Nancy Koehn Part 2: Polar Explorer Ernest Shackleton’s Unimaginable Series of Crucibles is a Lesson in Always “Facing Forward” – #26

Warwick Fairfax

July 7, 2020

Ernest Shackleton and the men he was leading on an expedition to cross Antarctica had piled up a breathtaking number of life-threatening crucibles by late 1915.  Stuck motionless in polar block ice for months, hundreds of miles off course with no way to communicate their location to anyone who could help, Shackleton and his men were running low on the supplies they had already been forced to ration in miserly fashion when their greatest disaster struck: The ice that had trapped their ship now closed in to crush it, leaving the men fully exposed to the bitter cold with no choice but to traverse the ice floes that surrounded them in desperate search of safety. Shackleton’s mission had changed for good from one of discovery to one of survival for himself and his men. On this episode of BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE, Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn, who profiles Shackleton in her Wall Street Journal best-seller Forged in Crisis, explains in detail how the British polar explorer’s only hope was to forget the disasters he and his crew had endured and “face forward” with grit, ingenuity and improvisation. “Crisis leaders get better and better and better,” she tells host Warwick Fairfax. “You can see it iteratively if you study them like I do.”
To learn more about Nancy Koehn, visit www.nancykoehn.com
For more information on Crucible Leadership, visit www.crucibleleadership.com

Highlights

 

  • How Shackleton and all leaders have to pivot to embrace new goals after a crucible experience (5:58)
  • The ways in which Shackleton stepped up his leadership after the crew was forced to abandon ship (9:25)
  • A definition of “real leadership” (15:35)
  • Launching the lifeboats to seek rescue (19:32)
  • Improvisation was the key to keep the journey going (25:00)
  • The expedition’s final trial (26:58)
  • The moment the crew finally sees Shackleton again (27:51)
  • The men’s surprising reaction when Shackleton launched another expedition a few years later (31:06)
  • How Shackleton was “rediscovered” in the ’80s and his fame spread (33:01)
  • Lessons for leaders today from his amazing story (35:09)
  • The way in which crucibles move leaders from “I” to “we” (37:00)
  • The ability to improvise is critical to serving a higher mission (38:10)
  • Great leaders don’t just have big platforms and power (40:51)
  • The common themes in Warwick’s and Nancy’s work (42:25)

Transcript

Gary S:
Welcome everybody to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Gary Schneeberger, the cohost of the podcast and the communications director for Crucible Leadership, and you have clicked play. We hope you’ve clicked subscribe to a podcast that deals with a subject most of us know all too well, crucible experiences. Crucible experiences are those things in life that are painful, traumatic, can feel like they take the wind out of our sails, can feel like they take the trajectory out of our lives, that they put us on a path that we necessarily didn’t want to go on. We talk about crucible experiences here because we believe in our experience and the experience of our guests has shown us that if we learn the lessons of our crucible experiences.

Gary S:
If we apply those lessons moving forward, we can not only move as the title of the show says, we can not only move beyond our crucibles, but we can move into a more rewarding life that’s rooted in our vision and our values that helps other people, and that ultimately leads us on a path to significance. Today’s episode is pretty special because it’s the second part of a conversation that we began last week with the host of the program, Warwick Fairfax, who is the founder of Crucible Leadership and his guest Nancy Koehn. Now, Nancy is a historian at the Harvard Business School who focuses on crisis leadership and how leaders in their teams rise to the challenges in high stakes situations.

Gary S:
For the purposes of this episode of Beyond the Crucible, she’s also the author of a book called Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times. It is one of the individuals of the five that Nancy Koehn profiles in that book, the case study she unpacks in that book. One of those five people is Ernest Shackleton and he is the subject of last week’s episode and this week’s episode. Ernest Shackleton was a British Explorer, a polar explorer who about 100 years ago, was on a quest to discover the South Pole. The problem was another explorer, a rival explorer discovered the South Pole first, but Shackleton had Arctic exploration in his blood. He wasn’t going to give up on still traversing that area.

Gary S:
He hatched a mission in 1915 to travel across Antarctica, and the plan was to leave early in the year. When others found out about Shackleton’s desire to leave early in the year in 1915 to travel across Antarctica, they told him, “Maybe you don’t want to do that. The pack ice, the ice flows are looking pretty bad this time of year and going South might not be the best idea for you or your men.” Shackleton heard that advice, but he did not heed that advice. In January 1915, he set out with his crew to travel across Antarctica, problems started immediately. We talked about those problems last week on Beyond the Crucible.

