Leading at The Edge

Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition

 Leading at The Edge

Authors: Dennis N.T. Perkins, Margaret P. Holtman, Paul R. Kessler, Catherine McCarthy
Pub Date: May 2000
Print Edition: $24.95
Print ISBN: 9780814405437
Page Count: 288
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814431610

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On August 3, 1913, a Canadian expedition led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson set out to explore the frozen Arctic, between the northernmost shores of Canada and the North Pole. On December 5, 1914, the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, sailed from the island of South Georgia in the Southern Ocean. Its goal was the first overland crossing of Antarctica.

Both ships, the Karluk in the north and the Endurance in the south, soon found themselves beset in solid pack ice. Trapped by the ice, each crew was soon engaged in a fight for survival. But the outcomes of these two adventures--and the ways in which the two leaders dealt with the obstacles they faced--were as far apart as the poles each leader set out to explore.

In the north, the crew of the Karluk found themselves transformed in the months that followed into a band of self-interested, disparate individuals. Lying, cheating, and stealing became common behaviors. The disintegration of the team had tragic consequences for its eleven members who died in the Arctic wasteland.

In the frozen south, the story of the Endurance could not have been more different. Shackleton's expedition faced the same problems of ice, cold, and shortages of food and supplies. The response of his crew to these hellish conditions, however, was in almost every respect the obverse of those of the Karluk's crew. Teamwork, self-sacrifice, and astonishing good cheer replaced lying, cheating, and rapacious self-interest. It was as if the Endurance existed not just in a different polar region, but in a different, contrary, parallel universe.

What Can Today's Leaders Learn from Explorers at the World's Edge?

There were many variables at play in the Endurance and Karluk adventures. I believe, however, that these two cases reflect something far different from a simple twist of fate. Having studied numerous situations in which teams faced the edge of life and death--the physical limits of human endurance--I have found that there are systematic differences between those that succeed and those that fail.

Over the past fifteen years, I have examined numerous stories of other groups that have been at the edge of survival, including accounts of shipwrecks, airplane crashes, mountain-climbing expeditions, and polar exploration. From this research, ten leadership principles have emerged as the critical factors that distinguish groups that triumph from those that fail. These core leadership strategies form the backbone of this book.

My goal is to show how these ten principles, employed by Shackleton and others who have succeeded in the face of extreme adversity, can help leaders reach the limits of individual and organizational performance. Leading at the Edge will demonstrate how these leadership lessons can be applied to organizations confronting such contemporary challenges as competition, economic uncertainty, and the need for constant innovation, growth, and change.

Each chapter in Part One of the book illustrates how one of the ten strategies has been used under life-and-death conditions. It also includes specific tactics for implementing these strategies and uses brief case examples to show how these concepts can be applied to any organizational challenge. Finally, each chapter poses a set of questions for reflection in the form of a personal Expedition Log.

Part Two of the book includes four extended case studies. These cases show how leaders have applied the ten strategies in situations ranging from short-term crises to cultural transformation. The cases, drawn from different industries, illustrate the power of effective leadership under conditions of ambiguity, uncertainty, and change. They also demonstrate how leaders can create teams that work together and succeed in the face of enormous odds.

In Part Three, I share my perspective on the fundamental issue of success and failure and on learning the art of "leading at The Edge." Finally, Part Four includes a number of resources, including tools for individual assessment and for further reading about leadership and adventure.

Origins of the Leading at The Edge Concept

A major part of my life has been spent trying to understand what it really means to be a leader--particularly under conditions of adversity, ambiguity, and change. My passion to understand the art of leadership began at the United States Naval Academy. As a midshipman at Annapolis, I looked at the discipline of leadership as the foundation of a military career.

My quest to understand leadership began in earnest after graduation, when I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. As a platoon commander, I found myself in the sand dunes of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, faced with the challenge of leading some thirty-five young Marines.

As a platoon leader I tried to apply what I had learned at Annapolis, and I watched other leaders to see what worked and what did not. I was naively amazed to find that--although we had all gone through the same training--the actual practice of leadership varied tremendously. Mostly I saw good leadership; sometimes I saw exceptional leadership.

The differences between good and exceptional had effects on the attitudes and behavior of the troops, but the consequences in peacetime were not profound. Mistakes were simply mistakes, and no one died. The troops might grumble, but it was the Marine Corps and everyone followed orders.

My leadership "postgraduate education" continued off the coast of Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. As part of the Special Landing Force, we sailed along the coast, launching amphibious operations to relieve units that got into trouble near the demilitarized zone. Later, I went "in country" and experienced the war in many roles. As a civil affairs officer, I saw it from the perspective of the Vietnamese. I helped build wells, distribute CARE packages, and bring medical and dental care to the local villagers. Later, as the commanding officer of a rifle company, I saw Vietnam through a different set of lenses.

In Vietnam, the stakes were higher and blind obedience was not something to be taken for granted. Under combat conditions--in an unpopular war filled with Kafkaesque absurdity and contradiction--asking a group of people to move into harm's way required more than just giving orders. It was here that I really began to understand the nature of exceptional leadership.

I saw that some leaders were able to inspire exhausted, wet, tired, and discouraged Marines under the most grueling conditions. They were able to exercise leadership in a way that called on deep reserves of endurance and comradeship. They did things that motivated scared, anxious troops to "saddle up" and move into the dark--to venture beyond the relative safety of the concertina-wire perimeter into the face of death. It was more than the discipline of the Marine Corps. It was something else.

