more important success that begins in 1914.

Warwick F:
I’m curious about his motivation. I mean, just reading your book. I mean, he starts out what, like at age 12 or something and by 16, I guess it is. And then by his early 20s he’s has he’s captain’s master or whatever it’s called. He’s really an adventurer, but the thing with Robert Falcon Scott, who is very prominent and famous and the Royal Geographical Society, some obviously it failed, but for some reason, I don’t know why Scott decides to blame everything on Shackleton, which would seem like unfair, grossly unfair. But that seemed to be, if it was that a bit of a turning point or like a motivation, it’s like this ax to grind or I’m going to prove them wrong, or what part did that lay in his whole motivation? Do you think the Scott episode?

Nancy K:
It’s a great question. So just for our listeners, Robert Falcon Scott this well known naval commander was the captain of the first expedition, the head of the first expedition Shackleton was on in the first five years of the 20th century. It fails miserably. The men don’t get along Shackleton and Scott particularly, like oil and water and the men almost die on the way home. They don’t get very far, as far as I get, they almost die trudging back to base camp. And when they get back to England, Scott publishes a memoir, a book about the expedition and a scathing, just scathing indictment of Shackleton. So Shackleton’s just beyond angry. Doesn’t respond publicly, but I think a great deal of what motivated him to try and do it again on his own terms was partly anger about what Scott had said, but even more important… This is important, what he had learned about bad leadership from Scott…

Nancy K:
So really an interesting lesson that several of the people in my book, at least as my editor said, “The fantastic five” learn is you can educate yourself about how to lead well by actually learning what doesn’t work, by people who are actually really lousy at leading. And there are plenty of those people and they’re textbooks too so to speak. And so Shackleton, I think part of his leadership is actually formed out of his reaction to all the things he sees Scott doing wrong. And that’s a very important influence on all the expeditions he will have after that, after that one with Scott.

Warwick F:
That is fascinating. It’s such a great point for listeners to understand is observing poor leadership can teach you a lot and it can help you understand, okay, when it’s my turn, I’m going to do it differently. And obviously Scott found his demise and was it, when was it like 1911, 12, somewhere in there when I don’t know that was poor planning, poor leadership, he got to the South Pole finding that Roald Amundsen had beat him anyway. Then he dies on the way back. But I don’t know. Do you have a view on that with just it’s another example of poor planning and the ultimate failure?

Nancy K:
Well, it was, he lost his life and all his crew mate, all his, all the teammates to the polar team that he goes out to the team for the pole that had gone with him. I do. And in fact, it was that reading so carefully about that expedition. It was a race in 1911 for your listeners, between Scott’s team, from Britain and Amundsen’s team from Norway, both men were actually starting from points, not that distant on the Australian side of the continent racing South and Amundsen’s team is just over and over by every metric such as success. And Scott’s expedition is a terrible failure ending in the most important loss of all, which is the lives of all the men that went to the pole with him. My work is incredibly influenced by a much greater scholar of polar exploration. A guy named Roland Huntford at the University of Cambridge, the world’s foremost expert on the subject.

Nancy K:
And there’s just no question in my mind. I think in his mind, in many scholars’ minds, that it was insecurity. It was poor planning. It was the inability that comes out of insecurity, not to make tough decisions that all good leaders have to make. Ultimately it was the inability to say no to some of his men. It was flying by the seat of his pants. Improvisation can be important, but this was really uncalled for improvisation that killed Scott and his men. So yes, the blame rests squarely at the feet of Robert Falcon Scott and his poor leadership.

Warwick F:
And you compare that with Amundsen and as you write maybe it was the Norwegian thing, but just the planning using cross country skis and sled dogs, which is probably more of a use for that in Norway than Britain, I think you write that he actually was ahead of schedule. Just something ridiculous.

Nancy K:
So, but the Amundsen story is an extraordinary, one of courageous leadership, careful planning team cohesion, a couple of things to keep in mind, just to seal this for you. The men, the Amundsen team make their way to the pole and back to base camp two weeks early. So that’s how fast they’re traveling. No one has ever come close to equaling this kind of feat with sled dogs and loaded sleds are getting lighter as they go. Secondly, the men gained weight on their way to the polar plateau to the pole and back. Because they were so well supplied and third, they had so many supplies coming home that as they got within a few days, sled ride from base camp threw all kinds of things, kerosene other supplies out to lighten their load. Some of those supplies were found 50 years later.

