Why Leadership Matters

One leader can make a difference in any situation and any organization.

You might have seen the news this week that Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was discovered in Antarctica after sinking more than 107 years ago. Searchers found the ship 9,842 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea on the northern coast of Antarctica.

While the discovery is considered a significant historical find, I can’t help thinking about the man behind the ship, Ernest Shackleton. He was a man who faced the ultimate leadership test and came out on top. His actions demonstrate why leadership is so important, especially when things go tragically wrong.

If you know the story, Shackleton and his crew of 27 men left England in 1914 on an expedition to cross Antarctica on foot. But the mission failed.

Five months into the journey, the Endurance became hopelessly stuck in the thick, impenetrable ice in the Weddell Sea. Nine months later, the shifting ice crushed the Endurance leaving Shackleton and his crew stranded on the ice flows.

Shackleton faced one of the most challenging leadership tests in history. Click To Tweet

With no hope for rescue, Shackleton faced one of the most challenging leadership tests in history. His mission to transit Antarctica was over, but he had a new goal – to keep his crew alive.

He led his team in the most brutal conditions on the shrinking ice pack for six months. Eventually, they reached the uninhabited and remote Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and five crew members set sail in a 23-foot-long open lifeboat to get help. They needed to travel more than 800 miles to reach the whaling stations on South Georgia island.

Shackleton and his men endured storms, heavy seas, 50 mph winds, and ice build-ups on the hull that threatened to capsize their vessel. One of his crew later said, “It was the most amazing suffering.”

Two weeks later, they reached South Georgia, where Shackleton arranged a rescue of his remaining crew on Elephant Island.

On August 30th, 1916, the remaining crew members were rescued more than two years after they left England. Every one of his crew of 27 men survived the ordeal.

Ernest Shackleton proved why one leader can make a difference. Click To Tweet

Ernest Shackleton proved why one leader can make a difference. Consider these five leadership traits Shackleton demonstrated:

He didn’t panic. He just changed the mission. When it was clear that they would no longer be able to carry out the expedition’s mission, Shackleton pivoted to a new goal of getting his men home. He made sure everyone knew the new mission.

He provided hope. By focusing on the new mission and formulating a plan to carry it out, he sparked hope in his team. Without Shackleton’s leadership, his team might have died hopelessly on that ice pack.

He took care of morale. His men faced brutal conditions with limited supplies and food. Shackleton kept things light with humor and kept his crew occupied with assigned work. He did his best to meet the needs of everyone on his crew. He knew that if morale faltered, so would their chances of survival.

He led from the front. Shackleton suffered as much if not more than his crew during those two years. He personally led the mission to South Georgia in a small open boat in the Antarctic because it provided the best chance of rescue.

He never gave up. Despite every obstacle put in his path, he never gave up. His men were motivated by his steadfast persistence.

When Shackleton was later asked about how he overcame all the challenges he faced on that ill-fated expedition, he had the most humble answer. He said, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” - Ernest Shackleton Click To Tweet

I encourage you to read more about the Endurance Expedition. One of my favorite books is Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morrell.

Shackleton’s story provides us with a great example of why leadership matters.

One leader can make a difference in any situation and any organization. So, the question is: What can you do today to make a difference with your team?

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[Photo credit: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic]

Disasters Happen when Leadership Fails

When leaders fail to lead, the results are often devastating.

On July 12, 2020, an arsonist set a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base in San Diego. The fire burned for four days, injured 63 people, and resulted in a complete loss of the ship.

This past week, the military released a 400-page report stating that 36 individuals, including the ship’s captain and five admirals, were responsible for the 3.5 billion dollar loss. The report concluded that “Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire.”

As a former naval submarine officer, I was shocked to learn that crew and shipyard personal did not know how to fight this fire. According to the report, “the response effort was placed in the hands of inadequately trained and drilled personnel.”

When an organization fails, it’s always a failure of leadership. Click To Tweet

In my experience, the only way a ship’s crew could be inadequately trained to fight a fire is that the captain failed to make it a priority.

I should know because I’m a trained navy firefighter. 

Every member of my crew was when I served. We were all trained to fight fires. It was part of our basic submarine training and something we drilled on constantly.

