Leading When Things Go Wrong: Playing Soccer on the Ice

What do you do when things go wrong?

Leading can seem fun and easy when things are going our way, but it’s when things go wrong that true leaders emerge.  In this example from an Antarctic expedition gone disastrously wrong, one leader achieved great feats of endurance and survival to bring his men safely home.

His ultimate success is an amazing story, but more surprising may be the things he did that made that success possible.  They aren’t what he’s famous for, but for him as well as for any of us, it’s these little things that make great achievement possible, especially when things go wrong.  Here’s what happened.

Leading When Things Go Wrong: Playing Soccer on the Ice

Mission Gone Wrong

The ship Endurance was in trouble and everybody knew it.  It was 1914 and Earnest Shackleton and his crew of 28 men were trying to make their way to land in Antarctica.  Their goal was to be the first to traverse the frozen continent from one end to the other, passing through the south pole as they went.

But even before they reached landfall to begin their journey they ran into trouble.  They encountered ice far earlier than expected.  Soon, it surrounded the ship and froze into place.   Despite days of heroic efforts to free her, it became stuck in the ice.

Shackleton and crew were trapped.  At best they would have to survive the winter and hope the spring thaw would release the ship.

When confronted with frustration and disappointment, it is easy for anyone to fall into despair, to blame outside circumstances and fate for shortfalls.

But it’s in times like these that true leaders emerge, leaders who find ways to keep the team together and moving forward despite great odds.  And while the result of their leadership may ultimately be great achievement, how they accomplish those results comes in small moments and actions that don’t always make the headlines.

Great leaders distinguish themselves in the small moments. Click To Tweet

Playing Soccer on the Ice

With his ship helplessly frozen in place, what did Shackleton do?

He formed his men into teams, took them out onto the ice, and they played soccer.  In fact, they did it a lot.  But in his book South: The Endurance Expedition that details the trials of his crew, he only mentions it once.

“Hockey and soccer on the floe were our chief recreations, and all hands joined in many a strenuous game.”

This single short sentence reveals a leadership secret that would be easy to miss.  Even when the primary mission failed, he continued to provide strong leadership and direction.  He didn’t allow himself to get down in the dumps and he wasn’t about to give his men time to get depressed or withdrawn, either.  He gave them something to do to focus their minds on, to captivate their imaginations, and target their energies.

Moreover, he chose team activities for this outlet, and he involved “all hands.”  Everyone is on the team, everyone plays. By focusing their efforts in working together, even during play, he continued to build and strengthen relationships among his crew instead of letting them erode under the pressure of a mission gone wrong.

And it wasn’t just at play that he did this.  He kept them focused and engaged with a creative and exhaustive list of activities to harness their energies and target them on the mission.

He had the dog teams taken out for daily exercise and had them trained to pull heavier and heavier sledges, preparing for a time when they might be needed to haul cargo for the expedition.

When Things Go Wrong: Building Dog Kennels out of Ice
Ice Kennels for the Dog Teams

They built small igloos they called “dogloos” for the dog teams out on the ice, creating more space for the crew aboard ship.

They constructed six foot high snow pylons and connected them with rope to the ship so that men could find their way back to the Endurance in the event of a white out.

They experimented with the radio set to try and get the latest news from distant stations.

They hunted and stored over 5,000 pounds of seal meat and blubber so they would have enough to eat and feed the dogs through the long winter without exhausting their rations.

They mounted signalmen with semaphore flags in the ships masts to signal the hunting teams the best direction to return over the ragged ice with their heavy prey.

The carpenter built new rooms out of spare wood aboard ship to provide more space and shelter.  Crewmen moved into their new quarters, outfitted them, and even named them.

He set a strict daily eating schedule of breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner.

Scientists among the crew conducted meteorological observations, dredged the sea bottom for samples, and added daily to a growing list of significant scientific discoveries.

During the evening hours, they took turns staging concerts and plays below decks to break up the monotony of the long dark winter nights.

In Times of Trouble

It can be pretty easy to lead when things are going your way, but the true test of leadership comes when they are not.  When things start to go wrong, we can choose to shut down and allow ourselves to become victims of circumstance, or we can remain calm, think creatively, and intensify our efforts to find a way through.

The measure of who we are is how we react to something that doesn’t go our way. – Gregg Popovich #leadership Click To Tweet

Just because the ship was stuck in the ice for the foreseeable future did not mean that Shackleton would allow his team to collapse into idleness.  Instead he kept hope alive and the minds of his crew engaged by improving their living conditions, preparing for the future, and keeping the team strong.

When Things Go Wrong – The Takeaway

We aren’t all leading Antarctic expeditions, and the challenges we face may never be quite so daunting as those that Shackleton encountered.

Leading When Things Go Wrong: The Loss of the Endurance
Ice Crushes the Endurance

In fact, things only got tougher for the crew of the Endurance.  When spring thaw finally came, the shifting ice did not release the ship as they had hoped.  Instead, it crushed and sank it.

To escape, Shackleton would lead his team over miles of broken ice while dragging three life boats they had salvaged.  They would cross over 300 miles of open ocean in those boats and find shelter on an uninhabited island.  And with one of those boats and a select crew, he would sail for 15 days across another 720 nautical miles of frigid open ocean to a remote whaling station, and ultimately return with rescuers.  It took two years, but he brought everyone home safely.

When we hear of Shackleton’s exploits, it is these feats that are most likely to spring to mind.  But the seeds of success come from something much simpler, more mundane, and so seemingly insignificant that it would be easy to overlook.

He did things like having his men play soccer on the ice.

We can learn from his example: no matter what happens, in work and play keep the team engaged, provide structure, do things that bring you all together, and always look for ways to take positive action.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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