Ernest Shackleton led a doomed 1914 expedition to Antarctica aboard the vessel Endurance. The mission of the Endurance expedition was to cross a 1,800-mile expanse of Antarctica on foot. Just one day’s journey from its intended landing site, the ship became stuck in the polar ice of the Weddell Sea. The ice dragged the vessel for ten months and eventually crushed her, forcing the crew to abandon ship. The men salvaged Endurance’s lifeboats before she inevitably sank, but they were stranded with no means of communicating with the outside world and no hope of timely rescue.
The group camped out on the ice, sleeping in crude tents and subsisting on a diet of penguins, seals, and sled dogs. Knowing that they would die if despair and hopelessness took hold, Shackleton made sure that the men felt useful and productive. They had to believe that they were actively trying to get out of their predicament, and that if they worked together, that they would succeed. Shackleton had to balance negative and positive energy to make sure that the naysayers among them wouldn’t destroy the group’s fragile confidence.
To get the men working together, he dropped all pretenses of hierarchy and treated everyone, including himself, as equals. He set up work assignments on a rotating schedule so that everyone did the same tasks. On occasion, he even stepped aside and let another member of the group assume leadership. To encourage the men to remain in good spirits, he insisted that they play music, keep journals, create and perform skits, and otherwise engage their minds creatively.
After nearly six months of living on the ice, the Endurance crew braved the turbulent waters of the Weddell Sea and set sail in their lifeboats to Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton left with a small group to seek rescue, leaving the majority of the men on Elephant Island. After several months, he finally returned to rescue the men of the Endurance. Amazingly, there were zero casualties.
During times of major change, individual’s and leaders’ limits are tested. When the changes stretch out over many months, individuals can become demoralized and lose focus on what they are working so hard to achieve. They may become exhausted trying to keep one foot on the old ice floe (their old way of life) and one foot on the new (their new way of life) until they can leave the old ice floe behind. No matter what challenges you are facing, never let hopelessness take hold. In groups, it works from the inside out, spreading from person to person and destroying morale. Eventually, it will even affect you.
How do you do it?
· Focus on what you can control – even if it’s small.
· Allow those going through change to see how they are contributing to improvement of the current situation.
· Talk more about opportunities than about obstacles. (It’s okay to acknowledge that things are difficult, just don’t dwell on them.)
· Roll up your sleeves, and work alongside them.
· Take the risks necessary help your those going through changes realize short-term wins and breakthroughs.
If you want to know more about Shackleton’s incredible story and leadership, get a copy of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.