A fire on a navy vessel is one of the most dangerous things that could happen on board. Smoke can quickly fill compartments and asphyxiate sailors. The heat and flames can spread to weapons, volatile materials, and critical systems, creating catastrophic damage. Small fires become big fires. A massive fire can quickly incapacitate the crew and disable the ship as it did with the Bonhomme Richard.

That’s why we learned to rapidly attack the fire when it was still small and why we trained so hard in firefighting.

When I served on the USS Tennessee, I must have put more than five hundred simulated fires. Fighting fires was second nature to us. Our crew was exceptionally proficient at firefighting because our captain made it a priority, and he trained us hard.

Our captain knew that he was responsible for both the mission and the crew. He knew that a fire on board put both of those priorities in jeopardy.

Leaders are responsible for both the mission and the crew. Click To Tweet

In contrast, the crew of Bonhomme Richard took two hours to get water onto the fire and had failed 14 consecutive fire drills before the blaze. They were ill-trained and ineffective due to a failure of leadership.

The captain and senior officers failed their crew and the Navy.

They didn’t place a priority on the mission and the crew. They were distracted by other activities.

Think about this story as it relates to your leadership situation.

What are the things that can quickly disable your organization and adversely affect your mission and people?

Do your employees know what to do when that happens?

Have they been adequately trained?

When an organization fails, it’s always a failure of leadership, and the results can be devastating. The fire on the Bonhomme Richard is just another cautionary tale of what happens when leaders fail to lead.

In my new leadership book, All in the Same Boat, there is a chapter called “Run to the Fire.” I talk about the essential leadership lessons I learned as a navy firefighter and how I applied those lessons to business. Check it out here.

[U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross/Released]

The Perfect Pandemic Pivot

I have given several webinars over the past few weeks on leading during a crisis and one of the topics I like to discuss is making a pivot. Once you understand how this pandemic affects your team, your organization, and your industry, you need to chart a new course.

But – and this is really important – you need to stay true to your mission.

If you pivot, you need to stay true to your mission. Click To Tweet

Let me give you an example.

You’ve probably heard of the company, Life is Good.

It’s a lifestyle brand founded in 1994 and is best known for optimistic T-shirts and hats, many of which feature a smiling stick figure named Jake.

It’s probably not surprising to learn their mission is to “spread the power of optimism.”

I’ve watched them make a pivot during this COVID crisis and you can see it too. On the front page of their website, every T-shirt is related to the global pandemic but in a hopeful, optimistic, and positive approach.

For example, you can get a shirt with golden retrievers on a Zoom call or Sasquatch as the social distance world champion.

They call these shirts, “lighthearted tees for uncertain times,” and they are consistent with their mission to spread the power of optimism even in a global pandemic.

You might be thinking, that’s great Jon but I don’t own an optimistic T-shirt company, how can I make a pivot?

Good question!

I recently had Philip Freeman as a guest on my podcast. He is the founder of Murphy’s Naturals, a company that manufactures natural products for outdoor living – think bug repellent. I wanted to have him on the podcast because of the pivot he made in his business.

And…how it was entirely consistent with his mission statement.

Murphy’s Naturals’ mission is to celebrate nature and inspire good through quality natural products. They believe in “doing others good.”

During this pandemic, Philip quickly realized the world desperately needed hand sanitizer and he had the assets and people who could produce this essential product.

So, he and his company made a pivot and began to manufacture hand sanitizer.

But not just for any customer either. Philip’s company ended up becoming a supplier to the U.S. Navy who desperately needed this essential product.

And true to the company’s mission, Murphy’s Naturals’ hand sanitizer is 99.99% natural.

Inspiring good through quality natural products is not just a mission statement in a dusty binder on a shelf for Murphy’s Naturals, it’s something that is lived every day, even in a global pandemic.

A mission statement is something that is lived every day, even in a global pandemic. Click To Tweet

So, what about your organization? What pivot are you considering or have you done already?

More importantly – is it consistent with your mission?

Pivoting in a crisis is important but pivoting with a purpose is absolutely critical to maintaining your company’s authenticity.