Much has been written about the extraordinary leadership displayed by the explorer Ernest Shackleton; not as much has been written yet about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy (but certainly will be over time). The Shackleton story took place over a 100 years ago; the Zelenskyy story literally is being written as we speak. Both stories were in the news this month, with the discovery of the remains of The Endurance, Shackleton’s doomed ship that froze and then sunk in the cold waters of Antarctica in 1915, juxtaposed against the unfortunate and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia, giving rise to a comedian-turned-politician that very few had heard of just a couple of years ago to someone now drawing comparisons to Reagan and Churchill. Both figures – Shackleton and Zelenskyy – were thrown into an extreme crisis, forcing each to stretch his leadership skills to extraordinary lengths. Both were (or are) in situations of extreme life and death. The parallels in the lessons coming from both leaders are compelling. But first, a quick backstory on each…
If you’re not familiar with the Shackleton story, he was a famous Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer who led three British expeditions of the Antarctic. The goal of his last voyage was to be the first to cross the continent. But ice surrounded, then entrapped and eventually crushed his ship, forcing him and his 27-person crew to literally live on the iceshelf for over a year (eating penguins and seals and somehow staying warm in extreme conditions), before a subset of his crew sailed over 800 miles in a modified lifeboat through rough ocean waters to try to find rescue. The sub-crew made it to South Georgia, then returned months later to pick up the rest of the crew. Everyone amazingly survived. It’s a story of heroism, courage, and incredible leadership.
So is the story of Zelenskyy. As most of us have recently come to learn, he was an actor and comedian who became the sixth president of Ukraine, which is now embroiled in a war with Russia. Rather than fleeing the country upon its invasion last month, he and his family stayed in the capitol, stayed in power, and with an even hand, has so far stayed the course. Many experts – historians, political scientists, and leadership gurus alike – are already quick to state that Zelenskyy’s profile in leadership may be what is sustaining the Ukrainian nation. Dr. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor said in recent LinkedIn post: “I am transfixed by the example of President Zelensky. I have watched every one of his addresses. He is plainspoken, quietly forceful, and unstinting with the truth. I have been studying leadership and fearlessness my whole life. I’ve never quite seen the likes of this.” Well, maybe not since Shackleton.
We know how the Shackleton story ends. We really have no idea how the Zelenskyy story will, but we have already seen incredible demonstrations of leadership and human courage displayed the last four weeks that bring to mind the lessons in leadership and human courage that Shackleton left us a century ago.
Comparing, contrasting, and intersecting both stories, here are lessons in leadership that – to me at least – transcend time …
Good leaders are honest, communicate clearly – they communicate clearly, helping their followers understand reality, remain calm, and make better decisions. Words matter – they move people. Good leaders are intentional with their explanations: they communicate with grace but directness. As Dr. Edmondson claimed of Zelenskyy: “they are plainspoken, quietly forceful, and unstinting with the truth.” Zelenskyy has had to be brutally honest with his people – and with the world – in his now-daily press conferences and speeches. They are effective at inspiring action, movement, resilience.
Good leaders take (prudent) risks – good leaders know that the difference between success and failure oftentimes is a razor thin margin, and that by taking calculated, intelligent risks, you improve your odds of accomplishing your goal (which, in some cases, may literally be survival). Those decisions become more accurate by using data (or, in the case of Zelenskyy, foreign intelligence) – the decisions are calculated, highly analyzed scenarios. I’m sure Shackleton had to make a series of risky decisions over the course of his quest, but I’m also sure that he took into account the pros and cons of every decision, weighing the net benefits of certain scenarios and strategies over others. Strong leaders make fact-based decisions rather than relying on intuition, gut feel, or whim. Especially when lives are at stake.
Good leaders are optimistic but realistic and stay action-oriented – great leaders need to convey what the current reality is, what might happen and what next steps are. They assign tasks, engage the whole team, giving everyone hope and purpose. There’s a story that Shackleton noticed one of his crew members was getting down, apparently losing hope, so he assigned him the duty of making the crew tea every day. It was a simple task, but it gave him purpose, something he could control and have an impact on, and maybe a little hope. During tough times (and even during good times), people need to remain connected to others and to the overall goal; they need to see how their individual efforts matter and that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Good leaders are courageous and seize the moment when it’s needed – sometimes leaders need to make the tough decision; sometimes leaders need to show acts of courage. Not with arrogance or bravado, but with grace and decisiveness. Borrowing a line from the Miracle on Ice movie about the 1980s US Olympic Hockey team upsetting (ironically) the Russians: “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” Great leaders sometimes need to lead from the front, challenging the status quo and confronting issues head-on. When the US offered to evacuate him, Zelenskyy uttered the now famous line echoed worldwide: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Rather than flee to safety, Zelenskyy chose to fight alongside his people – at extraordinary personal risk – because he knows it gives his country and its people the best chance. That’s courage. Zelenskyy has risen from relative obscurity to a symbol for freedom and democracy around the world. He has indeed risen to the moment. (The rest of us have moments that are far less critical, but also important in the eyes of those who follow.)
