‘The Boss’ Makes A Choice—How An Arctic Explorer Helps Us Understand Ambiguity In A Crisis

Ernest Shackleton – “The Boss” to his men – was faced with an impossible choice, with his own life and that of 27 other men hanging in the balance. For nine months in 1914-5, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, had been trapped by Antarctic ice. It eventually suffered so much damage that he and his men were forced to take refuge on Antarctic pack ice, perhaps the most inhospitable terrain on earth. There is no shelter from the weather, the only food comes from hunting seals, and the winter is unimaginably cold. Summer is, in some ways, even more dangerous, because it thins and melts the ice, and all 27 knew that any one of them who fell through into the freezing ocean below would only survive for moments.

Shackleton had been a sailor since he was 16. His every instinct told him that they had to get off the ice which had trapped his ship. If they could get onto dry land they could wait until the ocean was clear enough to use the Endurance’s lifeboats to sail to safety. He decided on a 300 mile march across the ice to Snow Hill Island, where he thought they could find supplies. Only two days in, however, conditions became so bad they had to stop. The team camped on the ice for a month, salvaging supplies from the wreckage until it finally sank. They had hoped that the movements of the ice floes would bring them closer to Snow Hill Island, but calculations revealed that they were moving further away, even as the ice thinned under their feet.

Snow Hill Island was more than 300 miles away now, but he estimated the edge of the ice pack was less than half that distance. There he could launch the lifeboats directly into the ocean and sail his men to safety. They set off again, but conditions were so difficult that after four days they had covered only six miles and on the fifth a near-mutiny was stifled only by Shackleton promising to continue the men’s wages until they returned home.

After two more days of little progress, Shackleton had to choose. Both options seemed disastrous. Staying would mean risking the crew’s lives to the steadily thinning Antarctic ice and potentially moving ever further from open water. Continuing the march, however, would risk expending the last of their supplies and energy attempting to traverse the worst conditions on earth.

Shackleton’s expedition – as described in Alfred Lansing’s classic Endurance and analyzed by my colleague Nancy Koehn in her fascinating Forged in Crisis – was a masterclass in small-group leadership. This key decision, however, hits to the heart of one of the hardest parts of crisis leadership – the overwhelming importance of ambiguity. Put most simply, leadership in a crisis is often bedeviled by the simple fact that leaders don’t know what they need to know in order to make their decisions. Often, they don’t even know what questions they need to ask.

Why? A crisis puts you into an unknown context. During normal business operations, you may have difficult decisions to make, but you usually know much of what you need to know to make them. Their normality means that you will know what questions to ask – the ones you’ve always asked – and you’ll have ways of getting answers – because you’ve asked them before, so you should have developed them. Now you need to ask new questions and develop new ways of answering them.

“The whole art of war consists of guessing what is on the other side of the hill.” – The Duke of Wellington

Even more important, though, crises fundamentally limit leaders’ ability to predict the outcomes of their choices. Every decision is an exercise in prediction. Consciously or unconsciously you’re always asking, “If I do X, what will happen?” The Duke of Wellington – the legendary British general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo – once said that “the whole art of war consists of guessing what is on the other side of the hill.” Once you know, you can predict the outcomes of different choices. Make the right predictions and you can win the battle.

Over time, any experienced leader creates a mental map that allows him or her to make these predictions – their experience, in other words, tells them what’s on the other side of those hills. As Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool described in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, that mental map is the difference between a novice and an expert. Experts’ mental maps are so refined they can often make good predictions (and good decisions) – as long as their mental map remains accurate.

Shackleton’s mental map told him that doing everything possible to reach the ocean was the right decision. It would give him mobility, resources, and options. But, in a crisis, everything is different. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be in a crisis. The territory has been transformed. Your mental map can betray you and guide you into danger instead of safety, failure instead of success. During a crisis, a leader has to create a new map on the fly, then change course when it reveals new paths.

This isn’t just about arctic explorers. Today, if you lead a business, you’re facing a crisis. If you’re an entrepreneur, then the market you were planning on entering might have just collapsed. The world is in flux in a way it hasn’t been in at least a decade, and, like Shackleton, you probably don’t know what to do or what you need to know to decide.

How can you succeed in such a situation? I’ll try to answer that question in my next post (and also tell you what Shackleton chose), where I’ll look at Robert Steel, the CEO of Wachovia in 2008, and explore his story – perhaps the last great untold one of the financial crisis. Steel’s ability to constantly reassess his situation and chart a new course when a new opportunity presented itself can how us how the best and only way to successfully cope with the ambiguity of a crisis is to maintain flexibility under even the most difficult circumstances.

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