Creativity in a crisis!
If you put fences around people, you get sheep.
– William McKnight
It’s been an interesting couple of months!
Amidst the global tragedies, the loss of yet more legends and the circus, spectacle and surprises that have been the US Presidential candidacy contest, the Brexit campaign, and closer to home the Federal elections, the common theme that keeps coming up, and the words that keep getting mentioned in conversations with friends and colleagues are LEADERSHIP and CRISIS.
Given the palpable uncertainty around the globe at the moment, I thought it was a good time to give you my perspective on leading in times of crisis and uncertainty.
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.
It 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 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.
The Harvard Business Review talks about crisis leadership having two distinct phases. First is that emergency phase, when your task is to respond quickly, stabilise the situation and buy time if possible. Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality.
Looking first at the emergency phase, I agree with Dr John Maxwell, that there are two types of people during an immediate crisis – those who freeze, and those who focus. Great leaders are those individuals that have the capacity to focus and react quickly and clearly during the initial stages of a crisis where immediate response can often be what is required.
The skills that enable most leaders to reach their positions of command and influence —analytical problem solving, crisp decision making, the articulation of clear direction—can get in the way of success. Although these skills will at times still be appropriate, the adaptive phase of a crisis requires some new leadership practices. One in particular that I want to focus on here – creativity.
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.
When one studies Shackleton’s experiences, three principles about leading with creativity during crisis came to mind.
- 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.
- 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 (and I know that’s a strange thing for a lawyer to say!) Imagine if Shackleton would have followed the ‘rules.’ The story would have certainly had a different ending.
- 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, realised 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 organisations, 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 team, 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 world, few resources are more valuable to organisations 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 recognised 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.