Forged in Crisis
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Forged in Crisis

The Making of Five Courageous Leaders

Nancy Koehn

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eBook - ePub

Forged in Crisis

The Making of Five Courageous Leaders

Nancy Koehn

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A WALL STREET JOURNAL BESTSELLER "Five gritty leaders whose extraordinary passion and perseverance changed history…a gripping read on a timeless and timely topic" —Angela Duckworth, #1 bestselling author of Grit An enthralling historical narrative filled with critical leadership insights, Forged in Crisis, by celebrated Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn, spotlights five masters of crisis: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson. What do such disparate figures have in common? Why do their extraordinary stories continue to amaze and inspire? In delivering the answers to those questions, Nancy Koehn offers a remarkable template by which to judge those in our own time to whom the public has given its trust.She begins each of the book's five sections by showing her protagonist on the precipice of a great crisis: Shackleton marooned on an Antarctic ice floe; Lincoln on the verge of seeing the Union collapse; escaped slave Douglass facing possible capture; Bonhoeffer agonizing over how to counter absolute evil with faith; Carson racing against the cancer ravaging her in a bid to save the planet. The narrative then reaches back to each person's childhood and shows the individual growing—step by step—into the person he or she will ultimately become. Significantly, as we follow each leader's against-all-odds journey, we begin to glean an essential truth: leaders are not born but made. In a book dense with epiphanies, the most galvanizing one may be that the power to lead courageously resides in each of us.Whether it's read as a repository of great insight or as exceptionally rendered human drama, Forged in Crisis stands as a towering achievement.

