7 Lessons From History’s Greatest Leaders in Times of Crisis
Shackleton and his crew of 27 men were on the verge of freezing to death.
Two years prior, in August 1914, Ernest Shackleton set sail on a ship called The Endurance. His mission was simple: to lead his crew and make history as the first humans to walk across Antarctica.
But five months into the journey, Shackleton’s confidence crumbled.
The Endurance crashed into floating ice sheets and screeched to a halt. Shackleton held out hope on ice melting off the ship within days. But as the days turned to weeks and weeks to months, his crew began to panic.
In June 1915, the ice shattered the ship’s timber and water gushed into The Endurance. Immediately, Shackelton ordered his crew to abandon the sinking ship and camp on nearby ice sheets.
Only a few items remained to survive: three small lifeboats, rifles to kill seals, and a few canned goods. Shackleton had to figure out how to motivate himself and his crew amid this crisis.
After ten months of blistering cold weather, Shackleton and his crew set sail for a little speck of land called Elephant Island.
Shortly after arrival, Shackleton and five other men took off again in a tiny lifeboat. They battled against the wildest oceans in the world and landed on the jagged shores of South Georgia. But the mission wasn’t over yet. Shackleton resolved to rescue his 22 remaining men stuck on Elephant Island.
He hired a new boat and set sail across 800 miles of wicked ocean water to rescue the rest of his crew. But the ice sheets surrounding Elephant Island blocked his route. He tried again and again. And failed each time.
Shackleton feared that the rest of his crew died and almost gave up. But he picked himself up and set sail again one final time.
On August 31st, 1916, Shackleton’s boat landed on the shores of Elephant Island. A small group of men emerged from a small overturned lifeboat and ran towards the shores. Shackleton counted them one by one from a distance.
All 22 of his men were still alive.
Against the odds, Shackleton led his crew of 27 men out of extreme crisis and back home to safety.
How did Shackleton motivate and lead his team out of hell in Antarctica? What can we learn from history’s greatest leaders on how to lead in times of crisis?
Throughout history, great leaders have emerged to lead us out of history’s most devastating crises. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Theodora, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi, to name a few.
Here are seven lessons we can learn from history’s great leaders on how to lead and motivate others in times of crisis.
1. Confront your fears.
In his autobiography—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave—Douglass tells the story of his tense confrontation with Edward Covey, a well-known slave-breaker.
One hot summer morning, Covey threatened to whip Douglass as he had done countless times before. Douglass trembled with fear, but this time he confronted Covey. He wrote, “You have seen how a man is made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
The two men wrestled each other for two hours until Covey surrendered. From that day onwards, Covey never touched Douglass again.
Great leaders experience fear like everyone else. But they don’t run away from their fears and anxieties, they acknowledge and confront them.
2. Make slow, decisive decisions.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln faced two crises: the bloody American Civil War and the death of his son.
Lincoln suffered from grief, anxiety, and insomnia. And he often spent countless hours after midnight, pacing back and forth the second-floor hall of the White House.
Despite his inner turmoil and the pressure of the war, Lincoln never rushed to make important decisions. His slow, decisive decision-making helped to steer the Union to victory.
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to make rash decisions. But great leaders slow down, seek expert advice and reflect before taking action.
3. Be flexible.
During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt experimented with an “alphabet soup” of policies to combat high unemployment and economic depression.
Likewise, Lincoln changed military strategies after the Union suffered humiliating defeats against the Confederates.
He wrote, “things had gone from bad to worse….we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change tactics, or lose the game.”
To win the war, Lincoln recruited new generals and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Great leaders are flexible. They’re willing to adapt and change plans, whilst keeping their eyes on the goal.
4. Inspire through words and actions.
In 1940, as Britain stood alone against Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill delivered one of history’s most inspirational speeches.
Churchill declared, “We shall go on to the end….we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Churchill’s inspirational words led Britain to a decisive victory against Hitler’s Germany.
In times of crisis, people look up to leaders for inspiration and hope. Great leaders speak with energy, passion, and confidence, which motivates others to take action.
5. Show empathy.
Whilst Shackleton and his team fought for survival in Antarctica, they often struggled with a lack of energy and motivation.
To combat this, Shackleton would connect with each of his men daily. He’d talk about their favorite hobbies, share stories and play cards with his team.
On one occasion when his men were miserable, Shackleton ordered double rations of food for four days to lift low morale.
Empathy eases fear and anxiety in times of crisis. Great leaders use emotional intelligence to empathize with the fears and struggles of others.
6. Give clear instructions.
Although Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his inspirational speeches, he was also exceptional at giving clear instructions in times of crisis.
A classic example is King’s instructions for nonviolent protests during the Birmingham movement. The successful campaign paved the way for the desegregation in Birmingham and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Like King, Shackleton also gave clear instructions. As soon as the ship sunk, Shackleton created a daily roster and instructed his men to stick to a routine.
Each day his team would exercise, socialize, play games, and make presentations. No one was idle or isolated. This routine and camaraderie helped the team stay motivated and survive the crisis.
7. Put your ego aside.
Lincoln put his ego aside to win the war.
He held spirited debates with naysayers and rivals who criticized his leadership. And he often wrote letters of apology and asked for forgiveness from rivals he offended during cabinet meetings.
Shackleton also took a similar approach. Whenever a member of his team threatened mutiny, he disarmed them with kindness.
Great leaders put aside their ego in times of crisis. They’re open to criticism from teammates and rivals.
Great leaders keep their enemies close and squash negativity through kindness and empathy.
Brutal Honesty and Credible Hope
“Real leaders are individuals who help us overcome the limitations of our own weakness, and selfishness, and laziness, and fears, and get us to do harder, better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
—David Foster Wallace
In times of crisis, the world looks up to leaders for brutal honesty and credible hope, but leaders often go missing.
Bad leaders hide and blame others. Good leaders delegate well but fail to inspire. But great leaders step up to the plate and inspire others to come out stronger.
Great leaders are servant leaders. They put others first even if it costs their life.
Douglass, Frederick (1851). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
Goodwin, Doris (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Koehn, Nancy (2017). Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership.
Maguire, Lori (2014).’We Shall Fight’: A Rhetorical Analysis of Churchill’s Famous Speech.”
Michael, Burlingame (2008). Abraham Lincoln: A Life.
Worsley, Frank (1931). Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure.
Subscribe to the newsletter
Get thought-provoking ideas on technology, habits, and entrepreneurship.