Leading at The Edge

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

 Leading at The Edge

Author: Dennis N.T. Perkins
Pub Date: March 2012
Print Edition: $15.00
Print ISBN: 9780814431948
Page Count: 288
Format: Paper or Softback
Edition: Second Edition
e-Book ISBN: 9780814431610

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Leaders who take their organizations to The Edge must channel energy

toward two equally important goals. First, they must continually be

aware of their ultimate destination—their longer-term, strategic objective.

This ultimate goal, however, may be distant and uncertain. So while

pursuing this long-term target, leaders also must be vigilant in focusing

the scarce resources of the organization on the critical short-term tasks

that create momentum and ensure survival. Ernest Shackleton demon-

strated an almost uncanny mastery of these two essential, but very

different, leadership skills.

Be Willing to Find a “New Mark”

It is hard to imagine a bleaker scene than the one surrounding the de-

mise of Endurance. Shackleton and his crew had suffered as the ship

was slowly, inexorably crushed by millions of tons of ice. For days, they

watched the death agony of the ship, waiting helplessly as their floating

home disintegrated plank by plank.

Even with the uncertainty of the shifting ice, wind, and ocean, life

aboard ship had followed a relatively predictable routine.The crew had

warm food and the comforting security of a familiar environment. Now,

marooned on the ice and snow, their familiar, stable world had been

turned upside down.

With the end of Endurance, Shackleton saw his dream of crossing the

Antarctic Continent die as well. And he faced more than failure:

Shackleton was not expected by the world to reappear until February

1916, and his chances of rescue were nonexistent.

In this wrenching moment of personal challenge, however, Shackleton

was able to shift quickly his long-term goal from the crossing of the

continent to bringing every man back alive. Refocusing his efforts, he

wrote, “A man must shape himself to a new mark, directly the old one

goes to ground.”2 With no prospect of rescue, facing an unknown fu-

ture with little chance of survival, he turned to his crew and simply

said: “So now we’ll go home.”3

How was Shackleton able to exercise this kind of tenacity in the face

of such overwhelming adversity? He certainly had his private doubts,

writing in his diary,“I pray God I can manage to get the whole party to

civilization.”4 Acutely aware of his responsibilities as the leader,

Shackleton let go of his original plan, shifted his focus, and devoted

himself completely to this new mission. By the intensity of his conviction

and the force of his will, he instilled in others the deep belief that they

would achieve their new goal: returning safely, without loss of life.

Lessons for Leaders

Efforts to explore the unknown are inherently filled with unexpected

events. Changing environmental conditions and shifting opportunities are

part of any truly innovative, challenging adventure.This means that, as a

leader, you need to be willing to shift both long- and short-term goals

without clinging to the past. Additionally, you must be able to commit to

these new goals with as much passion and energy as you did to the orig-

inal mark.

A classic business example of this is CEO Andy Grove’s decision to

alter Intel’s direction. Intel, a company known for microprocessors, was

once primarily a maker of memory chips. In the mid-1980s, Japanese

chipmakers moved to win away Intel’s chip business by undercutting its

prices by 10 percent.The Japanese were successful, and Intel lost $173

million in one year.

After considering many options, Grove determined to take Intel out

of the memory-chip business and make a commitment to microprocessor

manufacturing. In coming to this decision, Grove asked his colleague

and former Intel CEO Gordon Moore a hypothetical question: “If we

got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think

he would do?”5

Moore told Grove that this new CEO would take the company out

of the memory-chip business. Grove decided that rather than wait for his

successor to change things, he would do it himself.Thereafter, resources

were redirected into developing Intel microprocessors, a business sector

then secondary to chips.This new direction provided the foundation for

Intel’s future success.

Intel continued to adapt to changing demand by looking beyond the

microprocessor market. While projections for PC sales fell, Intel boldly

acquired assets in the cable-modem chip, wireless chip, and security soft-

ware businesses. It redirected resources to new product lines: Intel chips

for tablet computers and smartphones.6 With each of these moves, Intel

was finding a new mark and forging ahead in Shackleton style.

* * * * *

Turn the page to enjoy an excerpt from

Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney-to-Hobart Ocean Race

Dennis N.T. Perkins and Jillian B. Murphy

Coming Fall 2012

Arthur Psaltis watches the boat’s digital readout as the wind speed

races from thirty-five knots, to forty, and then forty-five knots. At

sixty knots, the readout suddenly goes blank.Arthur stares at the

empty screen.Then it hits him:The metal fitting that holds the wind

meter on top of the mast has been torn off, rendering the instrument


The next blast of wind flattens the boat, driving its mast into the

water and flooding the cockpit.As the crew has done so many times

in practice, side by side on the rail with their backs to the sea, they

calmly take in the main sail.They know what they have to do. If the sail

stays up, the boat could be rolled 360 degrees and they might never


Conditions are treacherous and getting worse by the minute.The

noise is the most frightening part. It comes as a high-pitched scream, like

an old-fashioned kettle boiling furiously.The wind—reaching speeds of

nearly ninety miles per hour—howls around them, and the waves rise

higher than the fifty-foot mast, dwarfing the thirty-five-foot boat.

The heavy rain and spew from the waves spray the sailors on deck,

pelting their faces like gravel, and the constant noise makes talking nearly

impossible. The crew can communicate only by cupping their hands

around their mouths and shouting into each other’s ears.They slap the

hull of the boat to warn those below deck of oncoming big waves.

The men below deck are fighting a different battle.They can see

nothing of what is happening topside and find themselves in a constant

state of anxiety. As Ed expertly steers the boat up the face of the massive

waves, the men exhale each time the boat slides down the other side un-

scathed. It is an extraordinary feat of seamanship.

But not every time.When Ed miscalculates, the boat flies off the wave

and hangs in midair until it hits the trough between the waves.The impact

is like crashing into a block of cement.Trapped below, the crew waits

to see if the boat will explode, the weight of the rigging ramming the mast

through the hull like a pile driver. It is a horrible feeling knowing that the

boat might fill with water and sink in an instant.

As the boat shoots off the back of one towering wave, Chris Rockell,

a tough, rugby-playing New Zealander, is launched from his seated

position. He flies through the air, crashing into an exposed bolt that is

sticking through the overhead of the cabin. Chris falls backward and his

face turns red, covered with blood.

Terrified that his injury will force the team to quit the race, Chris

sticks his fingers into the wound to see if he touches “hard or squishy.”

Relieved to find his skull intact, he insists that the boat continue on and

not pull out of the race on his account.Concussed and barred from going

on deck,Chris carefully positions his weight on the high side of the boat

to act as ballast.

The crew members are literally fighting for their lives, and the worst

is yet to come.They are competing in what will become one of the most

dangerous and historic offshore ocean races in history.

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