IDEA Box #1, April 2020, Leadership in a crisis

Leadership in a crisis

Welcome to our April 2020 IDEA Box blog where we are discussing ‘Leadership in a crisis’. We have reviewed books from Alfred Lansing about Ernest Shackleton’s amazing Antarctic voyage, Brene Brown and Simon Sinek. This month’s articles consider leadership lessons from Jacinda Arden and Abraham Lincoln, while our podcasts look at how good becomes great and creating joy in work. Finally, the videos we have selected show two very different approaches to leadership in a crisis. The first is from one of the most popular TedTalks on the topic of leadership ……. the second is from the sitcom ‘The Office’. We’d love to hear from you so please email us with your feedback and suggestions. If you enjoy reading this blog please follow our Twitter and LinkedIn pages where we post additional nuggets of inspiration from the content we have reviewed each week.


Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing

While it goes without saying that leading a team during the COVID-19 crisis is challenging, spare a thought for Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. His ship Endurance was beset and ultimately crushed by ice leaving his crew stranded on an ice pack. They managed to drag two small boats across the pack, launch them and land on Elephant Island. Taking one of these boats Shackleton successfully led a crew of five men on a perilous voyage to South Georgia Island, some 650 nautical miles away. With two of these men he then led the first overland crossing of the island and three months later rescued the remaining crew members left behind on Elephant Island. Here are six key leadership takeaways:

1. Team selection counts: A blend of chemistry, camaraderie, trust and respect helped Shackleton’s team endure hardships and overcome incredible obstacles. He was a master at sizing people up and building cohesive teams.

2. Develop a clear, shared purpose: Every member of Shackleton’s team understood the expedition’s purpose. They were selected, in part, for their interest and enthusiasm in that purpose. Clarity of purpose has been demonstrated, time and again, to be one of the most important factors in a team’s success.

3. Take responsibility: Shackleton led by example and from the front. He felt deeply responsible for his team’s perilous situation and was determined to lead them to safety.

4. Maintain morale: Of all their enemies; the cold, the ice, the sea, Shackleton feared demoralisation the most. He worked tirelessly to build and maintain morale and insisted on being treated no differently to his team when it came to manual labour and food rations.

5. Be decisive: Shackleton understood that explorers who sacrificed decisiveness and speed for ultimate preparedness perished. He had strong convictions and displayed decisive judgment when it really mattered. This sentiment was echoed recently by Mike Ryan, the Executive Director of the WHO, who said “Speed trumps perfection ….. If you need to be right before you move, you will never win”.

6. Believe in yourself while remaining realistic: Shackleton believed completely in himself and couldn’t countenance the possibility of failure. This was a double edged sword. It inspired devotion from his team but occasionally blinded him to reality.

This is a fascinating tale of human courage and resilience. It is available in paperback and audio book.

Dare to Lead, Brene Brown

In this seminal study Brown dispels common myths about leadership and workplace culture arguing that true leadership requires vulnerability, values, trust and resilience. She argues that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable we become more creative and courageous. Letting go of perfectionist tendencies and our fear of failure allows us to find the courage we need to improve ourselves and become daring leaders. Here are six key leadership takeaways:

1. Vulnerability is essential: Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. It is the essential counterpoint to courage. To support this hypothesis the author asked a group of Special Forces military personnel if any of them had seen or undertaken a courageous act that did not require them to feel vulnerable. None of them could come up with a single example.

2. Honest feedback: Courageous leaders give and solicit honest feedback. Undertaking all communication with a spirit of clarity and honesty is a simple yet transformative step that all leaders should take. Being unclear is unkind. It’s much better to say what you mean and mean what you say.

3. Set core values: Core values anchor and guide daring leaders. During times of uncertainty values are an important ‘North Star’ that help leaders make the right decisions.

4. Build trust: Trust is an integral part of any relationship. The author identifies seven behaviours, expressed using the acronym BRAVING, that encourage trust; Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, Non-judgement and Generosity.