Gary S:
Pack ice did indeed impede the progress of the ship to the point that the ship was dead in the water, and not just for days, not just for weeks, not just for a couple of months, but for several months. In fact, it wasn’t until late autumn in 1915 that the situation changed in any marked way. It didn’t change for the better, the pack ice around Shackleton’s ship actually destroyed the ship. The ship sank, and the men had to scramble out of the ship, climb up on the ice flows and try to figure out what they were going to do next. Shackleton was faced at that moment, and that was where we left the conversation last week with Warwick and Nancy Koehn. Shackleton was faced with what was he going to do next, and Warwick asked Nancy Koehn a question at the end of last week’s episode, how did Shackleton muster up the wherewithal to move on? How did he forget what had come before?

Gary S:
How did he forget the mistakes he made that led his men to the precarious position that they were in? How did he face forward, as Nancy Koehn said, and tackle a new mission to rejigger what he was after? He could no longer even ponder traveling across Antarctica. He now had a different mission, and that mission was the life of his crew, saving the life of his men and getting them home safely to England. When we left this conversation last week, Warwick asked Nancy Koehn, how did Shackleton muster up the perspective, the boldness, the courage to take a step forward and move out in this new mission? What we’re going to hear now is part two of that episode in which Nancy Koehn answers Warwick’s very specific question.

Nancy K:
It’s a question for all kinds of crisis leaders that come out of the mists. I mean, Andrew Cuomo in New York state, Abraham Lincoln who never managed anything more than a two person law office and becomes president at the center of the Civil War and a huge administrator. I don’t have a kind of scientific vector leads to vector leads to vector analysis. Here’s how I’d answer that question and I’m going use a quote from Mr. Lincoln. This is from his annual address in December of 1862 to Congress. “Our occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” That is to me, a microcosm of what happens in a crucible, a really searing crucible or a real crisis. You realize, “Holy cow, this is really terrible. I got to raise the level of my game.

Nancy K:
I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I can’t see how to get through the day, much less how to get through the month or the week or the year, but I got to step it up. I just got to find my muscles.” It’s in that realization that I’ve got to do it and the next step. It’s all steps. It’s not a giant, something like your eagle wings suddenly come available and you rise up into the heavens or you’re Rocky and you’ve drunk the raw eggs and now you beat Apollo Creed. It’s not like that. It’s the first step. Then it’s the next step, and then your confidence builds and people’s confidence in you builds, and so you rise to the occasion. I think that’s what happened with Shackleton. I think he thought as soon as that ship got stuck, “I got a brand new game. What am I key priorities here?” My key priorities for him initially were morale of my men since suddenly everything stopped. Where we’re going is end, over.

Nancy K:
What are we going to do? How do I keep them from doing what the men did on Scott’s expedition under weak leadership, which is kind of collapse inward into disunity. Then the disaster that can happen from that in life or death situations, and then you deal with that. Then you’re like, “Oh, the ship’s going to collapse. It’s going to get cracked. We’re going to be without a ship. Then what do we do?” This constant kind of meeting with the self to say, we’re going to figure this out next and then we’re going to figure this out. In the doing of all that, you are stoking, you are building, you are lifting the 15 pound weights of those muscles and they are getting stronger. Crisis leaders, they get better and better and better. That’s what’s so interesting, and you can see it iteratively if you study them like I do.

Warwick F:
What you just said is so critical. I mean, as you know the title of the podcast is Beyond the Crucible and crucible leadership is the whole website and brand. A crucible really tests the measure of a leader. The flame is turned up and how do they respond, and the people you’ve all mentioned, certainly Shackleton as we’re talking about here, he rose to the occasion. He became a better leader. It’s the test. The good goes to the top just like the whole molten blast furnace deal. It’s the same thing. Talk about some of those key attributes that when things got most difficult, his leadership was just rose to such an amazing level. What were some of those key things that really we can learn so much for today?

Nancy K:
Let me answer that question by telling your listeners just a tiny story. The men decamped from the ship, abandoned ship with some supplies, three lifeboats, and about 120 of the photographer Frank Hurley’s negatives, including some moving film footage in September. They’re making camp on the ice. Shackleton, by the way, puts great attention into who’s going to be with whom in which tent. Then specifically he takes what he calls his doubting Thomases, the folks that are negative, that are like, “Well, I’m not sure how we can do this.” He puts the spreaders of potential psychological and collective contagion in his tent, adding new luster or power to the, keep your friends close and enemies closer.

Nancy K:
That’s really important how you manage and deal with people. The ship goes down. The men are on the camps with lots of routine. He’s got a routine. The duty roster varies every single week. Everyone sticks to a routine. Everyone exercises, everyone socializes at dinner by moving around tents. After dinner, moving around tents because we don’t want people getting too alone and too negative and too isolated, all these different aspects of managing morale. Then in November, mid November, the ship goes down and he sees it in the morning, starting to crack and the ice starting to open. Then in the course of about eight hours, the course of a working day that the ship falls with its broken mast and all it’s ropes everywhere through the ice, and then the ice closes over and it’s gone and there’s literally no line on the horizon.

