Don't Cut the Coffee

Antarctic explorers have discovered two crates of Scotch trapped in the ice, which Sir Ernest Shackleton abandoned during his disastrous attempt to cross the frozen continent in 1909. The bottles are appropriate artifacts of his exceptional leadership instincts.

The journey never should have been attempted, for all sorts of reasons, but Shackleton emerged as perhaps the greatest crisis leader the world has ever seen in action. I’ve written about Shackleton’s emotional leadership before, which I believe explains his success.  As his men faced unspeakable odds, Shackleton stalked their despair relentlessly, snuffing it out in skillful and creative ways.  He turned their fear into faith, rage into love.

Food and drink played a starring role in Shackleton’s management strategy.  Ship cook was a high-status position in Shackletonia, and meal rituals were followed religiously, even as doubt began to threaten the team's discipline. Rations were rarely cut, even when it wasn’t clear where the next meal would be found.  And just when the team’s endurance was about to give out, just when exhaustion was about to prevail, a round of snacks and hot milk would magically appear.

Food was fuel, of course, but its emotional nourishment was often just as valuable.  Shared meals affirmed the team’s interdependence and replaced unproductive animal spirits with reminders of everyone’s dignity and humanity.  Shackleton's men were absorbing unimaginable stress, and feeding them was a way to both honor and reduce it.  Nothing says, “I feel your pain” like a glass of warm milk.

Shackleton has lots to teach us about leading in crises, and I’d put sharing a good meal at the top of the list.  I fear this lesson is being lost as cost pressures rise in today’s economic uncertainty.  That daily investment in coffee and donuts may seem like a painless thing to cut, but I think most organizations grossly underestimate the real value of feeding their people.  Take it from Ernest.  Wine and dine the team.  They may even deserve a toast of well-chilled, 100-year-old Scotch.

Date: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2009