After Vietnam, my passion to understand leadership continued in graduate school--first, at the Harvard Business School, then later as a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Michigan, where I discovered that what I had done in Vietnam was called experiential learning. My ideas about leadership really began to converge, however, when I joined the faculty of the Yale School of Management. There, as a professor, I was confronted with two central questions:

--What can I tell students about the qualities and behaviors that distinguish truly exceptional leaders and teams?

--How can I help students display these qualities and practice these behaviors when they leave the classroom and move into positions of leadership?

As I began to reflect on the academic research that I had studied--"the literature," as we affectionately called it--I still felt that something was missing. It was not that the theories were wrong. It was just that academic theories about leadership seemed far removed from the challenges I had faced as a leader, particularly those I experienced in Vietnam. Furthermore, I found it difficult to present these leadership concepts in a way that I thought students would remember after graduation.

In my teaching and consulting outside the university, I was faced with an even more difficult challenge. Working with a diverse array of organizations, I found that leaders were often stretched to the limits and pressured to achieve the impossible in short order. They were totally unconcerned about getting a passing grade on a management-theory exam. They searched for solutions that answered their problems. They required help in identifying the critical steps that they could take to lead their organizations. They demanded ideas in a form that they could remember.

So, a series of life experiences, plus the immediate challenge of teaching and consulting about leadership, led me to blaze a new path. I thought about the power of the leadership lessons learned in Vietnam, and I decided to take a different route: to look for leadership insights in stories of groups that have been to the outer limits of human endurance--the place I call The Edge.

This path has led me to believe that the essence of leadership can be found in this ultimate crucible of human endeavor. I am convinced that by understanding the things that work when survival is at stake--when financial incentives or promotions become irrelevant, and when fear and self-interest surface--we can understand how to lead under other conditions. By studying The Edge, we can learn the things needed to lead organizations to their full potential, and we can remember these principles when we ourselves are stretched, stressed, and challenged.

In this book, then, The Edge is a concept with two dimensions. The first edge is the Survival Edge: the limits of human endurance. The second edge is the Performance Edge: the limits of individual and organizational potential. Throughout the book, I take lessons from the first and apply them to the second.

Contemporary organizational challenges are not, of course, exactly the same as the life-and-death situations I experienced and studied. I have, however, often observed people reacting to everyday events as if they were life-and-death matters. I have seen people more upset about missing deadlines or giving presentations than Marines under automatic-weapons and mortar fire. In one notable episode, I watched a distraught executive charge down a runway, briefcase in hand, attempting to catch a departing plane. He was apparently prepared to risk his life rather than miss an important meeting.

The challenges that you face as a leader may not involve physical survival, but you will need to deal with the human reactions that are common to any stressful situation. By understanding the leadership practices that work in extreme situations--conditions in which normal or even above-average performance means failure and even death--you will increase your ability to lead and flourish in the face of adversity.

Overview of the Ten Strategies

In my search to find compelling examples of what can be accomplished when people work together to overcome adversity, the saga of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic expedition stood out. While there are many other accounts of triumph at The Edge, the story of the Endurance was unique. Better than any other, the Shackleton saga encapsulated the strategies I had found to be absolutely essential for success. Consequently, I will use Shackleton's story as the primary vehicle for exploring leadership at The Edge and for illustrating key ideas about extraordinary leadership and teamwork.

What are these critical factors that determine success at The Edge? What are the core elements that made the outcome of the Endurance expedition so different from that of the Karluk? There were, of course, a number of forces that affected the ending of these two stories: weather, ice conditions, and even luck. Shackleton's luck, however, was not limited to good fortune. He had a boatload of bad luck as well, and it started at the outset of the adventure.

I am convinced that the safe return of Shackleton's expedition can be attributed to much more than luck. I believe that the leadership strategies that enabled Shackleton's crew to beat the odds can be found in a set of principles common to many other stories of survival. The underlying ingredients of triumph are expressed in these ten strategies:

1. Never lose sight of the ultimate goal, and focus energy on short-term objectives.

2. Set a personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors.

3. Instill optimism and self-confidence, but stay grounded in reality.

4. Take care of yourself: Maintain your stamina and let go of guilt.

5. Reinforce the team message constantly: "We are one--we live or die together."

6. Minimize status differences and insist on courtesy and mutual respect.

7. Master conflict--deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles.

8. Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.

9. Be willing to take the Big Risk.

10. Never give up--there's always another move.

The ten strategies are closely interwoven. A single leadership action might include several strategies, in much the same way that an athlete might employ several techniques such as balance, focus, and dynamic relaxation to hit a ball or score a goal. A chapter will be devoted to each of the ten strategies, but it is important to remember the interconnectedness that exists among them all.

The chapters that follow show how each strategy is critical to the success of groups and organizations at The Edge. Most important, they outline ways in which these strategies can work for you as a leader. First, however, let us look more carefully at Shackleton's extraordinary adventure.

Expedition Log

1. Before we begin our explorations at The Edge, you may want to reflect on a situation in which you were stretched to your own limits of performance or endurance. The situation can be one that involved leading others, or it can relate to a personal obstacle or goal.

--What were the qualities that enabled you to succeed or persevere--your behaviors, values, or personal characteristics?

--If the situation involved others, what was the nature of the teamwork or support that you were able to inspire? How did you work with others to achieve your goal?

2. If you have difficulty thinking of a personal experience, you may want to reflect on a leader who has taken a team or organization to The Edge--to the highest possible limits of performance.

--What were the qualities that made this individual so exceptional--behaviors, values, or personal characteristics?

--What was the nature of the teamwork that this leader was able to inspire? How did the group work together to achieve its goals?


Excerpted from LEADING AT THE EDGE by Dennis N. T. Perkins. Copyright © 2000.. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.

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