05 May 2020

Crisis Leadership Lessons from Shackleton, Former Presidents, and Experts from HBS and HKS


by Shona Simkin

“In the crucible of a crisis, in all that calamity and uncertainty—when those waves are rolling and high, and the winds are strong—leaders get better in these moments.”

This encouraging message was one of many delivered by Nancy Koehn, the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), in a recent virtual seminar to mayors and municipal leaders around the world. Highlighting lessons from the legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-16 expedition to Antarctica, Koehn stressed the leadership qualities that Shackleton called upon to unite and inspire his crew of 27 men through a series of seemingly insurmountable disasters.

“Strong leaders define their mission, frame the stakes, and pivot as the situation requires. They also pay close attention to their teams, managing their energy and morale in order to build determination, solidarity, and a shared sense of purpose,” said Koehn.

Nancy Koehn

While today’s coronavirus crisis doesn’t involve shipwrecks or glaciers, leaders throughout the world are navigating through unprecedented challenges.

“I didn’t have the fortune of learning from Professor Koehn’s legendary case study while at HBS, so it felt like fate to do so now, when I need it most,” said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller (MBA 2005). “It has felt in many recent days like my city was a ship stuck in the ice; sometimes as a community, sometimes as a city government of 6,000 employees. Like Shackleton, I leaned hard on ritual and routine to get me through—from Zoom calls and daily press conferences to working out of my car for 16 hours a day, checking on various closures and hot spots, delivering food, and self-quarantining in our empty convention center.”

The presentation was sixth in the weekly COVID-19 Local Response Initiative seminar series created by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We are in a unique position to provide mayors with actionable advice and management tools to lead their cities through this crisis,” said Jorrit de Jong, a senior lecturer in public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School who is also co-faculty director of the initiative with Rawi Abdelal, the Herbert F. Johnson Professor of International Management at HBS and the director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which was established three years ago as a collaboration between HBS and HKS, had a network of mayors in place. The initiative also had developed a management and leadership curriculum specifically for city leaders and had the technological capacity to host virtual sessions on a weekly basis. “Because of the way we designed our program, we were able to pivot quickly to answer mayors’ urgent call for reliable information and crisis leadership tools and training,” added de Jong.

“Mayors are on the front lines of the biggest challenges facing the country, including the coronavirus crisis,” said Michael R. Bloomberg (MBA 1966), founder of Bloomberg L.P. and Bloomberg Philanthropies. “But right now, there’s an enormous gap between the support the federal government is providing and the support local governments need. This new initiative—an unprecedented collaboration involving experts from Harvard and Johns Hopkins—will help fill the gap, and help local leaders work to prevent the spread of the virus and protect the social and economic well-being of communities.”

In prior sessions, thought leaders from HBS joined with moderator de Jong alongside world leaders including Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, as well as Bill Gates and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

HBS Professor Dutch Leonard shared his crisis leadership advice in the first three sessions, discussing real-time problem solving under uncertain conditions, communicating effectively in a crisis, and creating a basis for hope. HBS Professor of Management Practice Mitch Weiss, in session seven, discussed the shift to possibility government during a pandemic. Session nine will feature Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management Amy Edmonson on the conditions under which teams excel. The extensive advice from all of the sessions’ presentations and Q&As has been summarized by subject (including adaptation, communication, contact tracing, economic recovery, and vaccines or treatments) on the Session FAQs web page.

“It's an extraordinary privilege and a real pleasure to do this,” said Koehn when asked about her seminar. “These are public servants and leaders on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. They're dealing with not only the medical, public health, logistical, and human challenges of the crisis, but also the economic and social challenges. They are doing some of the most critical work there is to do in the eye of the storm. To be a very brief part of their work, and their investment in getting even better at what they do, is an honor.”

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