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Bring the Team Home Alive



No Hope of Rescue

In late October 1915, Ernest Shackleton, leader of the celebrated British expedition to Antarctica, surveyed the crisis unfolding around him. Shackleton had originally planned to sail his ship, the Endurance, through the Weddell Sea to the South American side of the continent, land on the coast, and then march a team of five men, supported by dogs and sledges, to the South Pole and then onto the Ross Sea on the side closest to Australia. Completing this mission would make the explorer the first to cross the entire continent. In the context of other Antarctic expeditions, this achievement held out the promise of enduring fame for Shackleton and glory for Great Britain.
But in late January 1915, pack ice had locked the Endurance about eighty miles from land, holding the ship and her crew hostage to the drifting floes; by October, the currents had carried the boat almost seven hundred miles north and west. The floes—large masses of floating ice, some weighing several tons—alternately broke apart and came back together in the ocean’s mighty swells. Caught in this shifting mosaic, the wooden ship creaked and groaned under the immense pressure. It seemed only a matter of time before the Endurance would succumb and sink.
Toward the end of October, the ice suddenly rose and fell, driving the vessel starboard (rightward) to a thirty-degree tilt. The ship righted itself when the ice loosened some. But in the ensuing days, the floes continued to press on the hull, opening planks on the ship’s sides. Crew members manned the pumps round the clock as they tried to stanch the inflowing water. The captain, Frank Worsley, still hoped the Endurance might break free of the moving pack and sail into open water. But Shackleton was less optimistic and made plans to move the men and supplies onto the ice. “A strange occurrence was the appearance of eight Emperor [penguins],” Worsley noted in his diary on October 26. After issuing a few ordinary cries, he wrote, the birds “proceeded to sing what sounded like a dirge for the ship.”
The next day, the ice intensified its assault on the Endurance, squeezing her like a vise. The vessel was “in her death agony,” wrote the expedition’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, in his diary. “It was a pitiful sight. To all of us she seemed like a living thing—we had sworn at her and cursed her antics in a seaway, but we had learned to love her as we now realised, and it was awful to witness her torture.” Late that afternoon, Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship and take refuge in tents on the shifting ice floe. That night, the temperature fell to -15° Fahrenheit (-26° Celsius).
While the men tried to sleep amid the vessel’s cracking timbers, Shackleton paced the ice. He thought about the dying ship. He took stock of his men and options for getting them all home alive. Like other leaders in a crisis, Shackleton understood that achieving his mission depended critically on how he managed himself—mentally, emotionally, and physically. He realized that the path ahead was likely to be long and arduous, and as he later remembered, “an ordered mind and a clear programme were essential if we were to come through without loss of life.”
Early the next morning, Shackleton, his second-in-command, Frank Wild, and expedition photographer Frank Hurley prepared hot powdered milk for breakfast. As the men emerged from their tents, Shackleton gathered them round and announced a new goal: “ship and stores have gone—so now we’ll go home.” He did so “without emotion, melodrama or excitement,” Macklin remembered, even though “it must have been a moment of bitter disappointment” for the leader. He’d “lost his ship, and with her any chance of crossing the Antarctic Continent.” As always with him, Macklin added, “what had happened had happened: it was in the past and he looked to the future.” A day later, in the privacy of his own diary, Shackleton was more candid about the challenge ahead. He knew that circumstances had altered his mission from one of exploration to one of survival. “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground,” he wrote. “I pray God, I can manage to get the whole party to civilization.”
From his Antarctic experience, Shackleton knew that one of the most important tools he had in accomplishing his mission was his presence. How he showed up each day in front of his men—what kind of energy he gave off, how determined he looked, even how he carried his body—had a huge impact on the team. He used what we would today call his emotional intelligence to maintain his determination and bravery; when these flagged, he never let his men know.
This is an important lesson for our time. Leaders often forget that all eyes are on them—as they give a speech, sit in a meeting, walk down a hallway, or glance furtively at their smartphone during dinner. This is especially true when the volatility of a situation increases. In these moments, people instinctively look to leaders, searching their words, actions, and body language for guidance. This means that individuals in positions of authority must learn to embody their mission not only in what they say and do, but also in how they show up. When a leader appears assured and levelheaded, others are more likely to respond to the call.
As the forty-one-year-old commander worked to exude confidence, he kept his men’s focus trained on the task ahead. It was no use considering what had been lost or what might have been; the new goal was to get everyone home safely. The morning after abandoning ship, Shackleton announced the team would march across the pack ice toward a former explorer’s base on Snow Hill Island, some three hundred miles northwest. He estimated the men could walk five to seven miles a day. He was sure that when they arrived there, they would find emergency stores cached by past expeditions. From Snow Hill Island, the commander and a smaller party would travel an additional 130 miles west to Deception Island, where whaling ships were known to dock.
The trek across the broken ice would be difficult for a group hauling two of the ship’s three lifeboats, food supplies, and other stores. But Shackleton was in a hurry to get his team moving, partly to improve the men’s morale. “It will be much better for the men in general to feel that even though progress was slow,” he noted privately, “they are on their way to land, than it will be simply to sit down and wait for the tardy north-westerly drift to take us out of this cruel waste of ice.” A second reason of Shackleton’s for taking action now was to avoid damage to the lifeboats; this might occur if the men waited for open water and ended up sailing in choppy seas amid shifting icebergs.
On October 30, 1915, three days after evacuating the Endurance, the men set out for Snow Hill Island. Some hauled the lifeboats, others drove dog teams pulling supplies. The long, plodding caravan headed away from the ship and the site the men called Dump Camp. The team moved at a crawl, owing to their heavy loads and the difficulty of moving across uneven ice—a landscape defined by jagged ridges and huge blocks as far as the eye could see. After two tedious hours, the men had traveled only a mile. They were exhausted. The next two days were worse, and on the third day, November 1, Shackleton called off the march.
The twenty-eight men had traveled less than four miles toward their destination. The commander knew that at the current pace, their supplies would give out long before they reached Snow Hill Island. He ordered the men to move their gear to a solid ice floe not far from the battered ship. Shackleton planned to have the men camp there while he considered his next move.
On November 21, 1915, the commander saw what remained of the Endurance sinking through the ice. “She’s going, boys!” he shouted, and the men quickly clambered out of their tents to watch. “There was our poor ship a mile and a half away struggling in her death-agony,” a crew member recorded in his diary. “She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her forever.” A strange silence fell over the camp. With the ship gone, the men could see nothing but ice, extending endlessly in all directions. There was no line on the horizon, no sign whatsoever of the outside world. Without the Endurance, one man wrote, “our destitution seems more emphasized, our desolation more complete.” Shackleton himself was stunned by the ship’s sinking. He recorded the event only briefly in his diary, adding, “I cannot write about it.”
The leader knew there was no hope of rescue. Not only were the men seven hundred miles northwest of where he’d originally planned to build base camp, but he’d also told family and colleagues not to expect any communication from him before early 1916. The leader understood that he’d have to get the crew to safety on his own, and he knew how difficult this would be.
Shackleton had been to Antarctica twice before. The first time, as a member of the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901–4), he’d come close to death—a result he attributed as much to the team’s weak commander as to the continent’s harsh conditions. The second time, he’d led his own expedition (1907–9). His crew hadn’t achieved its objective of discovering the South Pole, but he’d learned a great deal about himself and his authority. He knew that cohesion, including the men’s faith in themselves and their leader, was as important to survival as adequate nutrition. Shackleton also understood that as the head of the expedition, he was responsible for these elements. Now, in 1915, against extraordinary odds, he had to advance his mission and keep his men believing they could achieve it with him.
How exactly was the explorer going to accomplish his goal? How was he to keep his own courage and confidence levels high to feed those of his men? In November 1915, as the Endurance sank and the ice closed over her, the answers to these questions were anything but clear. What Shackleton did know was that he was committed to bringing all his men home alive, and he was willing to do whatever it took to accomplish this. In the midst of disaster, he’d made a conscious choice to lead. He was all-in, and his story offers up key leadership lessons for moments when disaster strikes.


