Dennis Perkins: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Perkins, Dennis NTDennis Perkins is Chief Executive Officer of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm devoted to effective leadership in demanding environments—especially those characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity, and rapid change. Perkins has worked for over twenty-five years as an advisor to senior leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 corporations to nonprofit associations. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, he served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam. He subsequently received his MBA from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in psychology at The University of Michigan.

While a faculty member at the Yale University School of Management, he developed a breakthrough leadership approach based on the study of groups facing “The Edge”: that is, the outer limits of human endurance. By studying The Edge, Perkins believes, “leaders can learn what it takes to help their organizations achieve their greatest potential. And they can remember these principles when they are stretched, stressed, and challenged to the limit.”

He is the author of Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition and Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race.

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Morris: Before discussing Leading at The Edge and then (in Part 2) Into the Storm, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Perkins: That’s a very provocative question, and my answer would depend on what stage of my life I’m thinking about. Before college, my mother and father helped in different ways. My father provided a very clear male role model, and he instilled values around public service. A frequent question was, “What have you done for your country today, Denny?” He was a patriot in the best sense of the word. My mother instilled a love of education, language, and shared her personal motto, Excelsior.

At later points in my life, I think of other people. More recently, I’ve been influenced by an Australian named John Walker — the oldest skipper to have done the Sydney to Hobart Race. I just visited him at age 90, and he is still going strong with a sense of humor.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Perkins: Once again, different people entered in my life at different stages of development. In grade school, a nun named Sister Helen Denise taught me that learning could be fun. An eighth grade teacher named Mister Bolding used to torment me, but I really learned English. And a chemistry teacher name Miss Lloyd (not Ms.) supported my scientific work, even after I blew a hole in the wall of the chemistry lab trying to build a rocket sled.

At the Naval Academy, a professor named Bill Russell expanded my horizons about military history as I read Vegitius’ accounts of the Romans in his classic, Epitoma, and I learned about Xenophon and other historical figures. After graduation, my battalion commander in the Marine Corps, the Lt. Col E. J. Bronars (later Lt. General Bronars), was inspirational. And in graduate school, Ed Lawler and Rick Price made significant contributions to my professional development.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

My experience as a Marine officer in Vietnam fits the description of a turning point. My service was, in large part, an answer to my father’s question “What have you done for your country today?” And my immersion in combat brought home the critical differences that leadership and teamwork can make when mistakes cost lives.

It took me a long time to figure out how to translate those learnings in a way that I could talk about them with people who had not been where I had been. But Vietnam was the crucible that forged the tools that I now use to help organizations faced with daunting challenges.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Perkins: The film, We Were Soldiers dramatizes the Battle of Ia Drang Valley – the first major engagement between the United States Army and North Vietnamese forces. It was based on a book written by Colonel Hal Moore (the battalion commander) and journalist Joe Galloway. The book and the film portray the importance of leadership, and the story provides a counterpoint to the dark Vietnam stereotypes popularized by films like Platoon.

A number of critics predictably panned the film, describing some of the characters — for example, the battalion Sergeant Major, Basil Plumley — as unrealistic. No one could possibly be that tough, went one review, or as courageous as the battalion commander. I don’t know if any of the film critics had seen combat, but I had a gunnery sergeant just as tough as Sergeant Major Plumley. And I saw leaders as courageous and dedicated as Hal Moore.

Before his battalion deployed to Vietnam, Lieutenant Colonel Moore declared:

“When we go into battle, I will be the first one to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive we will come home together. So help me God.”

Colonel Moore kept his word, and leaders in any organization can learn from his example.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Leading at The Edge. When and why did you decide to write it?

Perkins: When I was teaching at Yale I decided that, given my life experiences, my voice in the world of leadership could best be found in stories of adventure and survival. I started using the story of Ernest Shackleton and photographs of his expedition in my presentations, but it took almost 14 years before I decided to write a book.

By that time I had come to realize that the story – and my approach to leadership – had a lot of power, and I wanted to share my ideas with a larger audience. Writing a book while engaged in a full-time consulting practice was a daunting challenge, but it seemed as if I didn’t really have a decision to make. I felt compelled to write the book, and I was encouraged by close friends. David Nadler, a prolific writer and a distinguished consultant, was especially supportive.

When people ask how long it took to write Leading at The Edge, I say either two years or 16 years, depending on the starting line. The ramp up was all part of the gestation process and the evolution of my thinking.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Perkins: I don’t remember a single epiphany, but I believe that writing the book forced me to immerse myself in the story in a way that I never had before. Part of it was that I simply wanted to get the story right. I’ve often said that if an eighth grader in North Platte, Nebraska wanted to use my book for a school report, I wanted that report to be right.

For me, part of getting the book right involved looking at source material, examining contradictions, and making judgment calls. And part of it was simply staying immersed in the material so much – to live, eat, and breathe the story – so that I felt I was part of the journey and could write with authenticity. As a result, there was no single eureka moment, but every day of writing held a new discovery. It also made the story of the Endurance expedition even that much more extraordinary.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Perkins: The final manuscript was very much like the original outline that I had developed for the publisher. I had used the Ten Strategies in the book for a number of years, I felt that the Shackleton story illustrated them well, and I knew they worked with leaders. In the process of flushing out the outline, however, there were many new dimensions that I hadn’t thought of in the beginning.