Nancy K:
Now, for a team of Naval men, scientists, soldiers enlisted men officers, this was like the world coming to an end. They are 2000 miles from anybody, they have no Waze or GPS or text messages. There’s no Facebook posts. No one knows where they are. I mean, the men are just, they’re shell shocked. They’re in the worst state they’ve been. They kind of stagger their tents. Shackleton paces the ice because he can sense how this is just a game changing moment for his team and whether he can keep them unified and following orders and trying believing they can get home. He paces the ice, and later in his diary, all night long and he’ll say, “A man must shape himself to a new mark the minute the old mark goes aground.” What’s he saying? He’s saying, I got to raise the level again. There’s a new mark. We aren’t on the ship anymore, all our bearings are lost. I’ve got to do something different.

Nancy K:
Next morning, this is really important, lesson number two. He walks around the tent with Frank Worsley, the navigator and they have cups of hot tea and milk for the men. He says, “Lads, get your tea. Come on here, gather round.” He does a little town hall meeting, and the first thing he says is, “Ship and store is gone, now we’ll go home.” In later years, when the men were interviewed, some of them were interviewed by the BBC about how did they survive, by the way, to almost a man they said, “The boss,” which was their nickname for Shackleton, “Made us believe we could do it.” Many of them recalled that. The whole world had just dropped away. We were at a new incredibly low point and there he is saying, “Let’s face forward. Ship and store is have gone, so we’re going home.” That kind of ability, second lesson, the leader to show up no matter what he was feeling inside. We know he’s pacing, he was anxious.

Nancy K:
He was uncertain. He didn’t know how he was going to shape himself to a new mark to show up before his men confident, strong, looking out after their welfare, facing forward. That is incredibly important because in a crucible, everything is magnified, magnified impact. Everything is heightened, so how the leader, how you show up for yourself actually affects your ability to access your resilience muscles. I think that was really important. He showed up every day, no matter whether he slept or not with his courage muscles tight and the men believing that he knew what to do next. That was really important. A third thing that he did that I think was very, very important was to manage the energy of his men. We’re going to talk about that. Energy is really important to morale, and morale is really important to action and unity. For example, when men seem to be flagging after dinner, he’d say, “Let’s have a dancing contest on the ice or let’s play the banjo.”

Nancy K:
He insisted when they left the shift that they keep this banjo from when he enlisted men because it was mental medicine. He would try and get the men involved in something that was a kind of recovery, social recovery exercise. To use an even more pointed example on a boat journey that he and five other men will make in 1916 to get help, he would see a man flagging, his energy flagging and spirits starts to fall and he’d order up hot milk for everyone. What he was doing was just like a mother kind of soothing a child by giving them something to drink or soothing a partner. He would never single out the man because he didn’t want that person to be embarrassed. He just had this depth of understanding of energy and its relation to how we feel and how confident we are, and he used that over and over and over again to literally manage the energy and take care of his flock. That’s something else that’s very, very important about his leadership.

Warwick F:
I mean, he’s learning all this at a time where, I mean, I can’t imagine there were many books about leadership empathy in the early 1900s. It would have been much more mechanistic than obviously the science of leadership has gone on a lot since then, but he just seemed to learn about, as you said, the importance of starting with the internal, managing himself. I mean, just saying to the men, “We’ll get you home.” I mean, the chances of them getting home when they were locked in the ice in 1915 was a billion to one. I mean, it would be almost zero. No communication, yet somehow he led them to believe in the virtually impossible, which is remarkable to me.

Nancy K:
Two comments on that, I think important insight, Warwick, first many years ago, I stumbled on this definition of real leadership that I love. It’s in the beginning of the book and I can claim no credit for it other than stumbling on it. It’s from an American writer named David Foster Wallace who wrote this in a Rolling Stone article many years ago when he was following John McCain around on the campaign bus when McCain was running in 2000, making his first run for the presidency. This is what David Foster Wallace wrote, “Real leaders are individuals who help us overcome the limitations of our own weaknesses, selfishness, laziness, and fears, and get us to do harder, better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” I think this is just such a great definition and it’s with me always. It describes Shackleton very well. What he was able to do is he kept raising the level of his game without textbooks, without Harvard Business School seminars, the chivalric code of the British Navy for God’s sakes. Empathy was not a word we were teaching people.