5. Learn how to fail: Business leaders could learn a lot from skydivers who spend numerous training sessions learning how to hit the ground safely by jumping off ladders. If you’re going to be brave then you better be prepared to fall on your face every now and then.

6. Rid yourself of perfectionism: Brown believes that perfectionism, which she frames as an attempt to win approval, holds us back from self-improvement and true courage. She feels that leaders should jump into the fray of life. Mistakes will be made but in exchange we will gain the courage to succeed and lead.

This book provides a unique and compelling take on leadership and is well worth checking out. Available in paperback and audio book.

The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek

This book is particularly relevant in light of the current health and economic emergency. Sinek argues that business is not like sport. Sport is a finite game where winners, losers, starts and stops are all clearly understood by players (this season’s Premier League aside!). Business, on the other hand, is an Infinite Game. There is no fixed timeframe or agreed upon way to keep score. The goal of the Infinite Game is not to win, it’s to stay in the game for as long as possible. Here are six key leadership takeaways:

1. Develop a Just Cause: A Just Cause is inspirational. It looks towards a better future and lets your team know what they are working towards. It should be bold and idealistic while at the same time resilient and capable of withstanding change. Apple’s Just Cause in the early days was to make computers an empowering tool for as many people as possible. More about that in a moment.

2. Focus on your customer: It sounds obvious but a business that doesn’t make its customers happy isn’t going to last. If you focus on your customer and the quality of the service you provide you will build longevity and stability.

3. Respect your team: It is vital that leaders respect and appreciate the people who join their cause. Treating team members with respect leads to high levels of job satisfaction, motivation, loyalty and productivity. And it’s the right thing to do.

4. Build a culture of trust: This requires a company’s values and behaviours to be aligned first and foremost with people rather than short term profits. All team members should have an opportunity to be heard, particularly if something is wrong. This will protect the long term viability of the company.

5. Study worthy rivals and don’t be afraid to change: In 1979 when Steve Jobs saw the new graphical user interface (GUI) technology that Xerox was developing he immediately changed Apple’s strategy. GUI introduced the point and click mouse, desktop computing and the concept of desktop icons. It was obvious to Jobs that GUI was the future. Despite warnings to the contrary he stuck to Apple’s Just Cause, changed tack and four years later the first Apple Macintosh was born.

6. It takes courage and bold decision making to follow an infinite mind-set: Demonstrating courage shows commitment to the cause and an example for others to follow. The CEO should think of themselves as the Chief Visionary Officer whose main responsibility is to be the guardian and voice of the company’s Just Cause.

This book is an interesting treatise on building long term stability which has particular relevance given the short term challenges we currently face. It is available in paperback and audio formats.


Three Reasons Why Jacinda Ardern’s Coronavirus Response has been a Masterclass in Crisis Leadership, The Conversation, 2020
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was one of the first western leaders to take decisive action in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Here are two key leadership takeaways:

  1. Communication is key: Being a good motivator of people is essential for leaders. The three main principles of good communication are; to give people direction, provide them with meaning and empathise with their concerns. All of these traits were displayed by Ardern as she convinced the New Zealand public to take potentially unpopular social distancing measures.
  2. Carry out plans: A leader must have the ability to enforce the policies and plans they’ve suggested, particularly when success hinges on convincing people to make tough choices. Ardern had to do this under extreme uncertainty before the COVID-19 crisis had escalated and while many of New Zealand’s peers delayed taking action.

The full article is available here.

Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln: An Interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Author of ‘Team of Rivals’, Harvard Business Review, 2009

This HBR interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the 2005 Abraham Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, discusses the benefits of a diverse team of high achievers. Here are two key leadership takeaways:

  1. Embrace different points of view: According to Kearns Goodwin a leader should surround herself with strong characters who often disagree, but should still be willing to make decisions and take responsibility. Lincoln, she notes, chose his fierce rival William Seward as Secretary of State. This enabled Lincoln to remain aware of different opinions and have strong confidants to challenge his biases.
  2. Switch off: Lincoln visited the theater approximately 100 times while in Washington DC. During World War 2 Franklin D. Roosevelt held a cocktail hour, every evening, where talk of the war was banned. Taking time away from a crisis enables a leader to recharge and not become overwhelmed by the situation they face.