Gary S:
Wow.

Nancy K:
This is an astounding story of good leadership. There’s a book for your listeners that are getting hooked here called The Last Place On Earth by Roland Huntford, that you will not be able to put down. You won’t even look at Netflix for three days while you read this.

Warwick F:
That is great. So let’s talk about the 1914 expedition. And one of things that fascinated me was the way he recruited his crew. I mean, that, there’s a lot for modern leaders to understand. So tell the listeners a bit about his recruiting methods, which still to this day, people don’t tend to use, business school professors, such as yourself will tell leaders. This is how you need to recruit. And they’ll say, “Thank you,” and ignore you or ignore most people. But I digress. I’m sorry. Talk about his recuiting mechanisms.

Nancy K:
Well, they were unusual there, but they’re very relevant to turbulent times, which you might say, “We just have a wee little bit of here in the community,” and the way I would characterize what he did was to hire for attitude. And then tweak skill, develop, do some nurturing of certain skills, but hire for attitude. So Shackleton who incidentally, my friends had 5,000 applicants for about 27 spaces on his expedition team. He would ask everyone that came into his office in London to do a what today we call like a short audition, sing a song, do a dance, let’s have a little play acting here. And the idea that he was looking for was a healthy, pragmatic, optimist, not sugarcoating it, you’re going to the South pole, it’s dangerous.

Nancy K:
The stakes are always life and death. So it’s not sugarcoating. It’s not they’re all as well when all is not well, but it’s a pragmatic optimism and can do attitude. It is rumored. We don’t really… we can’t really corroborate this, but it makes a good story that he placed an ad in the London Times that read something like this, “Men wanted for hazardous journey, long days, long nights, cold days, danger all around, safe return uncertain, honor and glory in case of success.” So not really your typical monster.com Craigslist kind of ad. But what he’s doing here is literally trying to self-select, attract people who are ready for that kind of environment and who not only can get by, but in a sense, thrive are attracted to it. And that’s what he does.

Nancy K:
And I’ll tell you one last comment Warwick, I know this case, the story I thought I knew it well, and I work at the Harvard Business School. I spent a year researching it. Now. I feel like I know it like of the age spots on my hands. So I know it really well. And there’s not a time that I teach this case, that I don’t think that his hiring of these particular men with this particular set of attitudinal characteristics was so important. Not that, Shackleton’s leadership mattered a great deal. He had the right material and it’s incredibly important.

Warwick F:
Yeah. As you say, “Hire for attitude, train for skills.” So important. But so few leaders, even to this day, do that, they hire for qualifications. And I love the categories that you write that he had these three categories mad, hopeless, impossible. I just obviously it’s the possible, I just, he had a sense of humor, which I find very endearing. So talk about, so it’s 1914 and I love this, you write that the day that Britain declares war on Germany, he sets, we get the approval from King George, the fifth. It’s an amazing concurrence of events. So he sets forth. He goes to Argentina and then he reaches South Georgia islands. So pick up the story from there, he’s got his crew and it’s like late 1914. And he has, he has a big decision to make a momentous decision.

Nancy K:
Yep. So he and his now 27 men crew and some sled dogs, which they haven’t yet trained and a cat, a stowaway cat named Chippy set sail from South America and took their last port of call, which will be an island, south east of the tip of South America called South Georgia. There’s a whaling station there and it’s the last place they can take on supplies and post mail. And to get there in early December, 1914 and the whalers all say them, they’ve been out. They say, “You know, captain, the water South of here are just chockablock with icebergs. You’re going to hit pack ice. And you may get in trouble, really recommend your hole up for a while and hope some of this melts” and Shackleton who’s restless, he’s chasing fame and he’s out to do something that’s going to work this time and be the first isn’t really very patient.