Nancy K:
They’d put stripes on their Navy wool coats, right? The fact that he could do these things and keep raising his level of the game, including all lots of improvisation, lots of powerful signaling, because he knew that men take signals from what he did, not just words, not just the actions was he was in a sense helping the men do harder, better things than they could get themselves to do. When the BBC says, “How did you do it?” In the 1930s when they come back and interview all these survivors. They said, “The boss made us believe we can do it.” It’s a perfect illustration of the impact a leader can have by as Bono the rock singer once said making the impossible possible. That is the most kind of nurturing or empowering aspect of my research. I have discovered all kinds of people, including Churchill. Let’s not forget late May 1940, who made the impossible possible by learning how in a crucible to raise a level of their game and help others do the same thing. That is the potency of great leadership in crucibles.

Warwick F:
That is such a great connection you make there, Nancy. May, June 1940, France has fallen, most of Europe has gone, America is a year plus away from entering. The betting money would be on Britain’s not going to be able to hold off against the might of the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe and somehow he makes the whole nation believe we’re going to hang on, which that’s… I mean, how do you do that? It’s millions of people believe, you know what if Winston says, we can survive or you know what we can survive.

Nancy K:
All those RAF base commanders, they’re like, “Okay, we’re sending them all up now.” I remember there’s a story from the summer of 1941 when Churchill goes to visit some bases, he says, “How many Spitfires do we have in reserve?” He says, “None, they’re all up in the air.” The point is that you don’t need to do it with enormous amounts of reserve and slack, you just need to do it. He did, and he made people believe they could do it. It was so important. The whole world history hinged on those months in some very real sense.

Warwick F:
Absolutely. I want to get to how Shackleton was able to get his folks off the ice, but you mentioned just, as you said, the power of just giving his men belief, just managing emotions, mixing people up, troublemakers, even people of different classes, officers, crew, the whole games, animal, vegetable, mineral. Managing people with food and drink, I think you mentioned. Just so many tools that he managed to keep morale up, and so they were on the ice for a very long period of time, but then eventually there’s a turning point when he launches his folks to get to Elephant Island. Talk about they’re on this ice flow, floating hundreds of miles off course. He’s looking for an opening in the ice where he can launch these lifeboats, and so talk about that part of the story where eventually they’re able to launch their three lifeboats.

Nancy K:
The boat, just to pick up the last skeins of the story. The Endurance goes down in the ice. It’s gone forever in November 1915. The men then pass December, January, February, and almost all of March. In that same berg, seal and penguin meats start to dry up. The morale is very low. It’s late March. They’re waiting. All the men are watching Shackleton most keenly for the ice to break up enough for them to launch three 20, roughly 22 foot each lifeboat open lifeboats and sail Northwest. They have some rough idea from what’s called a sextant, what today we regard as crude navigational device that charts the angle between the Sun and the Earth’s line horizon to make navigational coordinate estimates. They’re waiting for the ice to break up so they can sail Northwest. This is up the Western side of what is an archipelago of islands on the South American side of Antarctica.

Nancy K:
They’re hoping to get far enough North to an Island where a trading ship, some kind of ship will find them, or where they can find an Island called Paulet Island where Shackleton knows previous expeditions have cached supplies. That’s the goal, and they set off. Then finally the ice breaks up enough. Shackleton wasn’t wanting to go too early, because they only get stuck in ice in those lifeboats really, then they’ve lost their navigational. They’re setting their transport capacity. Eventually the ice breaks up enough, Shackleton gives the go ahead. With water that they’ve melted from ice in barrels and supplies, they leave their camp and they have some supplies and they head Northwest. It’s an incredibly horrible journey that lasts five nights and six days. The first three days, they just basically go round in a circle.

Nancy K:
Then eventually as they get close, Shackleton fears the men are dehydrated. Some of them have probably the early stages of dysentery from contaminated water. Their eyes are glazing over. He’s worried he’s going to lose him. It’s terribly cold. Shackleton decides to sail quickly to an Island much farther South than he hoped to reach where no one will find them. Basically, it’s a big rock in the South Atlantic called Elephant Island, and that’s where they end up in early April 1916. It’s the men’s first moment on dry land since December 1914. There’s freshwater. They’re ecstatic to be on dry land. They stagger up, drink, immediately set up camp and then Shackleton starts trying to rehabilitate them physically. He knows, here we go, lesson number four. You don’t get a straight GPS map to get out of a crisis or a crucible.

Nancy K:
You navigate point to point with lots of uncertainty and lots of pivots. Shackleton’s like, “No one’s going to find us here. I need the next step.” Immediately, probably by the next morning, possibly even the evening they arrive decides we’re going to have to sail for help. Everyone can’t stay here because we won’t ever be found and we can die. He starts making plans right away to take one of the lifeboats, reinforce it, put a canvas mask on the top of it. It’s an open lifeboat, rowboat basically, put a mast up, canvas deck, excuse me, mast up, sail and put 2000 pounds of rocks in the bottom to give it some kind of haft, some ability to withstand the waves of the South Atlantic. He decides he and five carefully chosen men will sail back to South Georgia Island and the whaling station where they know they’ll find civilization. That’s the next two and a half weeks of time and attention. The men are all getting ready to outfit one of the lifeboats. James Caird, it was called just to make this incredible journey across what anyone that sails will tell you or some of the world’s most difficult seas.

Warwick F:
I think you mentioned that’s like an 800 mile journey.

Nancy K:
It’s an 800 mile journey.

Warwick F:
Gale, force winds. I think you’re right. There was some massive wave that was bigger than any wave that Shackleton had seen and he had had some experience in the seas. Somehow they made that 800 mile trip, which in itself, as you write is almost unprecedented. Certainly, it was remarkable that they even made it.

Nancy K:
It’s still considered the greatest open boat journey in the history of navigation, that’s a long long history my friends. Several years ago, an explorer and an environmentalist named Tim Jarvis reconstructed the journey with a carefully reconstructed boat, same supplies. They had a big diesel powered steam ship following them for safety and things and they barely made it, right? No one’s really done it as Shackleton did. Even Jarvis and he’s extraordinary seaman and he’s an explorer. They get, this is April 20th 1916, they get to South Georgia. The rudder is damaged. The boat has been banged around in a hurricane a few nights before they arrive at South Georgia it’s so bad. The hurricane is so bad that it actually sinks 500-person passenger boat that’s about 300 miles away. They don’t know that, and so they have to tuck in and they have to dock or come into the island. On the opposite side of the island, from the whaling station, which is where help is. The rest of the island is all uninhabited and completely unchartered.

Nancy K:
The next part of this incredible story that just keeps getting harder is Shackleton and the two really tough, smart, good guys he’s brought along. The other three men that he brought along were men that he didn’t want to leave on the island because they were doubting Thomases and he didn’t want them spreading pessimism and negativity on the Elephant Island while he left to try and get help. Again, managing morale. The next part of the story is Shackleton and his two men, companions Tom Crean and Frank Worsley take some nails out of the boat, make some impromptu crampons by nailing those nails into the back of the bottom of their boots. That was some rope and kind of kerosene lamp and a small fire, kerosene fire, and they set out over this and it’s just this incredible 36-hour journey across this mountainous island, where they’re almost dead a couple of times, including just, I’ll give you one example of improvisation. Another important aspect of leading ourselves in crucibles and leading others.

Nancy K:
They get too high and nightfall’s coming and Shackleton’s worried they’re going to die. It’s so high in altitude and they can’t get down fast enough. Shackleton says, “Let’s just sled down.” They coil up this big rope flat like a rug made of rags and they sledged down into the darkness, not knowing what they’re going to find. They fall more than 2000 feet in 18 seconds. They fall into a snowbank safe, in a much lower altitude, much warmer, and they stand up solemnly and shake hands and carry on. After 36 hours of tredging, they get to the whaling station and they knock on the door and no one recognizes them because everyone’s given Shackleton up long ago for dead. The men haven’t shaved or bathed in months, and Shackleton’s first question is, “When did the war end?” The clerk there at the whaling station, “It’s still going on. The world’s gone mad.”

Nancy K:
Then the next chapter of the story is Shackleton’s again, it’s so incredibly hard that even Shakespeare couldn’t have thought this up, or some disaster film screenwriter. His next journey, next chapter is try and get a boat that can get back through the waters that they just traversed to get his 20 or 22 men still left on Elephant Island. He spends the next, so that’s May 12th when they get to the whaling station. He spends the next four months. It’ll be all of May, all of June, all of July and all of August trying to get a boat that can get through what is now become pack ice again, and actually get its way all the way-

Warwick F:
It takes him three or four tries. I mean, he-

Nancy K:
It takes him four tries, four different boats. Each of the first three tries, they encounter pack ice, and he’s afraid they’re going to get trapped, and so they turn back to go back to port.

Warwick F:
Talk about the scene, I think you write maybe is it August 1916, where he finally is on the steamer. I think you’re right, the Yelcho from Chilean government loaned him. He’s pulling in and the men see him. Talk about that scene because that’s months after he’s left.

Nancy K:
It’s incredible. Even telling it right now, I take a deep breath because it’s so incredible. He had gone gray with worry in the interim and he started to drink. Shackleton could put back one or two in London, but he hasn’t drunk thus far on the expedition. He starts drinking. He’s so worried. He goes gray, and he has this basically a tugboat from the Chilean government where they have gone and gotten the boat. They’re coming back from Santiago to Elephant Island and the men spy the boat. They’re outside picking up barnacles to make soup because they don’t have any penguins or seals and they’re really low on food. They spot the ship and all the men pour out from these overturned lifeboats that they’re using a shelters and they built kind of weaseling properties, bivouacked kind of shelters.

