-Simon Sinek

The COVID 19 pandemic has upended work and life for billions of people and hundreds of millions of businesses around the globe. The threat of this pandemic far exceeds any crisis in our lifetime, and we face multiple fears about the health, safety and financial well-being for ourselves, our loved ones, our co-workers, our community and the world. Everyday activities like grocery shopping leave us anxious and emotionally exhausted, undermining our patience and our productivity. Fear is palpable in our homes and communities as businesses shutter, layoffs skyrocket, supply chains are disrupted, the death tolls climb and the end seems nowhere in sight. Now more than ever, we are reminded of the critical role that leadership plays in guiding us to victory during times of crisis.

What does it take to successfully lead others during these challenging and uncertain times? What does great crisis leadership look like?

There is no better example of great crisis leadership in action that the story of Sir Earnest Shackleton’s failed attempt be the first to cross Antarctica over one hundred years ago.

With no modern day communication or navigation tools at his disposal, Shackleton and his 27 man crew set off against the advice from local whalers on their aptly named ship, the Endurance. Six weeks into the mission, their ship became stuck in an ice flow in the Weddell Sea over 150 miles from land. Much like many of our state and local government leaders today, Shackleton and his team suddenly found themselves in an overwhelming situation, with limited supplies and an uncertain outcome. With no way out, the crew settled in for a long winter, hopeful that a spring thaw would free their ship and allow them to return safely home.
After ten months the ice shifted, sinking the ship and taking many of its supplies with it to the bottom of the icy sea, leaving them with three small lifeboats and limited resources. The men lived on the ice for six months with shrinking supplies before eventually boarding the lifeboats for a perilous sixteen-day journey to Elephant Island, a small, uninhabited island. With dwindling rations and facing the very real possibility of starvation, Shackleton made the difficult decision to take five men and sail over 800 miles to the nearest whaling station for help. Four months later, Shackleton returned to Elephant Island to successfully rescue the 22 men he had left behind.

Throughout their almost two year expedition, Ernest Shackleton was able to foster resilience in himself and his crew, keeping the men united behind a shared vision in spite of repeated setbacks and disasters. How did he accomplish this? What traits did Shackleton have that enabled him to excel as a leader in the face of insurmountable odds?


Shackleton’s mission had changed overnight from one of exploration to one of survival, but his deep sense of responsibility and commitment to his team remained his North Star throughout, guiding his decisions and actions. This clarity of purpose and commitment to his men and their safety helped to create trust and foster resilience. Extensive research has shown that trust is the foundation of all high-performing teams, as it facilitates the psychological safety necessary for open and honest communication without fear of being ostracized or rebuked. Conviction and commitment to his men and their safety helped foster a strong sense of community amongst his crew and a shared common vision. This is an essential ingredient to high-performing teams that deliver results greater than the sum of their parts. Clarity of mission creates a common vision that unites teams behind shared goals and a sense of purpose that is larger than the individual.

Clarity of goals and deep commitment to values also leads to a sense of inner confidence and calm in the midst of chaos. Emotions are contagious, and a leader’s emotions, even under normal circumstances, are amplified even more so as direct reports try to divine clues from not just what is said, but also from tone and body language. Even during his darkest hours when the ship sank, Shackleford was able to manage his emotions skillfully, reframe challenges and quickly adapt to the new reality. Uncertainty – especially uncertainty created by sudden change – causes a strong physiological threat response that can undermine productivity and collaboration by stoking fear and anxiety. To counterbalance this, Shackleton knew that his words and actions needed to continually signal his commitment to them and his intention to lead them safely home.

