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5 Leadership Skills Forged in Crisis

27th April 2020

When Queen Elizabeth II reclaimed the WW II spirit for our current crisis by assuring UK citizens that “we’ll meet again”, she exemplified the blend of stoicism and sentimentality that Britain values in its leaders.

Indeed, eras of crisis are often defined by the leaders who emerge from them – characterised by the qualities of their response and their execution of public duty.

Times have never been tougher for many of us, which is why reflecting on the leadership skills forged in crisis by five famous figures might provide some positive food for thought.

1. Communication – Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill may be the one of the most obvious examples of great leadership, but for several reasons he remains the archetype of the English stiff upper lip, as well as the ultimate figurehead for a successful fight against overwhelming odds.

Churchill demonstrated a number of brilliant leadership skills throughout WWII and his geopolitical achievements are well documented. But it’s for his skill as a communicator that he is perhaps best remembered.

Churchill’s skill as an orator was not simply down to his ability to articulate public sentiment with ease – although his speeches did this with aplomb – but his delivery style distilled his leadership qualities in a tangible and reassuring way that instilled confidence in the nation at a time of great uncertainty. In June 1940, with Allied Forces still reeling from the Dunkirk evacuation, he roused the troops and citizens of Britain and the Commonwealth to fight back in ‘their finest hour’ defining the distinctive national tenacity and determination still evident in abundance while our frontline workers face Covid-19.

In times of crisis, it’s vital that a leader can communicate in a way that conveys their competence as well as inspiring others.

2. Optimism – Ernest Shackleton

On some level, all leaders know – or should know – the value of a maintaining positivity within a team.

But the survival of Ernest Shackleton and his team of explorers is one of the most extreme examples of maintaining morale during dark times.

In 1915, Shackleton embarked on an expedition which should have made him the first to cross Antarctica. But when disaster struck and his ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice, he had a team of 27 men and only limited supplies to assist them in survival.

The fact that the team survived at all was remarkable – it transpired that they would be stranded for a year and a half – but if not for the optimism and positivity of their leader, they may not have made it.

Whilst in the process of attempting to free Endurance, Shackleton encourage his men to become closer to one another. He persuaded them to joke, sing, play games, and make conversation during and after mealtimes in order to build a sense of camaraderie.

When the ship was crushed and eventually sank, the crew took refuge on Elephant Island, where Shackleton maintained the same optimism and, even when his own faith was shaken, proclaimed consistent confidence in the team’s survival.

By leading from the front and modelling the behaviour he believed was essential for survival, Shackleton walked the walk as well as talking the talk, setting the collective compass to survival even when it seemed unlikely and engendering a powerful esprit de corps.

If Shackleton’s story inspires you, perhaps a distance learning Project Management MSc might help you emulate some of his legendary organisational skills?

3. Determination – Mary Seacole

While Florence Nightingale is familiar to many, far fewer know the name or the story of her contemporary Mary Seacole.

Seacole had her first experience in dealing with crisis when she treated cholera patients in Kingston, Jamaica in 1850. A year later, she found herself dealing with another cholera outbreak in Panama. Her expertise in dealing with the disease impressed fellow medics, who frequently deferred to her authority, albeit too often accompanied with unflattering epithets regarding her ethnicity.

Nevertheless, these experiences cemented her certainty in her vocation, and in 1854 she approached the British War Office and requested to join Florence Nightingale’s aide mission in Crimea. When rejected, she funded her own passage and established the British Hotel, which was closer to the battlefield than Nightingale’s own hospital. She treated fighters on either side of the conflict for their injuries and ailments and became known to the men as Mother Seacole.

It was not simply the extreme stress her chosen profession as a battlefield medic that Seacole overcame, but the barrier of prejudice which had threatened to stop her fulfilling her calling in Crimea. Nevertheless, Seacole stopped at nothing to ensure that she achieved her destiny and to this day she is celebrated as a brilliant nurse and great businesswoman.

Even the most altruistic missions can falter in the face of hardship, but a truly ambitious leader presses on undaunted and overcomes every obstacle to achieve their own goals and inspire others. If Mary Seacole’s story motivates you, a distance learning Business Management BA Hons empowers you to be a brilliant boss.

4. Vision – Martin Luther King Jr.

Another man of multi-faceted brilliance, King’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (the most famous rhetorical flourish of which was largely improvised) secured his legacy as a brilliant speaker.

But the defining feature of his leadership during the civil rights movement was the unrelenting pursuit of his vision of equality that the speech encapsulated.

Whilst the unrest that prompted the civil rights movement had been brewing for some time, and King was not the movement’s first important figure, he unified it under one outstanding banner. At a time when many felt that the longstanding crisis of racial injustice was a Gordian knot impossible to unpick, the clarity of his vision cut through constrictions and inspired many to continue to fight for their rights.

In his commitment to his vision, he never once compromised, being arrested over 25 times, and assaulted multiple times over the course of his life. This dedication to his vision at the cost of his own safety, and eventually his life, inspired countless others to have firm faith in the pursuit of justice.

It is a great quality for a leader to be able to provide others with a concise and inspiring vision, but it’s vital that their words are backed by bold action.

5. Advocacy – Eleanor Roosevelt

The saying goes that behind every great man is a great woman, but Eleanor Roosevelt did not simply operate behind the scenes of her husband’s presidency, attaching greatness to her own name in her own right.

She transformed the role of First Lady of the United States into one of activism. At the time of her husband’s inauguration, America was still recovering from the Great Depression when the Second World War began.

Throughout major national and international crises such as these, Roosevelt continuously used her position to advocate for those who were not in a position to advocate for themselves. One of her most significant triumphs during the Second World War was her effort to secure sanctuary for the passengers of the SS Quanza, who had fled from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Her effort was initially met with resistance from many, including her husband. Whilst his administration was nervous about immigration, she insisted that the passengers on board were not merely refugees, but “future patriotic Americans” and in persisting she won them the right to remain in the United States.

Her deep-seated sense of justice persisted throughout her life, and as a leader, she’s regarded by many as significant and influential a figure as her spouse.

In any crisis, good leaders must be prepared to fight for a just outcome and maintain their own resolve, regardless of the personal consequences.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration of leadership skills forged in crisis – for more motivational content, take a look at the following blogs: