I’ve got a book coming out in September, 2012. The working title is “The Complete Executive” and it describes the leadership practices and personal disciplines I have observed in my most successful executive level clients. As part of my research I’m diving into as much diverse thinking on leadership as possible, and came across a fantastic article in this past weekend’s New York Times by Nancy F. Koehn.
The article described Ernest Shackelton’s journey towards Antarctica in 1914 – 1916 in terms of the leadership challenges he faced over the course of the expedition. The parallels between what Shackleton encountered and what’s facing today’s business leaders are fascinating.
He had an audacious goal, and took some chances in hopes of achieving it. Things went awry, though, and the ship and crew faced unexpected and extraordinary adversities, the first of which was having to wait out the Arctic winter on a ship trapped in pack ice. Shackleton recognized, however, that the real concern was not the weather conditions. “He knew that in this environment, without traditional benchmarks and supports, his greatest enemies were high levels of anxiety and disengagement, as well as a slow-burning pessimism.” He knew that the emotional challenges and resulting issues amongst the crew members were the things he had to combat, and he put numerous initiatives in place to do just that. How many business leaders attend to the emotional climate of their organizations in the face of marketplace adversity?
“….The hardest part of leadership is not just feeding your team with ideas and motivation, but feeding yourself…..” Leadership is hard. To maintain “an unshakeable faith in your mission, yourself and your abilities” you must ensure you’re taking care of yourself while you’re leading others. In Shackleton’s case, he kept journals and wrote regular letters to his wife. He reflected on what had changed and what was necessary – at first for success, but later for survival. He adjusted his focus, and then adjusted his approach.
“……(he had) a deep sense of loyalty and obligation to his fellow crew members. The men themselves understood this, and most, in turn, offered him their commitment.” Loyalty is not a one-way street. To expect extraordinary effort and commitment in the face of adversity, leaders must demonstrate that commitment first. People know if it’s there – or not. It can’t assumed, or faked.
“This combination – credible commitment to a larger purpose and flexible, imaginative methods to achieve a goal – is increasingly important in our tumultuous times.” Flexibility and imagination – how many large organizations can really demonstrate those important qualities? This is one interpretation of the “what versus how” distinction. Can your organization stay committed to its purpose and yet nimbly adjust its approach as the environment changes? Can you, as its leader?
An initiative does not have to achieve its original goals in order to be considered a success. The containment of turbulence and the growth of organizational resilience, flexibility and creativity are capabilities that will be valuable no matter what the business objective. Since change and upheaval are apparently the “new normal,” what are you, as a leader, doing to adapt?