Pres. Obama Takes Helm in Rough Waters

Sir. Ernest Shackleton
Sir. Ernest Shackleton

When President Barack Obama strode before the nation yesterday and delivered his inaugural speech, I kept thinking about the incredible challenges that that he and all of us face.  Few speeches have been delivered with so many crises looming and with so many lives and livelihoods at stake.


And as he stood there in his dark blue overcoat delivering his pep-talk to the nation, he reminded me of Ernest Shackleton, the Irish explorer and leader.  I thought both have much to teach us about how we should carry ourselves in times of crisis.


Shackleton led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which is recounted in Alfred Lansing’s incredible book “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.”.  The goal of the expedition, from 1914-1917, was to sail to Antarctica and walk across.  But the expedition failed when the ship, aptly named the Endurance, became trapped in ice near Antarctica. The ship was eventually crushed and sank.  From there, the crew wandered the bottom of the earth for months, drifting on ice floes, eating penguins and sea lions as they fought for survival.  Eventually the crew found themselves rowing to Elephant Island where they perched on a rocky wind-battered beach.


Setting out on a challenging mission


Realizing that they wouldn’t be able to survive there for long, Shackleton chose a few men for a rescue mission. They boarded a small boat and rowed 800 miles across the Antarctic Ocean to South Georgia.   They crossed icy mountains on a treacherous three day trek and found a whaling station. Shackleton then commandeered a whaling boat back to Elephant Island and rescued the remaining crew. All the men survived.


Years later, a reporter asked Shackleton whether, when he left Elephant Island, he believed he would be able to return and complete the rescue. The reporter expected Shackleton to admit that he had no hope.  But he said that he never allowed himself any doubt. “Optimism,” he said, “is the true moral courage.”


Shackleton knew that in times of crisis, leaders must maintain and air of confidence and optimism. In his diary, he wrote about how he knew that the morale of his men depended on his own positive demeanor. During the months a sea, he organized soccer matches and nightly skits. If he had doubts, he never allowed them to show.


Never allowing doubts to show


President Obama yesterday seemed to be the embodiment of Shackleton’s spirit of optimism in crisis. To be sure, Obama wasn’t ignoring the serious challenges that we face. But to look at him and hear his words, you couldn’t see anything other than confident resolve.


The stock market is plunging. People everywhere are getting laid off. Houses are being repossessed.  Bombs are falling in the Middle East. The ice caps are melting.


And there stands our new President speaking without a hint of doubt and laying out plans to address all of it. “Starting today,” he said, “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”


His confident demeanor made me feel confident. 


Leaders are always being watched


The lesson, for me, is that leaders must remember that they are always being watched. If you’re the managing partner of a law firm, the owner of a small company, the leader of a business unit, or simply managing your first business project never forget that people are watching you and taking their cues on how to feel about the situation from how you stand, walk, and speak.


Just something to keep in mind as we navigate today’s treacherous seas.

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