The Scourge of Discouragement

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The Ernest Sheckleton and his crew

The economy continues to crawl like a slug with the flu. The Middle East is crashing and burning. Even the national crime rate rose a whopping 17 percent (after several years of decline) according to the latest figures. In these times it’s easy to get discouraged and many of our colleagues, customers, and co-workers are experiencing acute discouragement. As leaders, we need to learn how to encourage ourselves and others, especially in the times we’re living.

Discouragement hinders our ability to handle the challenges of leadership. When we’re discouraged, additional responsibility may just represent more opportunities to be let down. Discouragement is a cause of much wasted human potential. Sometimes it’s rooted in a person’s sense of self-worth–or the lack thereof; other times it’s just rooted in too many discouraging circumstances. Some people have had so many experiences of disillusionment that they’re afraid to hope.

Awhile back, I came across a great illustration of this in Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

In 1914, a team of explorers set sail for Antarctica, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Their goal was to be the first humans to cross the Antarctic. However, upon arriving to the Waddle Sea, their ship became stuck in the ice pack and was eventually crushed. For five months, they drifted on the ice, trying to stay alive on what seemed to be a solid block of ice and blinding whiteness as far as the eye could see.

Gradually, as the ice turned, they drew closer to the open sea and the ice began to gently move up and down. Lansing describes the anxiety that gripped the team members as hope began to creep back into their thinking.

Until the appearance of the swell, many of the men had struggled for months not to let hope creep into their minds. For the most part, they had convinced themselves not only that the party would have to winter on the floes–but also that such a fate would be quite endurable. Then the swell came–the physical proof that there really was something outside this limitless prison of ice. And all the defenses they had so carefully constructed to prevent hope from entering their minds collapsed.

Many people today, like these Antarctic explorers, have had their hopes struck down so many times that they fear to hope again and even the possibility of hope causes them pain.

Encouragement is one of the central functions of leadership. Sometimes that encouragement comes in the form of a word sincerely spoken. Other times it is expressed in more tangible ways. But one thing is sure: encouragement is one of the great leadership functions of our day.

How well are you doing in these times? How do you encourage yourself? How do you encourage others?

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