Good leaders create routine, structure, and systems – great leaders create order and understanding despite the chaos and uncertainty that often surrounds them. They create plans that hang together, where there is alignment of individual tasks to the overall goals. They create process and structure that provide rhythm and routine. They design and execute systematic processes that provide consistent, predictable outcomes. It’s amazing to me just how predictable Zelenskyy has been despite the chaos around him: he gives daily press conferences; has nearly-daily engagement with foreign legislative bodies; he’s seen frequently walking around, talking with citizens, visiting hospitals, engaging with the military – being seen, listening, supporting morale. I would argue it’s all by design and not by accident or happen chance.
Good leaders get involved, are visible, stay connected – similarly, great leaders are connected with their people – they talk regularly as individuals and teams; they listen to their needs and concerns; they stay visible and stay in touch. Not only does it help morale, but it gives a leader a much quicker (and less filtered) view of the variables, allowing better decision making, more agility, and faster response. Figuratively – and in this case, quite literally – good leaders get “in the trenches” with their teams: they don’t hang around headquarters when the shooting starts.
Good leaders stay calm, keep focused – as the saying goes, when anxiety goes up, intelligence usually goes down. When things get more challenging, more complex, more intense, good leaders try to remain in control. They remain confident (how many times has Zelenskyy said Ukraine will win?); they remain steadfast on achieving the ultimate goal; and they keep their composure. If a leader looks nervous, those who follow will instantly be nervous. I once was on a flight on one of those small 12-seater prop planes during really bad weather – high winds, tornados, lightening. At one point, the pilot turned around to announce to passengers something (yes, before 9/11 so the cockpit door was open on this very small plane) and he was covered in sweat…not exactly exuding confidence, and it made us all a bit more nervous. Shackleton moved toward (not away from) conflict – he addressed issues head on before they became bigger issues. He had constancy of purpose, with a singular goal of getting his entire crew safely home.
Good leaders show empathy and remain in service – in order to activate peoples’ aspirations – to inspire their full engagement and potential – leaders need empathy and humility. Good leaders are servant leaders. They put others above themselves; they care. Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton states: “Charisma attracts attention. Courage earns admiration. But commitment to a group is what inspires loyalty. We follow the leaders who fight for us…and we make sacrifices for the leaders who serve us.” I couldn’t have said it better (so I won’t).
Good leaders have fun, yes, even during tough times – it was said that Shackleton encouraged regular play time with his crew; in fact, he saved a banjo while discarding all other non-essentials so that he could occasionally lighten the mood with music. There is a positive physical and psychological impact of laughter – of having fun with friends and staying in touch with the joy of living. The stresses of the last two years for all of us are weighing on our mental health (imagine the stress for Shackleton and Zelenskyy). But when the world gives you lemons, try to make that lemonade.
Good leaders are relatable, authentic – in the end, part of what makes a great leader depends on context. Jessica Stillman in a recent Inc. article states: what makes leaders great isn’t just their internal characteristics, but their ability to understand and reflect the values and identity of those they lead.” She quotes Adam Grant (who I mentioned above): “Psychologists find that we’re drawn to leaders who represent our group. The people we elevate into positions of authority aren’t typical members of our group – they’re prototypical members of our group. They’re the people we see as exemplifying the ideals of the group and acting in the best interests of the group.” They share the group’s core values – they exemplify the group’s core values. Grant goes onto say that the prototypical Ukrainian is a fighter. There’s no question we now see that in Zelenskyy, which goes a long way of explaining his leadership strength.
I would hazard a guess that not many of us will be involved in wars (at least I sincerely hope not), and I’m quite certain none of us have led Antarctic expeditions (actually one PEN member did run a marathon on Antarctica!). But we all have experienced significant obstacles the last couple of years, and no doubt there will be other times we each feel challenged. Let these leadership lessons from two extraordinary individuals – separated by over a century of time – serve as lessons for us all, in both good times and in bad.
Want to learn more? PEN’s annual conference is May 12-13, this year with the theme CHARTING THE COURSE: Leading Forward. The event will feature more than 25 local, regional and national leaders, each sharing insights, tools, methods, best practices in visionary leadership, valuing people, personal and organizational resilience, and innovation. The conference will be hybrid, hosted in person in the Twin Cities and streamed online across the region and nation. The content, networking, and energy will be valuable. Invest in yourself, your team, and your organization. More information is here.
What other insights/tips do you have regarding extraordinary leadership? Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment. And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!
Stay healthy and never stop improving!
Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network
A Catalyst for Success Since 1987!
Photo credit YahooSports, newstextarea, The Guardian, Adventure Journal