Don't be a fair weather leader

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
In August 1914, Ernest Shackleton, an intrepid British explorer, boarded the ship Endurance. He and his team of 27 men set sail for the South Atlantic. The group wanted to be the first to cross Antarctica. However, in October 1915, still half a continent away from their intended destination, their lives changed forever when their ship was crushed by massive sheets of ice. 

In the months that followed, the crew's food and water quickly disappeared. Shackleton and his men, drifting on ice packs, found themselves castaways in one of the most savage regions of the world. Nevertheless, they continued their endless trek over the barren, unforgiving frozen tundra. Amazingly, despite the harshness of the conditions they encountered, the men survived - every one of them - after a 1,000-mile voyage in an open boat across the stormiest ocean on the globe; a voyage that included an overland trek through forbidding glaciers and mountains. But how did these brave men manage to survive against all odds? 

Quite simply, they didn't allow the difficult circumstances that surrounded them to erode their will to succeed. They choose to persist instead of quit by working together to create an environment of mutual care and support despite the harshness of the conditions that raged around them. 

Buoyed by the example of their leader, who remained filled with optimism, creativity and, above all, selflessness, the team learned to collectively endure setbacks and took every opportunity to celebrate successes, no matter how small. 

In effect, these men made the choice every day to transform their mutual hopes of survival into a series of acts that supported their goal of rescue. 

Brilliant at building morale, cohesion and cooperation, Shackleton constantly reinforced the message amongst his men that we are one - we live or perish together. He also intentionally minimized status differences amongst team members and was a master at diffusing conflict. And, perhaps most importantly, Shackleton always found reasons to celebrate and laugh with his men, even when the pressure was greatest.
And as a result of his example, all were inspired to do the same. 

More than a year after the shipwreck, still struggling to survive, Shackleton and his men subsequently found themselves stranded on a very small island. Again, as food began to dwindle, hopes of rescue began to fade, but for only a moment. You see, in the face of this latest, greatest challenge, Shackleton realized the team's survival depended on a bold act: one requiring they reach a small outpost some 800 miles away by once again crossing a tempestuous sea in an open boat. 

It was a seemingly impossible task in one of the worlds most dangerous, unforgiving and far-away places. 

But Shackleton, someone who understood and embraced the responsibility inherent in leadership, chose not to defer or deflect this most difficult of tasks but instead embraced it as a way to reinforce his commitment to those in his care. Fully understanding any possibility for the survival of his team depended on his willingness to act, he solicited two volunteers and together they set out in pursuit of this final outpost of hope. 

As things would have it, it was a chance which paid off when this unlikely trio reached their destination and marshaled help for their still stranded teammates. 

In the end and against all odds, everyone survived. Everyone! Not a person was lost despite finding themselves caught up in a harsh, turbulent, frightening place - a place where death seemed all too certain. That is, until a second-mile leader, motivated by a relentless desire to selflessly serve those in his charge, stepped into the gap to do all he could to transform the impossible to the probable, even when circumstances would have you think otherwise. 

Communicating you care 

Few functions a leader performs are more important than keeping hope alive. During these moments in which others are lost in a seemingly endless ocean of fear and despair, a second-mile leader chooses to go the extra mile to create positive projections of the future. They know when to draw alongside someone, just as they sense whether a team member needs a quick admonition or a shoulder to cry on. They also innately understand how providing encouragement to those in your care experiencing daunting challenges is like providing wind to a sail - it moves people forward. 

As the intrepid British explorer above teaches us, no words in the world can match the reassurance of knowing that someone believes in you and cares enough to stand alongside you no matter how tough times get or what it costs. To know, regardless if you're surrounded by fair skies or feeling like a castaway in the midst of a tempest, you're a leader who takes seriously your commitment to those placed in your care.
Pause to think for a moment about what you can do to follow Ernest Shackleton's selfless example, whether with a family member, a coworker or a peer. And remember, a little bit of encouragement can go a long way toward motivating those in your care, be it in your home, workplace, worship space or community, to find the strength to succeed when the difficult circumstances that surround them threaten to erode their will to succeed. 

And while you're at it, take time this week to make a phone call, write a brief note or share a personal word of thanks with someone who has selflessly invested in your own life when your own future seemed murky and uncertain. Share with that person how much you appreciate their willingness to go the extra mile for you not because they had to, but because they chose to. 

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.