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The Hope of Proactivity

Written By: Krista Keil

Concepts taken from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Steve Covey

Information on Ernest Shackleton from the Virtuous Leadership Institute.

Ernest Shackleton was a man known for his dynamic leadership. After entering the British navy at the age of 16, and honing his sailing skills for the next 10 years, he attempted an unsuccessful expedition to Antarctica. From that point forward, it became a dream of his to set foot in the Antarctic. In 1914, he spearheaded an expedition to achieve what no one had done before: crossing Antarctica via the South Pole. Shackleton wanted to be the first to walk across the continent.

Shackleton's expedition to Antarctica quickly became a turbulent journey, and resulted in the crew members being stranded in the middle of the frozen sea throughout the winter months. Hope dwindled as their ship, appropriately named, “Endurance,” sank after being slowly compressed by sea ice- but this did not stop Shackleton. Shackleton adapted accordingly and made a new goal: to have every man survive and return home safe and sound. More than anything, Shackleton feared for the survival of his crew members and was concerned about the effects of apathy, anxiety, disengagement, hopelessness, and pessimism: he knew he had to prevent his men from despairing. Thus, Shackleton did everything he could to combat these concerns, and he put the care of his crew members first. They spent the winter on the ice and learned how to survive: they built igloos, played sports, hunted penguins and seals, and developed strong routines. Instead of allowing these fears to dictate his course, Shackleton was proactive in his response, anticipating the needs of his crew.

Shackleton developed routines and ways to maintain morale, by creating a daily schedule and structuring the crew's time, filling it with dedicated community time, activities, and requiring participation in responsibilities of daily living. Knowing that survival depended on him, Shackleton came up with a plan of action and decided to sail to the nearest island with the crew, via lifeboats, as the ice began to melt in the spring. Although exhausted and sick, all 22 crew members made it. As this island was far from shipping lanes, Shackleton then decided to navigate with a smaller team of five to the island from which they originally set sail. Leaving 22 men behind, and taking 5 with him, he sailed for 16 days in a small lifeboat until he reached the island. It took Shackleton another 4 months and 3 attempts before he was able to find and save the rest of his crew. In the end, all 22 men survived. In a letter Shackleton wrote to his wife Emily, he stated, “I have done it. Not a life lost, and we have been through hell.” Although unexpected, he indeed accomplished the most important mission: the survival and well-being of each man under his leadership.

Shackleton’s example of leadership, accurately reflects Steve Covey’s first habit of being proactive. Rather than placing blame and being reactive amidst difficult circumstances, Shackleton took responsibility for his choices and for his crew members- doing everything he could to anticipate their needs and plan for their survival. Shackleton didn’t waste time worrying about what was outside of his control- he chose to focus on what he could control and influence instead. In “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Covey refers to being proactive as the “habit of responsibility.” Every person is quite literally, “response-able.” We have the freedom to choose our response in any given situation. The human person’s greatest attribute is our free will. Covey holds that although we can’t control what happens to us, we can control our response to what happens to us. Covey explains that this is where freedom plays a role: between stimulus and response, lies our choice. Part of being proactive is stopping to think before you act. The advantage of being proactive is reacting ahead of time: preparing for something before it happens, rather than allowing something to happen to you. Proactivity recognizes that our behavior has the power to shape our circumstances, rather than enabling circumstances to dictate our behavior. As both Covey and Ernest Shackleton’s story highlight, being proactive can literally change your circumstances!

Being proactive is more than just a habit of effective leadership, it is a way of being. It can inspire an attitude of hope. Living proactively, accepting personal responsibility for our daily activities and interactions, provides us inner consolation of our own way of being. It helps us grow in confidence, affirming our capacity to take control of our lives, regardless of what comes across our path. Being proactive is about adapting our behaviors, mindset, and the paradigms we subscribe to- it fills us with the hope that we are capable of change, of growth. As Covey states, “it is inspiring to realize that in choosing our response to circumstance, we powerfully affect our circumstance. When we change one part of the chemical formula, we change the nature of the results.” So the next time you're facing a difficult decision or situation- how will you choose to respond?


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