Nancy K:
And so he makes a decision after a relatively short layover in South Georgia that he and his crew are going to go ahead and try and navigate their way through the ice down. Now, they’re a little bit South. They’re a little bit Northwest of where he wants to be. So they’re going to be heading Southwest and Northeast. And when getting Southwest and that’s in December of 1914 and they are by the third week in January, along the coast of Antarctica, they can see it. It’s 80 miles away. It’s in sight. Shackleton elects one night. This is the third week of January. He elects one night to say, “Let’s just instead of tucking in here and unloading, let’s just sail a little bit farther along the coast where they’re now heading West along the coast. I want to get the right place to make base camp.

Nancy K:
And in that decision, local decision to head South anyway, despite the warnings, and then in that tiny little decision to just sail a little bit further along, lies the fate of the expedition. Because one night the ice freezes around… these are huge bergs, freeze around the Endurance, which was the name of his ship. And it’s locked in an immovable, vice. They can’t blast themselves out. They can’t pick themselves out with shovels and pickaxes. They’re stuck. They can’t motor themselves out with diesel power that they’re stuck. And then they’re mostly floating aimlessly on the current.

Warwick F:
And they’re stuck for a very long time.

Nancy K:
Their stuck… that’s January 3rd week of January. They’re stuck for the rest of the month, February, March, April, May, June, July, August. In August the boat starts getting rammed terribly by just these broken burgs. And it starts to get damaged. It’s like the vice now is crushing the ship. And so Shackleton makes a decision right in very early September to abandon ship. He had been planning for it. He could tell the ship was going to get…

Warwick F:
By then it was hundreds of miles away from where he wanted to be. Because the ice flows are just moving. And so a lot of things to admire about Shackleton, but let’s look at those two decisions, the decision to go when everybody said, “You know, the ice is as bad as we’ve ever seen it, the floes are really far North.” And then the decision to not get into a little inlet and he wanted to go to Vahsel Bay, the original place. So what motivated that decision, is I think as you write, he didn’t really maybe write this down, but you have to think if he was the leader that he was, he realized in hindsight what a colossally bad decision, but what do you think motivated him to make either of those really cataclysmic decisions that were so fateful?

Nancy K:
So I’ve taught this case many, many times down to all kinds of groups around the world. And I think Shackleton was a man in a hurry, and that made him reckless. I don’t think there’s any way he gets a pass here. He made the wrong decision going South. They should have waited. That was a wrong decision. I don’t think the second decision, well, let’s say a little further along was of the same order of magnitude. But that first decision is a big deal. And it places him, it was a traffic accident. The cop would give him 90% of the blame for the accident. It places him, the ship getting stuck and what followed at his feet. And I think he knew that by the way, he never said anything about it. But I do think that part of what he was doing in the extraordinary leader that emerges out of this big mistake is partly owning the responsibility for something he realized he was a big part of. He was culpable of.

Gary S:
An Interesting couple of sentences, Nancy that you wrote in the book that talk about where Shackleton went from there. This is what you write, “His consistent ability to face forward was the thing that allowed him to become successful from that failure again and again, he refused to become mired in what had already happened. What had not worked, what had been missed, who was to blame for the most recent setback or disappointment.” That is a critical piece, not just for what happened to Shackleton and for our listeners who are trying to bounce back from their own crucibles.

Nancy K:
Absolutely. I just marvel at this… There’s a passage in Matthew, I think it, is where Jesus says the farmer that constantly looks backwards over the problems his plow has harvest no crops. And it’s a little bit of the same thing.

Nancy K:
When the stakes are high and there’s a lot to do in front of you. You just can’t keep looking back and scratching your head and pointing fingers and miring yourself in bitter accusations. Everything can’t be a tribunal of the past going forward. And so this was one of those instances, there many to come right on the ice where it’s like, “Okay, this happened when we need to learn from it. And then how do we literally turn ourselves around to look at the future and what we’re doing next? And that’s about self-discipline. So much of what I have learned about how these people did it has to do with self-regulation. And he did. And that really helped his men. Who, by the way, also made mistakes along the way, but he didn’t stop with a tribunal to prosecute and then punish someone.

Nancy K:
We moved forward, we learn from it and we move forward or think of Mandela, think of Nelson Mandela coming in to the presidency of the Republic of South Africa after 18 years, talk about a chance to get bitter and decades of apartheid to get bitter and basically saying, yes, we’re going to figure out a way to reconcile, but we’re not going to spend the next 10 years punishing all the folks that kept apartheid alive. Or Lincoln, “with malice toward none. With charity toward all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” So, and Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction still in its infant stages when he was assassinated in April, 1865 was not about tribunals and blame and looking backwards at this point that you’re both making Warwick and Gary is really important about leaders, particularly in crucibles and crisis. And for all the rest of us, we got to turn our necks and our bodies around or look forward.

