Workplace Doctor: Take heed of Ernest Shackleton when a leader departs in the middle of a crisis

When a leader leaves in the middle of a crisis, what does that mean for the next person in charge? Is it a case of clear up the mess and get on with the job, or come in all guns blazing with a brand new strategy? YT, Dubai 

When a leader jumps ships in the midst of a severe storm there is always potential for mutiny within the team and anxiety for this new captain to steer the ship back on course. Coming in all guns blazing is certainly something any experienced leader would not do, but at the same time he or she doesn’t have to simply accept business as usual. Stepping in to a new team facing a crisis can require a cleanup effort, but also if done correctly, serves as an opportunity for you and the team to make some positive changes.

Remember, immediately launching a new strategy and new ways of going about things too early implies the team’s previous work was a waste of time. Instead, a more sensitive approach would be to get to know the people, use the best of what’s been implemented in the past and slowly guide them towards a new course of action. You will find that gaining their loyalty and commitment will mean your crew happily follows your direction resulting in the ship moving faster. It may even be useful to speak with the previous leader and learn a bit about the team, their priorities and preferences. However, make sure you remain open minded enough to form your own opinions.

The next thing to do as a leader taking over a new team in the middle of a crisis is to get all hands on deck, stuck in and as a team get through it. It is very important for you as the leader to reassure the team that you are prepared to work with them to overcome the bad weather in the short-term. This shows not only an acknowledgement and appreciation of the pressure they are under but also a willingness to get your hands dirty if you need to. The team will then trust that you are working with them rather than simply telling ordering them around.

This crisis situation is also a real good opportunity for you to demonstrate a quick win – both to the team and to the management who selected you for this position. If you can show tangible results early and the group can experience their first success under you, this will set you up well for the future. You can also use the crisis and the time to clearly express your own values and intentions as a leader. You can explain the rational behind your decisions, list priorities and what you think is the best measure of performance going forward. That way, the team knows where you stand early on and there won’t be any surprises if your approach differs from their previous captain.

Following this, either as part of dealing with the sticky situation itself or as a result of it, it is critical to devote time or energy to establishing how you want your team to work, not just what you want them to achieve. Setting this up early on is important as otherwise the team will find themselves naturally following the route they are most comfortable with.

Emerging through this crisis should be an opportunity to pause and reflect on how you all want to work together. This could be executed through an informal lunch, team-building activity, a day out and about for the team or simply through regular open conversations. The key is they see you as an interested and engaging leader who is open to suggestions on what they think works and what they would like to leave behind with the previous leadership.

Lastly, it is also important as a team leader to get people working towards the same goals early on. This may be in line with the current strategy or to achieve new objectives. You may want to change course slightly, but as you have inherited the team, it is important they are clear on the direction they are already supposed to be going in.

One popular example of leadership in times of crisis is Ernest Shackleton and his Trans-Antartic expedition over 100 years ago. Shackleton and 28 explorers were stranded in Antarctica, when their ship became frozen in ice. The crew faced starvation, isolation and extreme temperatures with the situation worsening day by day. Yet, they braved through to return home safely. The reasons for this are inextricably linked to what’s been discussed above. Shackleton kept his team to a strict routine. He instilled a sense of cohesion; insisting that every evening the team got together around the fire. He proved he was willing to do whatever was required to survive and put in the hours rather than just expecting the team to. He maintained their focus on the goal of survival, achieving it with confidence and tenacity.

Doctors Prescription

Taking over in times of a crisis can feel like being asked to captain a sinking ship. This isn’t always the case but if you find yourself in such a situation, use this opportunity to slowly execute your strategies and ideas, but gain the respect of your team early through a small victory. Getting through it successfully is important, but also use it as an opportunity to understand the team and make them feel like you are a leader who will work with them, and not over them.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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