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The Best of Beyond the Crucible 5 – Nancy Koehn: Part 1 #136

Warwick Fairfax

October 18, 2022

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. 

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

Warwick Fairfax:

Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

We conclude our special greatest hit series with a two part episode that today focuses on a fascinating story of an Arctic Explorer recounted for us by a Harvard Business School professor. You will not believe the crucibles this man and his crew faced or the way the tale concludes next week.

Welcome everybody to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Gary Schneeberger, the co-host 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. 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 Fairfax:

Absolutely, Gary. Very excited to have Nancy here and should be a fantastic discussion.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

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 Fairfax:

Well, thank you. So 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 approach leadership from within and then without. So yeah, I love that you teach this and you’re teaching it to MBA students at Harvard Business School. So yeah, as obviously we discussed, I went there in the eighties and have very fond memories of the class discussion. I also have an abiding interest in history. My dad and I who – I 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 kind of led to this.

 

Nancy Koehn:

So I’m from a middle class family in the middle west of America. And I went to Stanford as undergraduate and then went to Harvard and just never left, got a PhD a master’s, a couple of masters’, and then ended up the Harvard Business School in my very late twenties. And knowing how way leads onto way, I found myself recently tenured. This is now about, let’s see, 16 years ago. I was 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. 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 is 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.

And I was writing a case about Ernest Shackleton and I was so caught up in this 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. And then in the middle of that, and here it really gets the root of your question, Gary, my life started falling apart very quickly and in very large, as Sylvia Plath would say, chunky blocks. In mid 2002, my father who was 72 and spry and energetic dropped dead. My mother, who is 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’d 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. And those floor boards caving in under me were even harder than my father’s because I loved him so much and I was so surprised. And I lost a lot of weight. I kept on teaching at the Harvard Business School, although 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, 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. In the middle of this, there’s this torturous divorce going on because I don’t have any money other than my Harvard retirement and I’m trying to hold onto it in a no fault divorce state. And then I got cancer again. Most of it happened in the span of three years. All of it happened in the span of about five. And 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, that’s serious. My whole life was completely transformed. And I went through just astounding kind of 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 though. 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 a 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. And one night in the midst of the existential wanderings I was doing metaphorically, I picked up a book of Lincoln’s writings, a modern library edition of Lincoln’s writings.

I never read much Lincoln. I was trained as a European historian. And I started reading. At the very back of the book, so this would be the second inaugural, and there’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… And this took about three days, I’m reading a couple hours each night. I remember sitting, my dogs, my spaniels are on the bed. And I said, “You think you have problems, Miss Nancy? Lincoln had it a lot worse.” That was the beginning.

So my quest, which I couldn’t see at the time, was much more than historical. It was personal, was to find lighthouses, examples of individuals that had just soul crushing calamity, crucibles. And then try and understand how they not only navigated through these extraordinary storm. They’re extraordinary, they’re inside and then they’re out. But the most powerful ones, the ones that involve the most suffering and the most change are inside. And I wanted to understand how did he not only navigate the storms, but then in the process got better? And so that is where Forged in Crisis came from.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. So as you’re doing this it, obviously you’re a historian. But was part of it like, “I’m going through this massive crisis. Any one of these would derail many people.”? A lot of it was, most of it was unfair, whether it’s health, husband, father. Were you curious, “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 sort of a dual purpose behind the whole analysis and book?

 

Nancy Koehn:

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’d 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 answered and been interested in these questions. No one asked, “What was Shackleton’s interior life look like on the ice when the ship goes down?” 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?” And then I started looking for other people like this and the same kind of questions. And this great personal, again largely unseen 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 Fairfax:

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, 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 your book?

 

Nancy Koehn:

Yes and no. It’s like a toggle switch. You kind of go, “Oh yeah, I could use that.” Or, “Oh yeah, that happened to me too, Mr. Lincoln.” 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, I can’t say annus horribilis because I had so many years, five of them were so awful. So I can’t use the Queen’s expression.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Exactly.

 

Nancy Koehn:

She said, “It’s an annus horribilis for the royal family.”

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Exactly.

 

Nancy Koehn:

Anyway, I had this moment of grace and it was really early on. Colin, my ex-husband had just walked out and I remember standing there by my car and I kind of thought of Oprah Winfrey who I 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 Scarlet O’Hara halfway through Gone with the Wind, Vivian Lee. 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 and over like a personal covenant.

I didn’t have any idea, was going to try and get better. I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen in my life. I didn’t know how I was going to get to 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 important. I think it was grace. I don’t think it was Nancy. But it was really powerful.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

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

Could not agree more. Lincoln says at one point in the war, in 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. Martin Luther King, there’s so many great leaders who understand this. 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 in ’45. 95% of the time it takes them nowhere good. Maybe 99% of the time. So 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 Fairfax:

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, or even my dad loved English history. So I was sort of brought up on Wellington and Nelson even though I’m Australian, Anglophiles I guess. And so when I read about them, having gone to Harvard Business School and in my own little way sort of 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 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 are to write a history and that’s fine. But you look at it through a different lens, which I think is amazing. So let’s talk about these five because they’re very different. Shackleton, Lincoln, Douglas, Bonhoeffer I’d heard of them. I must confess Rachel Carson, before your book I hadn’t. But her story is equally amazing.

 

Nancy Koehn:

It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah. So sort of 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 Schneeberger:

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 we’re talking about. Just want to make sure that Nancy’s-

 

Nancy Koehn:

Paperback and hardback.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

That’s right.

 

Nancy Koehn:

Audio and ebook.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

There you go. So the five leaders that Warwick is speaking of are masterfully profiled in this book.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Well done.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Sorry. Yes.

 

Nancy Koehn:

Thank you, Gary. I love you. So you know what’s interesting, Churchill by the way was on the cutting room floor and there are a number of people that didn’t make the book that were cut that because I probably had 12, it ended up as five. I originally was going to write about seven and then it was year 10 and I thought, “God, I’m never going to finish.” So it got limited to five. 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 ease. But in any event, I think they chose me, Warwick. I think they chose me.

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 just an extraordinary book, a pathbreaking 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 knew, I just knew. And so these people chose me and 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, right? 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 of them and I take sustenance or I take a lesson for myself from one of these people. So they made a major impact on my life.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That’s amazing. So I want to focus a bit on Ernest Shackleton because I’d heard of him in the whole polar exploration race. I know you talked about this, but for modern listeners they may not be aware. In the early 1900s the whole polar race was a bit like I guess the space race in the sixties. 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 One, a very different era. So talk a bit about Ernest Shackleton and who he was and kind of what made him tick. I know the real story begins in 1914, but sort of a backdrop to who he was and F Scott and that whole kind of deal.

 

Nancy Koehn:

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 boy and then as an officer on the Merchant Marine. And then he gets a chance right after the turn of the century, this is the 1800s into the 1900s, to join what as you were saying, Warwick, was one of the ships from Britain racing south against ships from other countries, 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 like a lot like the space race. Who will get to the moon first? Who will get the manned spacecraft up first?

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 polar exploration on either end of the earth. Astounding story, a really courageous leadership and very smart decision making and great bravery and team cohesion. And after the pole’s discovered, Shackleton who’s, motivated this is important, motivated by fame, a real narcissistic drive to do this for God, King, and country and be the man, the man who does it gets a new idea.

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, I think it’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 a failed mission on the one hand. But the story of a different kind of even more important success that begins in 1914.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I’m curious about his motivation. Just reading your book, he starts at age 12 or something, 16 I guess it is, and then by his early twenties he has his captain’s mast or whatever it’s called. He is really an adventurer. But the thing with Robert Falcon Scott who was very sort of prominent and famous and royal geographic society, 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 was that a bit of a turning point or a motivation? It’s like this axe to grind or, “I’m going to prove them wrong,” or what part did that play in his whole motivation do you think, the Scott episode?

 

Nancy Koehn:

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. And as far as they get, they almost die trudging back to base camp. And when they get back to England, Scott publishes a memoir and a book about the expedition and the 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.

So really an interesting lesson that several of the people in my book, 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 one with Scott.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

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

 

Nancy Koehn:

It was. He lost his life and all the teammates, the polar team, the team for the pole that had gone with him. I do. And in fact, it was 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 a 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. And 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.

And there’s just no question in my mind I think or in his mind, many, 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. 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 Fairfax:

And you compare that with Amundsen as you write, maybe it was a Norwegian thing, but just the planning using cross country skis and sled dogs, which there’s 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 Koehn:

Amundsen story is an extraordinary one of courageous leadership, careful planning, team cohesion. 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 that 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, they through all kinds of things, kerosene, other supplies out to lighten their load. Some of those supplies were found 50 years later. This is an astounding story of good leadership. There’s a wonderful 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 it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That is great. So let’s talk about the 1914 expedition. And one of the things that fascinated me was the way he recruited his crew. 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. So talk about his recruitment mechanisms.

 

Nancy Koehn:

No, no. So 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 pandemic.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Just a smidge, yeah.

 

Nancy Koehn:

And the way I would characterize what he did was to hire for attitude and then kind of 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 every one that came into his office in London to do a kind of 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 kind of healthy pragmatic optimism. Not sugarcoating it, right? You’re going to the South Pole, it’s dangerous. The stakes are always life and death.