Nancy K:
They pour out and Shackleton’s on a steamer with Worsley and Crean, these two men that had accompanied him all the way and he starts counting the men. He gets to 22 and Worsley said he was like, “He lost 30 years off his face.” His face breaks into the smile, the wrinkles disappear and he says, “Oh my God, all 22. They’re all alive.” He jumps into a lifeboat from the tugboat, the Yelcho and he starts sailing and saying, “Lads, I’m here.” He starts throwing cigarettes from the boat to them as they get there. They all pile on really quickly. He doesn’t even go ashore to see the setup. He’s so worried about pack ice. He just gets them all on the Yelcho. They sail for Chile, huge celebration because everyone had given them all up as dead. Then they sail on to London, where it’s August 1916 and World War I is still raging and a number of the men, most of the men on the expedition who have lived through this incredible, incredible survival story, enlist, and the last kind of piece here is tragically, or not the last piece, but the last piece of this expedition piece is tragically, two of those men are killed in combat almost right away. It’s like to do all that and then die in a machine gunfire, but that’s what happened.

Warwick F:
As you mentioned, some of them weeks after they got back, it wasn’t very long.

Nancy K:
Yes, yes. It was incredible.

Warwick F:
The last chapter I find really interesting is Shackleton, I guess hadn’t got over the polar bug. It’s after World War I, society is fundamentally changed, the world is different. The whole polar exploration fever is gone. Many things have gone. The world is totally different, but not for Shackleton, and so somewhere around 1920/21, he decides let’s do it again. I think you write was it eight of his crew. I mean, let’s do it again. It’s like who are these people? Why do you want to do this again? What kind of leader can inspire people to do something, I don’t know, almost say suicidal again. It’s like-

Nancy K:
A great crucible leader. He sends the call out in 1920 to go again. It goes out to four corners. All his men have scattered, the war’s over. He himself has been lecturing in the United States trying to recoup some of the money for the debts he owes for the expedition, on the speaker circuit in America. The world, I mean, no one cares about the pole anymore. No one even cares about individual heroism. That just got wiped away in the mass carnage of the First World War, and so he sends call out and then, it’s more than eight. I want to say it’s 12 men answer in like, “Yes, sir, boss. Here we come.” They all gather and the ship takes off in late 1920, and they, guess what, they go just like they had in 1914. They go to South America to pick up a few more supplies. Then last port of call is again, South Georgia, the whaling station.

Nancy K:
That night, the first night they get there, Shackleton has a massive heart attack and dies in his sleep in his cabin. His men bury him there. Then they go on and kind of travel along the Vahsel Bay, which is this bay that they wandered on the Endurance as the currents carried them and back to Elephant Island, just to take a look at their place where many of them spent five months and then they come back. It’s more of just a kind of reliving, I think, of the cohesion and the triumph of the human spirit that, that journey was. Then the expedition just fades in the midst of history. No one cares. I got home. The men go on to their wives. The BBC gets interested in the story and does a series of radio interviews in the 30s, and then they slip back into the mist of history and no one, no British school kid, no exploree aficionado is talking about Ernest Shackleton.

Warwick F:
I think as you write. They were talking about Scott.

Nancy K:
They’re were talking about Scott who died on the way back… Exactly. The martyred, lousy, insecure leader, who effectively martyred his men. God, King and country, but they still died. Beginning in the 1980s, it’s almost like a Phoenix rising, partly by the efforts of Roland Huntford and other very good polar explorers. A larger story starts to come out both about Scott and Shackleton, and then it’s again, almost from underground, this collective global kind of cottage industry or grape vine of real interest in this story and about the impossible being made possible just comes to be incredibly popular. There are Shackleton schools, there are Shackleton societies. I get emails every single week and have for 20 years about people wanting to talk about Shackleton. Right now in the COVID-19 crisis, everyone I know wants to understand how they endured and triumphed in these life and death circumstances

Warwick F:
There is something about the intrigue of the epic failure. Being Australian, as you probably know, one of the key military episodes in Australian history is Gallipoli. For Australia, we became a nation in 1901, but in reality we became a nation in, I think it was 1915, somewhere like that, and Gallipoli where just real briefly, as you know, it was on the shores of Turkey. Turkey was an ally of Germany in World War I. The British commanders sort of dithered and just made sure that the Turkish forces had plenty of time to get machine gun nest on the hills, and were just horrifically executed. Then these poor Australians were landed there on the shores of Gallipoli with these high hills and mountains, machine gun nests, no hope of success, but yet even though it was a failure, just the heroism and the courage amidst that has defined a nation.