Shackleton’s Early Life

Shackleton was born on February 15, 1874, in County Kildare, Ireland, the second child and first son of Henry and Henrietta Letitia Sophia Gavan Shackleton. Ernest grew up in a solidly middle-class family. As a boy, he devoured adventure magazines, enthralled by the idea of man mastering nature. He also loved poetry, especially the heroic strains of Robert Browning. (When he was a sailor, Shackleton would wile away the hours off duty reading poetry in his cabin. “Old Shack’s busy with his books,” shipmates commented.)
At sixteen, Ernest convinced his parents to allow him to go to sea, and the elder Shackleton found his son a position as a ship’s boy on a merchant vessel. The lowest-ranking member of the crew, the teenager spent his time scrubbing decks and polishing brass railings. After this voyage, the ship’s captain wrote that the young sailor was “the most pig-headed, obstinate boy I have ever come across.” But Shackleton was also attentive and observant and soon had a rising career in the merchant marine. By age twenty-four, he’d attained the rank of full master, which qualified him to command a commercial vessel. Unlike in school, where his performance had been consistently below average, at sea, supervisors praised his intelligence and skills, noting “his brother officers considered him to be a very good fellow.”
Among other seamen, Shackleton developed a reputation for not flaunting his rank. He was a “departure from our usual type of young officer,” a colleague observed. “He was contented with his own company—at the same time he never stood aloof in any way, but was eager to talk—to argue as sailors do.” Shackleton usually spoke in a quiet drawl, intimate in voice and manner. But with subjects that engaged him, the same colleague remembered, “his features worked, his eyes shone, and his whole body seemed to have received an increase of vitality.” Regardless of his energy level, the seaman concluded, Shackleton was “very human, very sensitive.”
As he scaled the maritime ladder, the young man grew restless. He complained that he needed an “opportunity of breaking away from the monotony of method and routine—from an existence which might eventually strangle his individuality.” In March 1900, at age twenty-six, he saw such an opening when he learned about a proposed expedition to Antarctica. Shackleton knew the son of the principal benefactor of the enterprise and, through this connection and subsequent interviews, won an appointment as a member of the National Antarctic Expedition (NAE), which set sail aboard the ship Discovery in 1901.
The ambitious mariner had another reason for wanting to join the voyage. In 1897, he had met Emily Dorman, the daughter of a prosperous London solicitor. He was immediately smitten with the tall, attractive, soft-mannered woman. Determined to win her hand, he sought a pathway to fame, fortune, and social status; the NAE appeared to be such an opportunity, and he grabbed for it with both hands.
At the turn of the century, Britain was one of many countries engaged in a fierce competition to discover the South Pole. In 1895, after the Sixth International Geographical Congress had declared that developing a better understanding of Antarctica was the most urgent scientific issue of the era, many nations launched expeditions to the southernmost continent. In 1899, for example, Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink became the first man to winter in Antarctica. He returned to Europe in 1900, suggesting that the region might be an economic prize, complete with enormous fishing stocks and mineral stores. Other explorers quickly followed in the name of science, commerce, and nationalism. For these men, the combination of international rivalry, scientific discovery, patriotism, and high-risk adventure was a seductive elixir that held out the possibility of glory and national honor.
But as this global competition intensified, Britain suffered from several disadvantages. None of the members of the NAE, including its commander, Major Robert Falcon Scott of the Royal Navy, had any previous polar experience. As important, previous Norwegian expeditions had used dog teams and skis to move efficiently over ice, yet few British explorers were practiced at either form of transport. As a result, many of the country’s expeditions to the South Pole ultimately relied on man-hauling, in which crew members tramped across the ice pulling supply-laden sledges. Proper nutrition had also proven to be a serious problem; on past expeditions, British leaders frequently rationed food inadequately and relied primarily on a diet of canned foods. Without fresh meat or produce, many explorers suffered from scurvy, a condition that resulted in bleeding gums, swollen joints, and skin damage, and which, we know today, was caused by vitamin C deficiency.
Despite the challenges, the NAE arrived on the Antarctic coast in early 1902. Even at its most temperate, Antarctica was (and is) a forbidding place. Temperatures at the South Pole average about -20° Fahrenheit (-28.8° Celsius) in the summer and about -76° Fahrenheit (-60° Celsius) in the winter. The lowest recorded temperature on earth, -128.6° Fahrenheit, which is -89.2° Celsius, belongs to Antarctica. Strong, cold winds and constantly changing conditions added to the dangers, creating an environment in which there was literally no margin for error. Scott and his men knew this before they left Britain; they understood it even more clearly once they had spent a winter at base camp.
On November 2, some six weeks into spring in the southern hemisphere, Scott, Shackleton, and colleague Edward Wilson set off from base camp for the South Pole. From the beginning, their journey was marred by logistical and other difficulties. Man-hauling sledges weighing up to five hundred pounds across uneven terrain in subzero temperatures—for as many as ten hours each day—sapped the men’s strength and confidence. Inadequate clothing, gear, and food stocks also greatly hindered progress. Further exacerbating the explorers’ troubles were frequent clashes between Scott and Shackleton over routes, supplies, and traveling speeds. By late December, the three men were undernourished and dispirited.
On December 30, when the team reached 82°17'S, about five hundred miles nor...