Warwick F:
Absolutely. And I think I want to talk about how we move forward, but I think to me, there are… one lesson is even great leaders make colossal mistakes. I mean Shackleton made mistakes. I’m sure Lincoln, he had his challenges. Some people criticize him for moving a bit too slowly on emancipation. It was a challenging time. That’s a whole another discussion. It’s a very nuanced discussion. Churchill, I think he was on the right side of India, but on the wrong side… On the wrong side of India, excuse me, on the right side I think of Israel. And so there were times in which he made really colossally, stupid decisions as we all do. And so it’s easy to look back and say, “Well, yeah he was a bit bitter about the treatment he had from Scott. He missed being the first one on the South pole. So he does this, let’s cross the whole of the South pole,” from what you’ve written a number of folks said that seems challenging, like risky, insane, but we’re human. It’s like, “Gosh King, country, glory.”

Warwick F:
So even great leaders can make mistakes. But I think, and certainly in my own life, as listeners know, with growing in a large family media business and the whole $2 billion takeover that I launched literally months after I graduated from Harvard Business School, it’s like, “Was I not paying attention?” The education is fantastic, but at least for me, my emotions and my dad dying earlier that year. And just, there’s all sorts of emotions, which we don’t need to get into here. But I talked about in other podcasts, that cloud your judgment.

Warwick F:
And so I like to think of myself as a reasonably sane, intelligent person, but I look back and think, how could I have made such a colossally stupid decision, emotions get in the way we do. But I think where your focus is not so much on what was clearly a cataclysmically poor decision, it’s the miraculous way that he was able to move on. So there’s some great attributes of leadership, but most people don’t do this. Most people wallow in bitterness and anger. How did he move on? What about him enabled him to flip the switch saying, “Okay. That was, I’m responsible for getting my crew here, but time to move on.”

Gary S:
Well, how did he do that indeed? How did Ernest Shackleton completely leave behind the failures of his journey up until this point and move forward with a new journey, with a new mission after this? Stuck in the ice for months, knowing that it was in large part mistakes on his part that got him there, how was he able to take a breath, forget what went before and focus on a new journey ahead? And that will be what we discuss, what Warwick and Nancy Koehn talk about in great detail on the next episode of Beyond the Crucible. We’ve split this episode up like this into two parts, because there is such richness in the details of the story of what Shackleton after doing some things wrong, what Shackleton did right moving forward to get beyond his crucible and as an on ramp into what that discussion will be like next week, on Beyond the Crucible.

Gary S:
Here’s some analysis that Nancy Koehn offers in her book, Forged in Crisis in discussing some of the lessons that came from Ernest Shackleton’s experience, his failure and then the way he overcame that failure and move beyond that crucible. Here’s what Nancy writes in her book, “Shackleton jettisoned one objective to walk across the continent and embraced another to save his crew. This is an important lesson that all leaders operating in great turbulence must learn. How to let go of former goals and embrace new ones, even dramatically, different objectives as circumstances demand.”

Gary S:
Those are the insights that we’re going to hear next week on part two of our interview on Beyond the Crucible with Nancy Koehn. So until that time comes listeners, thank you so much for spending time with us. And please remember that your crucible experiences while very painful, while things that will knock you off the trajectory that you’re on just as they stopped Ernest Shackleton from pursuing his expedition for months stuck in the ice, trying to figure out how to move forward.

Gary S:
Those things while your circumstances will obviously be very different, those emotions and the things that you must do to overcome to move beyond those crucibles are things that are universal. That’s what we’ll talk about next week. But remember that those crucibles just as Shackleton discovered, those crucibles are not the end of your story. Those crucibles in fact can be, if you learn the lessons of them, if you apply the lessons of them, if you move forward one step at a time, those moments can become a new chapter in your story and a rewarding chapter in your story, perhaps the most rewarding chapter in your life story, because it leads at the end to a life of significance.

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