Sharpening Your Skills: Disaster!


Sharpening Your Skills dives into the HBS Working Knowledge archives to bring together articles on ways to improve your business skills.

Questions To Be Answered

  • How does disaster change leadership goals?
  • What signals should leaders send during a crisis?
  • How should organizations learn from failure?
  • Can leaders anticipate disaster?

How Does Disaster Change Leadership Goals?

Shackleton: An Entrepreneur of Survival
On a trek across Antarctica, Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance became trapped in ice. How did Shackleton lead his isolated team for almost two years through extraordinary hardships? Professor Nancy F. Koehn discusses lessons for leaders.

Key concepts include:

  • As the ship froze into place, Shackleton quickly overcame his own ego to reset the enterprise to focus on survival.
  • Shackleton played to his strong suit and identified the strong suits in other team members.
  • Leaders must be prepared to act when the stakes are much greater than expected.

What Signals Should Leaders Send During A Crisis?

High-Stakes Decision Making: The Lessons of Mount Everest
On May 10, 1996, five mountaineers from two teams perished while climbing Mount Everest. What can business leaders learn from the tragedy? For one, small decisions have big consequences.

Key concepts include:

  • Words and actions by leadership shape perceptions and beliefs of organization members.
  • Leaders need to hold a delicate balance in nurturing confidence, dissent, and commitment within their organizations.
  • After-action reviews often neglect to address the multiple factors contributing to large-scale organizational failures.

How Should Organizations Learn From Failure?

Mission to Mars: It Really Is Rocket Science
After successive failures to land a spacecraft on Mars in 1999, NASA blamed its own "Faster, Better, Cheaper" program as the culprit. But Harvard Business School professor Alan D. MacCormack says the failure was more about organizational execution.

Key concepts include:

  • Although individual projects fail, the root cause may be at an overall program level. Some decisions are best made outside individual projects.
  • Institutionalizing postmortems on all projects, successful or not, is the only way of generating robust insights on how well an organizational change effort is proceeding.
  • In organizational transformation efforts based upon trial-and-error learning, it is critical to understand at which points you will receive feedback on progress.

Can Leaders Anticipate Disaster?

Planning for Surprises
A company doesn't need a crystal ball to see impending disasters. Leaders can foresee and avoid predictable surprises.

Key concepts include:

  • Predictable surprises happen when leaders had all the data and insight they needed to recognize the potential of major problems but failed to respond with preventative action.
  • Psychological, organizational, and political factors conspire to keep us from dealing with potential problems.
  • Assuming a "veil of ignorance" can help leaders to see beyond themselves and more effectively ward off a predictable surprise.