The evolution took the form of business examples that I used to illustrate the Ten Strategies, and my thinking continued to evolve over the years. In the second edition of Leading at The Edge, for example, I added the story of Sully Sullenberger and the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Sully’s skill, and the teamwork shown in making that landing on the river, provided the perfect vehicle for illustrating the concept of “Never give up, there’s always another move.” And I thought it was a great way to end the strategy section of the book.

For me, thinking about Leadership at The Edge is an ongoing process, and if there’s a third edition I’m sure I will have more ideas to add.

Morris: Briefly, please explain how Shackleton’s background prepared him especially well to lead the voyage aboard the Endurance.

Perkins: There are a number of things in Shackleton’s background that shaped his leadership, but one that stood out for me was his service in the British Merchant Marine. Unlike Scott, an officer in the Royal Navy who expected unquestioned obedience, Shackleton learned the ropes in a different environment. When people can leave the organization – whether the merchant service or a private organization – then the ability to cultivate followership becomes critical. It’s a different mindset, and one that I believe served Shackleton very well.

Morris: While visiting our daughter and her family in New York in 1999, I spent an afternoon checking out everything in the ten-month Shackleton exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. I was amazed to learn that, after the Endurance was trapped in the ice and then crushed by it, Shackleton and his crew camped out for five months before he and a few others made not one but two open-boat journeys, one of which was especially treacherous while proceeding 800 miles across the ocean. I saw that boat at the exhibition and it seemed [begin italics] so small [end italics]. It all seems miraculous.

Here’s my question: What specific leadership lessons can be learned from the open-boat voyages, especially the one to South Georgia Island?

Perkins: I believe that one of the most interesting lessons concerns the limits of leadership. Shackleton had always been in the vanguard, on watch, leading, and staying awake for two or three days or even more if necessary. But on the open-boat journey he was frustrated by his lack of knowledge about seamanship. He turned to Frank Worsley, the Captain, and said, “Do you know that I know nothing about boat sailing?” Worsley replied, “All right, Boss, I do…”

It was a bitter pill for Shackleton to swallow, because he knew that he had to let go and let Worsley take the lead. For Frank Worsley, the passage was uncomfortable and dangerous, but it was still an adventure. For Shackleton, the voyage was surrounded by a sense of helplessness – even incompetence. But by letting go and enabling Worsley to bring his skills to bear, Shackleton helped ensure that they would make it safely to South Georgia Island.

Morris: Given their situation after they finally reach that island, it seems like another miracle that Shackleton and two of his four companions then crossed over the mountains to the Stromness whaling station. What do you find most remarkable about that 26-mile journey over land that had never before been traversed?

Perkins: I did part of the South Georgia crossing on my trip to Antarctica. It was summer in the southern hemisphere, so there wasn’t nearly as much snow as Shackleton and his party experienced. But it was an exhausting climb for me, and I marveled at their ability to do the crossing with snow-covered mountains, with no climbing equipment, and after 522 days stranded in the Frozen South.

In trying to understand the accomplishment, I realized that this journey was simply a microcosm of everything that had gone before. They drew on the creativity of the team with McNeish’s suggestion that they use screws from the Caird for crampons. Because of the ever-present fear that their shipmates on Elephant Island might starve, waiting for spring was not an option. And Shackleton – despite wearing leather boots because he had given his better boots to one of the men – continued his concern for the welfare of others. And he continued to praise their efforts. And, finally, — though Shackleton was known as “Cautious Jack” because of his concern for safety — they were willing to risk sliding down the mountain because they knew that that was ultimately the safest choice.

Throughout all this, the team followed Shackleton’s example and did everything to help and show consideration for each other. As Worsley wrote “Responding to Shackleton’s unselfishness, teamwork was pulling us through.” So the journey over South Georgia Island was, for me a metaphor for everything that happened on the Endurance expedition.

Morris: While re-reading Leading at The Edge before formulating these questions, I was again reminded of how important it was for Shackleton to select the right people to serve on his crew prior to embarking on what was clearly not a routine voyage. What were his criteria for selection and what is your own estimate of those chosen?

Perkins:The issue of crew selection is an area in which my view differs from others who have written about the Shackleton expedition. Some attribute the success of the expedition to a careful selection process that resulted in an elite, cohesive crew. I have another explanation.

Though Shackleton was interested in people’s ability to work together, many of his interviews were extremely brief. And research on unstructured interviewing as a selection tool illustrates that it is extremely unreliable as a predictive device.

Examining the expedition crew, some like Wild were extremely steady. But Worsley was a limited disciplinarian, and when Shackleton arrived in Buenos Aires he found the crew in disarray under Worsley’s leadership. Many of the scientists were eccentric, and Chippy McNeish staged a mutiny. In my view, this was not an elite crew of Marines or Navy SEALs. I think there is another explanation for their cohesiveness.

I believe that Shackleton’s leadership, and his efforts at building a team, created a unified force that was able to overcome adversity. In Leading at The Edge I outline just how he went about this, but I do not believe that a flawless selection process was an important ingredient in their success. If I am right, this should give some comfort to leaders who don’t have the luxury of selecting their team from scratch, and who need to play to win with the hand they are dealt.

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Dennis cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Syncretics Group home page

Leading at the Edge Amazon page

Into the Storm Amazon page

The Syncretics Group Facebook page

Follow Dennis Perkins on Twitter @dntp and @SyncreticsGroup.

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  1. […] To read Part 1, please click here. […]

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