You can read the full interview here.

This A

Recode Decode: How “Good to Great” Author Jim Collins Helped Amazon Rescue Itself

Kara Swisher talks to author Jim Collins about his career, teaching Jeff Bezos how to save Amazon and what he learned from Bill Hewlett and David Packard. Here are two key leadership takeaways:

1. Momentum is built from a series of successes: This is what Collins calls “The Flywheel Principle”. He believes leaders should build an idea, successfully complete the first phase and allow momentum to carry them into the second phase. Continued momentum will ultimately deliver sustainability. Jump beyond the flywheel and the momentum stops. For an idea to be successful it requires sufficient time and the ongoing attention of leaders.

2. A sense of responsibility creates “Level 5 Leaders”: Leadership is about serving something that’s bigger and more important than your own ambitions. Doing this with humility and a willingness to learn is the key characteristic of great leaders. Collins believes this was best illustrated by David Packard of Hewlett Packard when he told a group of business leaders “management has a responsibility beyond making profit for shareholders”.


Listen to the podcast through
Spotify here.

Harvard Business Review Podcasts: How One CEO Creates Joy at Work

Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, says it took him years to learn what really mattered at work. He works hard to ensure his job and the jobs of his team are joyful. Here are two key leadership takeaways:

1. Fear suppresses innovation: Fears can’t be fully eradicated. Some companies constantly live with the fear of going out of business or running out of cash. Don’t allow such fears dictate your culture. Know when your team needs you to be an optimist and when it needs you to be a realist.

2. Action over contemplation: Sheridan doesn’t believe in overthinking actions. Instead his attitude is to “run the experiment”. Over analysis leads to ideas being defeated. Action energises and excites the team and if something fails at least you’ll know it doesn’t work.


Listen to the podcast through
Spotify here.

For Your

Everyday Leadership: Drew Dudley, TedXToronto, 2010

This short and entertaining video has become one of the most viewed and discussed Ted Talks on the topic of leadership. Here are two key leadership takeaways:

1. What leadership is really about: According to Dudley “we have made leadership into something bigger than us. We’ve made it into something beyond us. We’ve made it about changing the world”. Essentially then we are spending too much time celebrating things that hardly anyone can do and insufficient time celebrating things that we all do every day.

2. “Lollipop moments” make all the difference: A forgettable passing moment for one individual can have life changing implications for another. Every single one of us has made a positive impact on somebody. For Dudley this is the power of everyday leadership. As President John Quincy Adams once said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”.


Check out the clip from The Office here. It’s less than five minutes long.

How Not to Lead: The Office

This disastrous scene from the American Sit-Com “The Office” demonstrates the calamity and chaos that can ensue when there is a vacuum of real leadership. Here are two key leadership takeaways:

1. Lead by example: Michael (played by Steve Carrell) is the team’s leader. In a crisis he should remain calm and confident while taking control of the situation. Unfortunately he quickly becomes irrational and hysterical. This amplifies the chaos.

2. It’s all about the team: As Shackleton knew only too well team selection counts. Your team ultimately determines the success or failure of any project. When a team includes individuals like Dwight (the fire starter), the likelihood of success is low.

Check out the clip from The Office here. It’s less than five minutes long.

And Finally…
For Something

Music: Food for the Soul

Those of us who are lucky enough to do so are spending much more time at home at the moment. Here’s a song you might like about home and what’s really important.

If you’re getting out for a short, local walk over the weekend this playlist will help to keep you moving.

And finally….on Easter Sunday, by invitation of the City of Milan, Andrea Bocelli will give a live solo performance of love, healing and hope to Italy and the world. Watch live here at 6pm on Sunday 12th April.