Corrado Varoli, Founding Partner and CEO of G5 Partners
Levindo Coelho Santos, Senior Partner of G5 Partners
During times of extreme tension and insecurity, just as the ones we have been experiencing with the Covid-19 global pandemic over the last few weeks, we often feel confused about what to do and what to expect for the future. Anguish takes over us when we are facing imminent danger, a feeling that is amplified by the apparent lack of leaders who are capable of uniting, inspiring and guiding us bravely and responsibly during turbulent times.
During these situations, we believe it is important to revisit past events and take away lessons on how to act. In this process, we invariably find inspiration to exercise the positive leadership role required from each of us.
History, as always, is a great ally. As the American writer, Mark Twain would say: “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. And when it rhymes, it offers us valuable insights on how others in the past faced unimaginable challenges. With that in mind, we selected three individuals as examples for reflection; three ordinary people who were likely destined to anonymity but, in the face of adversities, knew how to become leaders of their time and accomplish unimaginable achievements.
Ernest Henry Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to Antarctica, becoming one of the key figures during the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. In January 1915, during his third expedition, his Endurance vessel ended up trapped in ice in the Weddel Sea.
A few months later, in October of that same year, the Endurance was crushed by the pressure of the ice blocks, leaving Shackleton, and his 27-man crew adrift, thousands of kilometers away from civilization and without any means of communication with the rest of the world. When analyzing the inventory that remained after the ship sank, the 41-year-old Commander had only three lifeboats and a reasonable supply of canned food.
But Shackleton did not shatter. Firstly, he tried to organize his team, which during six long months remained adrift in ice blocks heading north. Only in April 1916 would the Endurance crew find shelter on Elephant Island. In the book “South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition”, published in 1920, the veteran explorer provided details on several of the initiatives he took to keep his group together and keep them minimally motivated during the period they were at the South Pole. His first step was to set a clear and non-negotiable goal for himself and his group, which was: to return home safely. This objective was followed by the group and accompanied by a detailed action plan that did not minimize the challenges and risks of its execution. “Maximum transparency!” was his mantra.
The Commander also knew how to earn the daily respect of his men, being present and having a “hands-on” attitude. Even during the most difficult moments, Shackleton respected each crew member, always valuing simple gestures of empathy that helped create a collaborative and brotherly environment.
But the saga faced by Shackleton and his men was not over. From Elephant Island, he and five of his crew members took a small boat to South Georgia, sailing 1,300 kilometers across the worse stretch of the sea and accomplishing one of the greatest nautical feats of all time.
From South Georgia, the Commander tried to rescue the men who had stayed on Elephant Island but was unable to get close due to the freezing ocean. He then headed for Punta Arenas in Chile and got help from the Yelcho tugboat to finally achieve the goal of rescuing his entire crew, in August 1916.
Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill
Winston Churchill played a decisive role in World War II by building a strong defense in Britain that prevented the German Nazi invasion. He gained worldwide prestige, formed alliances and designed military strategies that were fundamental for the victory of the Allies against the Germans.
Churchill had read “Mein Kampf” and, unlike most of his contemporaries who considered Hitler only an adventurer, he took his threats seriously. While the majority preached solutions based on traditional diplomacy, Churchill had a better perception of reality and prepared the United Kingdom for an inevitable Nazi attack.
The leadership role played by Churchill during this life-or-death moment was crucial for the victory of Britain and its allies. It was due to his observance of the “entire picture” and his attention to detail that the people of London and the local army were able to prepare for World War II.
Furthermore, throughout the entire conflict, Churchill personified enthusiasm without ever appealing to empty rhetoric. His confidence was contagious, and his determination was inspiring. Almost 80 years later, the speech in which he declared “we will never surrender” continues to thrill and inspire individuals until today.
Rudolph William Louis Giuliani III
Rudolph Giuliani gained international recognition after his tenure as mayor of New York during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. We both watched the crisis unfold – and the way Giuliani led the city in its reaction – very closely, since we lived with our families in New York and worked in Manhattan at that time. Regardless of our personal opinions then, or today, of Mr. Giuliani, we must acknowledge the crucial role he played as a leader from the very first moments after the attacks.
According to Giuliani himself, “there was nothing planned for such an event. It went beyond everything we had experienced up until that moment, but someone would have to do something, and that someone was me.” When he realized his role the panic had already spread, but Giuliani remembered an advice that his father had given him: “In a burning house, only those who remain calm will be able to find the way out.”
When he didn’t know what to do, he looked for inspiration in those who had already gone through something similar. He then remembered the biography of Winston Churchill which he had at home and dedicated himself to analyzing the chapter on the German bombing of the London population during World War II. “If the English people were able to endure this situation for months, we can also endure ours.” For Giuliani, the secret was to transmit to people “that the human being has an almost infinite capacity to overcome”. To achieve this, “it was necessary to be transparent and agile when providing information to the public”. Giuliani soon realized that when things are done properly, people would quickly lift up their heads and mobilize to follow a competent leader.
The Power of Competent Leadership
The book Forged in Crisis – The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Nancy Koehn, analyzes stories of other leaders who were also tested in times of extreme adversity. These stores are emotional with equally extraordinary achievements led by ordinary people, of different personalities and who witnessed different moments in history. The only obvious connection among these individuals is that none of them had innate leadership. Invariably, these extraordinary leaders were forged in courage to respond to their call of duty within their own circumstances.
According to Koehn, we can learn relevant lessons from the actions taken by great leaders in times of extreme adversity, among which we highlight:
- The ability to observe the entire situation and recognize the complexities inherent in a situation of crisis is one of the key fundamental qualities of leaders who have the capacity of navigating rough seas,
- The greater the adversity, the higher the risks involved in each decision and action. Competent leaders know how to use their time and know how to listen, debate and reflect before making important decisions. While most people will demand immediate, and often times radical actions, these individuals know that sometimes, the best thing to do is stay put. Remain calm and wait until emotions give way to reason,
- To keep focused and driven during times of strong turbulences, a higher goal must be established; something noble enough to unite and inspire. Backed by the perception of the high dignity of their missions, these leaders find reasons for remaining motivated and committed even if the goals seem impossible to accomplish, and
- A competent leader is also humane. This probably sounds like a cliché, but if we look carefully at each admirable achievement, it will be easy to notice that leaders have never lost their humane condition. They felt confused and insecure, may have often had difficulties in articulating their vision and invariably questioned their ability to walk the path that life had reserved for them. What set them apart from the crowd was their choice to not give up, even when a solution no longer seemed possible. These individuals knew how to move forward and were always guided by the wonderful transforming capacity within their own humanity.