Positive Inspirational Leadership Stories

Coming in from the cold can help boost the creativity of leaders

As many of you know, especially those of you who are history buffs, Sir Ernest Shackleton was a great explorer who found himself and his crew in a life-or-death crisis when they had to abandon ship in the icy waters around Antarctica.

The year was 1914, and Shackleton's expedition had planned an unprecedented land crossing of the frozen continent. When the ship got stuck in the ice and sank, the crew began a harrowing 18-month survival test.

They stayed alive as they moved among the drifting ice floes until they eventually found an island, where they established a camp. When their provisions began to run low, Shackleton and several crew members boarded one of their salvaged lifeboats and made a daring 800-mile voyage to a whaling station. They returned with a ship, and all 27 men survived the ordeal. Their story is incredible and nothing short of miraculous.

Many books have been written recently covering the profound lessons found in this dramatic story of survival and endurance. I personally think there are many lessons we can learn about crisis leadership from Shackleton's experiences, specifically creativity.

There are two types of people during a crisis -- those who freeze, and those who focus. Shackleton and his men were stranded in one of the coldest places on the planet, but his creativity never froze. Instead, it was critical to the team's survival. His creativity was central to the survival of the lives of the men who had entrusted themselves to him for their journey.

As I have studied Shackleton's experiences, three principles about leading with creativity during crisis came to mind.

1. Creative activity increases creative ability. As you become active in creativity, you gain more creative ability. Many people would love to have creative ability, but they've never done creative activities. When we freeze, we stop creating.

Shackleton practiced 'routine' creativity, for himself and for his crew. So when problems presented themselves, he and his crew never gave up on their ability to come up with creative solutions.

Creativity can be seen much like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

2. The rule book no longer rules. Everybody wants to give you the rule book. David Kelley was right when he said, 'The most important thing I learned from big companies is that creativity gets stifled when everyone's got to follow the rules.'

And Thomas Edison, probably the greatest inventor ever, would tell people who visited his laboratory, 'There ain't no rules around here! We're trying to accomplish something.'

Structure and rules serve us well, but legalism can choke our creative spirit to its death. Imagine if Shackleton would have followed the 'rules.' The story would have certainly had a different ending.

3. Creativity always finds a way. Imagine yourself stuck in the same situation. It would have been very easy to have simply looked at the first couple of options, realized they really weren't options and waited to perish.

Instead, Shackleton began to be creative. He began to think of things that were seemingly impossible. He had no other option than to consider all options -- impossible or not -- because it was a case of life-or-death. Most of the time in the life of our organizations, we aren't facing life-and-death and so we do not pursue creativity long enough to let it find a way for us.

Peter Drucker once said that the best way to predict the future is to create it. We, just like Shackleton and his men, can create the future we desire if we allow ourselves to begin to think in ways that we haven't thought before; if we allow ourselves to dream of new ways to do things.

In our fast-paced, competitive marketplace, few resources are more valuable to organizations than creativity, and this is especially true during a crisis. That is when real leadership either rises or falls, and unfortunately, creativity often finds itself swallowed by urgency. Who has time to think outside the box when the box is collapsing around you?

Shackleton, however, saw beyond the problems to the big picture. He recognized creativity's importance in keeping him and his crew alive and functioning as a team when they had little margin for error in the bitter cold and isolation of Antarctica.

Not just a skill, creativity was also an attitude in his life that enabled him to find the solutions to the obstacles they faced. When others would have frozen -- literally as well as figuratively -- Shackleton focused creatively on surviving the crisis.

So, use your creativity, letting it get stronger. Throw out the 'rule book,' and let creativity help you find a way, just as it did for Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Written by Dr John C. Maxwell

This article is used by permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell's free monthly e-newsletter 'Leadership Wired'

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