So it’s not sugarcoating, it’s not all is well when all is not well. But it’s a pragmatic kind of optimism and can do attitude. It is rumored, 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 nights, cold days, danger all around. Safe return uncertain, honor and glory in case of success.” So it’s not really your typical monster.com, Craigslist kind of ad. But what he’s doing there 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 or are attracted to it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Absolutely.

 

Nancy Koehn:

So that’s what he does. And I’ll tell you one last comment, Warwick. I know this case, this story, I thought I knew it well and I wrote the Harvard business case and I spent a year researching it. Now I feel like I know it kind of the age spots on my hands. And 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. Shackleton’s leadership mattered a great deal, but he had the right material.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Absolutely.

 

Nancy Koehn:

And it’s incredibly important.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

As you say, hire for attitude, train for skill, which is 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 you have these three categories, mad, hopeless and possible. Obviously it’s the possible. He had a sense of humor, which I find very endearing. So talk about, so it’s 1914 and I love as you write that the day that Britain declares war on Germany, he gets 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 Island. So pick up the story from there. He’s got his crew, it’s like late 1914 and he has a big decision to make, a momentous decision.

 

Nancy Koehn:

Yeah. So he and his now 27 man crew and some sled dogs, which they haven’t yet trained, and a cat, a stowaway cat named Chippy set sail from South America to their last port of call, which will be an island southeast 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 they get there in early December, 1914. And the whalers all say to them, they’ve been out, they say, “Captain, the waters south of here are just chalk a block with icebergs. You’re going to hit pack ice and you may get in trouble. Really recommend you 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.

And so he makes the decision after a relatively short kind of 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 northwest of where he wants to be. So they’re going to be heading southwest. Northeast, so they’re going to be heading 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, “Instead of tucking in here and unloading, let’s just sail a little bit farther along the coast. They’re now heading west along the coast.” I want to get the right place to make base camp.

And in that decision, both the 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, these are huge bergs, freeze around the Endurance, which was the name of his ship. And it’s locked in immovable ice. They can’t blast themselves out. They can’t pick themselves out with shovels and pick axes. They’re stuck. They can’t motor themselves out with diesel power. They’re stuck. And then they’re floating aimlessly on the current.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And they’re stuck for a very long time. They’re stuck-

 

Nancy Koehn:

They’re stuck. That’s January, third 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 bergs and it starts to get damaged. It’s just like a vice now is crushing the ship. And so Shackleton makes a decision right in very early September to abandon ship. He’d been planning for it. He could tell the ice was going to get the ship.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

By then, it was like 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, “The ice is as bad as we’ve ever seen it. The flows are really far north.” And then the decision to not go to the little inlet and he wanted to go to, Vahsel Bay or the original place. So what motivated that decision? Because 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 Koehn:

So I’ve taught this case many, many times nowto 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 the wrong decision. I don’t think the second decision, “Let’s sail a little further along,” was of the same order of magnitude. But that first decision is a big deal and it places him… If it was a traffic accident, the cop would give him 90% of the blame for the accident. It places 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 and the extraordinary leader that emerges out of this big mistake is partly owning the responsibility for something he realized he was a big, big part of, he was culpable for.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

There’s an interesting couple of sentences, Nancy, that you wrote in the book that kind of 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, but for our listeners who are trying to bounce back from their own crucibles.

 

Nancy Koehn:

Absolutely. I just marvel at this. So 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 harvests no crops.” And it’s a little bit of the same thing, right? 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 were many to come on the ice where it’s like, “Okay, this happened. What do 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. We moved forward, we learned from it and we moved 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 kind of 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 of God gives us to see the right.” And Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction still in its infant stages when he was assassinated in April of 1865, was not about tribunals and blame and looking backwards. 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’ve got to turn our necks and our bodies around and look forward.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Absolutely. And I want to talk about how we move forward. But I think to me, one lesson is even great leaders make colossal mistakes. Shackleton made mistakes. I’m sure Lincoln, he had his challenges. Some people criticize him for moving a bit too slowly on emancipation. And it was a challenging time. That’s a whole nother discussion. It’s a very nuanced discussion. Churchill, I think he was on the wrong side of India, 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, 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 kind of challenging, risky, maybe insane. But we’re human. It’s like, gosh, king, country, glory.”

So even great leaders can make mistakes. But I think in certainly in my own life, as listeners know, with growing up in a large family media business and the whole two billion dollar 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, there’s all sorts of emotions which we don’t need to get into here that I talk about in other podcasts, to cloud your judgment. And so I like to think of myself as a reasonably sane, intelligent person.

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 your focus is not so much on what was a 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, I’m responsible for getting my crew here. But time to move on.”

 

Gary Schneeberger:

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, 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 moved 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.”

Those are the insights that we’re going to hear next week on part two of our interview 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, 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.