Warwick F:
Even now Australian cricket teams, when they go to England, we’ll stop on the way as a kind of a morale boost. Anyway, Gallipoli is a whole other thing, but there’s something about the epic failure, but in this case, it’s more than just the epic failure is just what Shackleton learned his ability to move on. As we sort of summarize here, for leaders today, who may never have heard of Shackleton, what are the two or three things why Shackleton holds so many lessons for CEOs, leaders of nonprofits, leaders in the COVID-19 crisis that we’re all going through, corporate leaders, governmental leaders? When everything is so uncertain, what are the key nuggets would you say that we need to learn about Shackleton?

Nancy K:
Well, just to kind of present them in uncharacteristically succinct form, you have to step into the fear, right? You take the step. Courage is not the absence of fear as Mandela said. It’s the willingness to walk into the fear. Kind of square your shoulders and tighten your core and realize that you are still standing and can take the next step. People behind you can take the first step. Step into the fear, feed and water yourself and your people carefully, both emotionally and physically and mentally, keep your fingers tightly on the pulse, the morale of the people around you, face forward and learn, right? Let go of what was and what didn’t work in the past, learn from it, and then move forward, especially in crucibles and crises. There’s just too much at stake to spend a lot of time rehashing the past.

Nancy K:
I said on the Charlie Rose interview I did several years ago when my book came out, I said, “I learned and Shackleton learned that why is never the question. Why me, why this, why the suffering, why the calamity, why the failures, it’s never why. It’s what can I make in this wreckage and how can I redeem, reclaim? Just as a crucible, it’s about high flames literally, and its ability to kind of reshape things. How can I be forged into something better and stronger and more committed to service. Another lesson that’s really important in Shackleton that we haven’t talked about that I see over and over in these leaders. These ordinary people who do extraordinary things, or at least people that make the impossible possible is they ultimately in the doing, in this forging, in the crucible, cross the bridge from the narcissistic, I need to do this.

Nancy K:
This is my bullet list. This is my agenda. This is my career. They cross the bridge to a more powerful place called thou or we. You discover these people, each discovers, Lincoln discovers all that narcissistic quest for public office and power becomes, “I got to save the Union. We have to save our country.” It’s the crossing of that bridge from I to thou or I to we. When you discover that who your most powerful, most luminous most noble self is, is actually in service to others, and that, that’s the best way to serve yourself that you find your ruby slippers, right? That secret weapon, your super power that you’d never known you had. Shackleton discovers that and keeps growing in that commitment to the mission with God is my witness. I’ll bring them all home alive. Then last but not least this ability to keep improvising and pivoting, right.

Nancy K:
Improvising with we’re going to sail for South Georgia now. Improvising for we’ll sledge down the mountain, so we don’t freeze up here. Improvising, but always in service to this worthy mission, I will bring them home alive. Come hell or high water, I will do it. That, of course, the constant engagement with the mission helps shore up your endurance muscles and your ability to say as Shackleton once said, I just love this. “Obstacles are just things to overcome after all.” I think that’s a really empowered statement. All of those things are really critical to individuals in a crucible who will ultimately use that experience to lead other individuals in a crucible.

Warwick F:
Just to summarize here because I now need to probably bring it to conclusion. I mean, to me, a crucible really tests the metal of a leader. With these five people, they became better people. They became, maybe there were the raw materials there who knows, but somehow it forged them into something that they weren’t before that. As you say very well, the ability to move forward and not brood on the past, the ability to realize it’s not about me, it’s about other people. It’s about, as we say in Crucible Leadership, a life of significance, a life on purpose, focused on others, all these great leaders do that. The reason it’s so important for us to study them and why your work is so important is there is a reason we call them great leaders because great leaders don’t happen every day. They’re very rare. It’s like finding diamonds. You can look through a lot of rock to find a diamond, and so that’s why studying them and what you do, the work is so important because who else are we going to learn from? There are very few people that we hold up as role models or to learn from unfortunately.

Nancy K:
Well, but maybe it’s not quite such a small kind of circle of people or a small group of people Warwick. I’ve come and I’m still studying courageous leaders. We’re writing a case, a research associate and I are writing a case right now about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the emotional intelligence and awareness of, not just John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, but a few other people including people like Adlai Stevenson and Tommy Thompson, who was the former ambassador to the Soviet Union who was called in. The emotional intelligence piece that is as important as any of the military expertise in that conference room of the White House in helping resolve this without nuclear war becoming the logical end of our action. The more I’ve studied this, this phenomenon of great leaders, the more I’m convinced that great leaders are made, they’re not born. If that’s the case, then there’s lots and lots of potential greatness out there. I think it also comes in many different shapes and sizes. We cover, in our lives, people who end up exerting a lot of power, a lot of authority, a lot of influence.