He communicated openly and honestly with his crew about the dangers and challenges that they faced – both the knowns and the unknowns. His optimistic explanatory style was contagious and kept his men’s spirits from flagging, even in the face of great uncertainty. Shackleton also kept an open door and open mind, soliciting feedback from his men and listening to their suggestions. This open door policy allowed him to maintain a steady flow of information from his men and be in tune to subtle shifts in energy levels that might affect their morale. Not all of the men subscribed to Shackleton’s plans, but he recognized the importance of containing negativity and made the astute decision to assign the naysayers to his own tent on the ice: proving the old adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

To increase clarity and reduce uncertainty, Shackleton also put great thought and attention to detail into the duty roster, giving each man clearly defined roles and goals, making sure to rotate tasks regularly. When feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty, accomplishing simple daily tasks can provide a perception of progress and agency. The effort and careful planning Shackleford put into the daily duty roster assignments empowered his crew and helped keep feelings of helplessness at bay. Rotating tasks amongst the men helped create learning opportunities, kept the men engaged in their work, ensured a sense of fairness and strengthened team unity.


In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek explains that when the U.S. Marine Corps eat together, the most senior officers are served their meals last. This is because the Marines understand what Ernest Shackleton understood: great leaders put the needs of their troops above their own. They do this because they know that without their men, their mission will fail. This is compassionate leadership in action!

Joan Halifax, a pioneer in bringing compassion to hospice care, defines compassion as “the capacity to be attentive to the experience of others, to wish the best for others, and to sense what will truly serve others.”4 In simple terms, compassion is empathy in action. Shackleton exemplified this by taking great care to ensure that his men were well fed and cared for. The morning after the Endurance sank, Shackleton and his first mate served tea to the men to show their appreciation and boost morale. Whenever possible, he made sure that they had ample protein in order to stave of scurvy and keep the men healthy and strong. Shackleton understood that food nourishes both the body and the soul, and made an effort to have communal feasts to celebrate major holidays, like Easter and Christmas.

Many mistakenly believe that compassion is a sign of weakness. In fact, quite the opposite is true! Dr. Thupten Jinpa, a leading researcher at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, says “Having compassion for others frees us from fearing… it turns our attention outward, expanding our perspective, making our own problems… part of something bigger than us that we are all in together.”

Compassion fosters courage by prompting us to ask the question “What will truly serve the greater good at this moment?” For Shackleton, that sometimes meant offering kindness and support for his men when they were feeling low. At other times, it called for him to speak up about a difficult truth or set appropriate boundaries to keep the men safe. This compassion and courage helped him make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions throughout the expedition and motivated him to make the perilous journey to the whaling station to procure a ship to save his men. Not one man died.

Many leadership experts concur that Shackleton’s Endurance expedition is one of the best examples of crisis leadership in the past one hundred years. How can leaders apply these lessons to help them navigate through today’s pandemic?

  • Get clear on your company’s values, purpose and mission and communicate these to your stakeholders. These guiding principles create the clarity necessary to navigate through turbulent and uncertain times and are one of the most important factors in determining a team’s success.
  • Share information, updates and plans with your team, organization and stakeholders with clarity, candor and frequency to foster a strong foundation of trust and reduce uncertainty. Clearly articulate goals and timelines, and share as much data as possible regarding your thought processes and plans for phasing back to a “new normal”.
  • Role model optimism and courage to foster resilience in your organization. Remember: emotions are contagious! Be mindful of your own emotions and the negativity bias of the human brain. Focus on your organization’s strengths and celebrate small wins. Remind people that although things feel dire now, the pandemic will not last forever and can be overcome. Help the team reframe current challenges as opportunities and envision and plan for the future.
  • One of the most important roles of a leader, especially during a crisis, is to keep a pulse on morale and ensure a unified vision. However, working remotely creates the conditions for “out of sight, out of mind”. Make every effort to have frequent and regular virtual check-ins with your direct reports to check in on progress, challenges and morale. Whenever possible, opt for video conferencing over a phone call, email or text. Research has shown that almost 70%of communication is expressed non-verbally, through tone and body language.
  • Build community and connection amongst your team by taking time out at the beginning of video conference calls to allow everyone to check in on a personal level. Research has shown that people who have good friends at work are much less likely to consider other job opportunities. Host virtual trivia games, happy hours or coffee breaks.