01 Oct 2002

Lessons in Leadership


HBS professor Nancy F. Koehn found the leadership lessons in the ill-fated voyage of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance so valuable that she wrote a case study on it. HBS Working Knowledge senior editor Martha Lagace recently asked Koehn what prompted her to author “Leadership in Crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance.” Koehn’s response follows.

First, there are many important lessons for business leaders to be found in areas outside business. When we look at enduring works of literature, for example, we find interesting questions about living a good life and important insights into how to motivate people, allocate resources, and act with great integrity in moments of crisis.

Second, we are now living in a turbulent time. There are new questions about where we are going as a people, as business leaders, and as good citizens. Leaders have to be able to manage in stable, prosperous times and also in very uncertain, dangerous times.

Third, the Shackleton story is compelling. Case-method learning is partly about choosing stories that we can learn from, that we can make our own, that we don’t forget as we go out in the world and begin to be responsible for other people’s lives, jobs, money, energy, and commitment. This was a great story of integrity and humanity — and one that no one ever could have predicted, not in what happened, how it unfolded, or how it ended. Ernest Shackleton, like all of us, was as flawed as he was brilliant. Business leaders have to be able to discern both of these aspects of people and of organizations.

One thing Shackleton did very well was to revise, and reset, his objectives as the context changed. As soon as his ship was trapped in ice, he figured out that the goal of the enterprise was no longer to walk across the continent of Antarctica. The new goal was to survive. He was able to see that and keep that clearly in focus. It’s frequently very hard for people to do this, to give up on a long-sought-after goal. And yet sometimes the stakes can be as high as one’s life and other people’s lives.

One of the great challenges of managing or leading in turbulence is being able to play to your stronger suit as a leader and also play to others’ stronger suits. Lincoln did it, Shackleton did it, Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, and many others have done it. We need to be able to help our students understand how they can do it — both in small and in big leadership contexts.

To read the full Q&A with Koehn, visit http://hbsworkingknowledge.hbs.edu/item.jhtml?id=3612&t=strategy.


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