Nancy K:
I went through chemotherapy. I saw great leaders on the infusion floor in those nurses, right? I’ve seen school principals who are great leaders. There’s a woman right now in Ohio who’s the health secretary, who’s facing death threats because she knows a lot about social distancing and healthy protocols, and people of certain smaller group, very small group of people are very angry and armed. She’s a great leader and she’s getting greater by the day as she holds this idea about your health. The collective health of Ohioans is my charge and I’m obligated by that. I will discharge that obligation. I think that one really important message for people in crucibles or helping someone in crucible is out of this can come your greatness, but you have to work at it and you have to say, “My project here isn’t just to get through this, it’s to get better and stronger and fuller and more empathic and more compassionate and more competent. I’m going to work on that as I navigate to these high winds and big waves.” That’s really important, but you have to decide that for yourself and then you have to stick to it. That piece is a covenant that you make with yourself, and it’s really powerful, but it takes work real work, but incredibly rewarding work as well.

Warwick F:
Well said.

Gary S:
Normally, at the end of a podcast, I will launch into what I consider the three takeaways, but I’ve been in the communication business long enough to know that when there’s this much Harvard Business School in the house and it’s been summarized so well, I’m not going to bother doing that because I think Nancy has summarized it all very well, listeners. I will say two more things. The second one, Nancy, I’m going to give you the chance to let people know where they can get your book. The first thing I want to do is to kind of draw the balloon strings together of everything that we’ve talked about here is to say something that Nancy says in her book, listener and something that we say on that Beyond the Crucible all the time.

Gary S:
I think one of the joys of co-hosting this podcast is seeing people from different backgrounds, different crucible experiences land at the same place without ever having communicated. Here’s what Nancy writes in her book. She says, “It takes reserves of emotional awareness and discipline for leaders to balance attention to the path ahead with knowledge gleaned from the past.” Here’s what we say at Crucible Leadership, learning the lessons of your crucible to chart a course to a life of significance is critical. Two ways of saying sort of the same thing, balance what came before with what lies ahead and focus on a life of significance. Nancy, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t let the listeners know how they can learn more about you and get this fantastic book for themselves.

Nancy K:
I’ll answer the second thing first. The book is fantastic, not because I wrote it. It’s because these people live such brave lives and they’re loving lives as well. These are not just superheroes with cloaks and leaping tall buildings. These are ordinary people who live magnificent lives and they’re inspirational just to… It was an inspiration to me just to have the privilege to write about them. It’s available almost anywhere books are sold. I read the audio. If you like audio books, and you’d like the audience to be the voice. I choke up a little bit at the end about Rachel Carson, so that’s just a little tease. Then I have done an extraordinary amount of media videos. I have a very active social media life, which I conduct purely around lessons of leadership.

Nancy K:
There’s no pictures of my horse or my dogs or my outfit problems or me eating chips. There’s no vitriol or exuberance. There is lessons every day. Right now, I’m running a classroom called, that you can find on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, every day, a new lesson leading yourself in crisis inside number we’re up to 64 with resources there. Then my website, which has just launched in a new form is called nancykoehn.com. It has videos, articles, podcasts, radio interviews. I do a regular spot on NPR. We kept links to all of those on all kinds of leadership topics, do there’s just a plethora of material for the interested listener.

Gary S:
For folks who are listening, and as I often say about Warwick since he has a silent W in the middle of his name, Nancy Koehn so you know is spelled, listener, K-O-E-H-N.

Nancy K:
Thank you for that.

Gary S:
Those social media accounts that Nancy talked about as well as her website, it’s nancykoehn.com, nancyK-O-E-H-N.com. Thank you listener for spending time with us here at Beyond the Crucible. Warwick and I have a couple of favors to ask you. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard here in this incredible story about Ernest Shackleton, one would be to click subscribe on the podcast app that you’re listening to this to right now. That does a couple of things for us. One for you, it helps make sure that you don’t miss any episode of the show so that you can continue to get these interviews and these discussions of the key elements of crucible leadership. Then second, we would ask visit crucibleleadership.com, where you can find blogs that Warwick’s written.

Gary S:
You can take an assessment to see where you fall on your own journey to a life of significance, and hopefully that will add even more fuel to your fire to reach that life of significance. Until the next time we’re together, thank you for spending time with us and remember that crucible experiences, as we just saw in this interview with Nancy Koehn can be extraordinarily painful. They can be very difficult. They can be hard to move beyond, but if you stay after it. If you continue to, as Nancy said, put one foot in front of the other and continue to take one step at a time. It’s not the end of your story by any stretch of the imagination. It is in fact, the beginning of a new story, that can be the most rewarding story of your life, because it is one that leads to a life of significance.

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