Getting Through the Pandemic: Lessons from a British Navy Captain

Like many parents with children at home, my wife and I have experienced a high level of anxiety over these past few months. The question we have been trying to answer is, “What will we do with the kids?” Their schools are closed; they need our constant attention; we both work. Hmmm. 

Trailing not too far behind that question was another: “What will we do with ourselves?” With most restaurants, gyms, bars, group meditations, yoga studios, music venues and sports events also shuttered, many of the outlets to help us let off some steam and self-regulate have evaporated. 

A Different Kind of Captain 

As it turns out, some solutions come from an English navy captain who lived a hundred years ago. The beginning of the twentieth century was an exciting time for sea expeditions. About a year after Robert Peary became the first explorer to reach the North Pole in 1909, Robert Scott, a British captain, set out to discover the South Pole. Despite the protests of his men because the trip was taking longer than expected and there was a scarcity of rations, he insisted on continuing. Scott did in fact reach the South Pole in January 1912. There he found a note left by Norway’s Roald Amundsen, who had discovered it thirty-five days earlier. Scott and all his men perished on the return journey.  

Then came Ernest Shackleton, a very different kind of captain. Shackleton, like Scott a former lieutenant in the English navy, came up with the idea of traversing Antarctica by foot, an 1800-mile journey. He bought a ship, renamed it Endurance, and set off with his crew in 1914. About a thousand miles past Buenos Aires and within a day’s sail of Antarctica, the Endurance became pickled in an iceberg. The ice dragged the ship north for ten months. Then, over a thousand miles from civilization, the ice crushed and sank the ship right in front of their eyes.  

Unlike Scott, Shackleton placed the safety of his crew first and foremost. Whereas Scott used a command-and-control style of leadership, Shackleton placed immense personal attention on each member of his crew. His system of stewarding life on the iceberg was egalitarian: no one was ‘above’ any task, regardless of rank. He designed a meticulous daily schedule that included regular meal times, daily games, and recreation—which created a semblance of order. Those with high egos he flattered; those who fell ill he personally nursed back to health; those who were easily bored he gave clear tasks to complete.  

Shackleton delegated tasks to each man based on his unique interests, and encouraged him to express himself through his work. He built a library in an igloo, and held ‘parties’ during the long Arctic nights where his men wrote and read poetry. The sheer power of his positive attitude and courage against tremendous odds was infectious. His personal motto was “Optimism is true moral courage.” He also once said—a good mantra for our current situation—“In trouble, danger and disappointment never give up hope. The worst can always be got over.” Yet Shackleton inspired loyalty because he wasn’t willing to win at all costs. He considered success not just the act of winning, but of winning “honorably and splendidly.” 

Interestingly, Shackleton grew up in a feminine household with his mother and sisters, and was often described as a “Viking with a mother’s heart.” He was able to be both tough and nurturing, which was very ahead of his time—and even ahead of our time based on my observations of the (both male and female) leaders I’ve coached. Here’s the most amazing part of his story: At a time of frequent deaths to scurvy and other diseases, Shackleton kept every single one of his twenty-eight crew members alive for over two years until they were rescued. Furthermore, every single man returned to England in good physical and mental health.  

Lessons from Shackleton for the Pandemic 

So what lessons does Shackleton leave for us during what, for most of us, is the largest public health crisis of our lifetimes: 

Attune to the needs of each person in your household or social group. Like Shackleton’s men, we are all different and have unique needs that must be met to feel comfortable within a group, whether it’s a family or an organization. Whether you are living alone or with others, take the time to connect with the people you care about by phone and attune to their needs. As Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam discovered in a 2009 study, some people want an emotional connection with others while others care more about whether other people are helping them to learn. Don’t assume; ask. Be curious. 

One of the needs many of us have is for order and consistency. Develop and stick to a schedule as best you can. For Shackleton, it was set daily meal times and recreation periods. My wife and I sat down and ironed out a daily schedule that balances child care with our work responsibilities. The kids appreciate having responsibilities, too—a role to play in the family. My wife and I each now know when it’s our turn to take the kids to the park, cook, wash the dishes and so on. 

Appreciate life and each other. In my family, we are spending more time together. My son and I play basketball in our backyard; he always beats me. I’m learning to slow down and see things I was too busy to notice before. Whether you are living alone or with your family or friends, the pandemic is a reminder to appreciate and make the most of each day. 

Balance empathy and authenticity. Let go of your ego and listen to others while also being assertive about what you value. In over twenty years of coaching leaders, I’ve observed that many people have trouble identifying and then expressing what they truly want. They hide behind empathetic listening to keep themselves from becoming vulnerable. Repeatedly asking others questions about themselves camouflages their fear of putting themselves on the line and sharing their authentic feelings.  

And the rest? Most of them relentlessly barrage others with what they think they know. Their constant insecurity about how others perceive them and their need for approval render them incapable of slowing down enough to give others the necessary time and attention to voice their own views.  

As Wharton professor Adam Grant and his colleagues found in a 2011 study, a drawback of extraverted leaders is followers can become less proactive and willing to speak up about what matters to them. Don’t let this phenomenon emerge with family members and friends, as an inability to voice what they care about will likely lead them to resort to one of the five R’s: resentment, rejection, retaliation, resistance or revolution. 

Here’s the critical question you have to answer that will enable you to both maintain your poise and help others in the face of this public health crisis: Can you become a Viking (authentic; assertive; strong) with a mother’s heart (empathetic; nurturing; supportive) in both your self-dialogue and the way you interact with others? Develop this balance in your communication style and you will be pleasantly surprised at your ability to connect with others and create a harmonious, nurturing environment that gives you and the people you care about the strength to weather this challenging period of our lives. 

What lessons have you learned during the pandemic about how to interact effectively with others? We’d love to hear your insights in the comments. 

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