Dennis Perkins: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Dennis Perkins is Chief Executive Officer of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm Perkins, Dennis NTdevoted 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.

To read Part 1, please click here.

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Morris: When you began to write Into the Storm, what did you want your readers to “get,” if nothing else, from the material provided?

Perkins: I wanted people to understand the importance of distributed leadership. By distributed leadership, I mean a form of teamwork in which leadership can shift with changing circumstances and then demand characteristics of different situations.

While there was shared leadership in my previous book on the Endurance expedition, Shackleton’s heroic leadership often overshadows contributions by other members of the team. So I was looking for a story that highlighted the unique contribution made by each team member, and I want to be able to speak personally with every member of the crew.

To be clear, there was only one skipper on the Midnight Rambler – Ed Psaltis. But there were many clear instances in which other members of the crew took the initiative and assumed a leadership role. These examples help underscore the importance of shared leadership when faced with substantial challenges.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read it, please explain why races such as the Sydney to Hobart Race are viewed as “the Everest of ocean racing.”

Perkins: The Sydney to Hobart Race is a Category 1 sailing competition. Category 1 competitions are races of long distance and are well offshore, where yachts must be completely self-sufficient for extended periods of time, capable of withstanding heavy storms and prepared to meet serious emergencies without the expectation of outside assistance.

The race course angles down the eastern coast of Australia and crosses the Bass Strait, a body of open water that separates the continent of Australia from the island of Tasmania. As sailors pass the southeast tip of Australia, marked by Gabo Island, they enter the notorious Bass Strait. The reputation of this dangerous, 130 mile stretch of water is well-deserved.

The Bass Strait is shallow and big waves from the southern ocean plow into the strait – not unlike waves hitting the beach. These waves move quickly from a depth of over 3,000 feet to around 150 feet. When they collide with the shallow water of the strait, the bottom of the waves slow dramatically. The result can be a maelstrom of flat-backed waves that create a dangerous, aqueous minefield for sailors.

Of course, any part of the 723 statute mile race can be dangerous. The year I did the race, one 70 foot boat and a 98 foot maxi were dismasted on the first day. And on my boat, we lost all our navigation equipment as result of a so-called rogue wave. Rogue wave can appear at any point in the Sydney to Hobart Race.

Morris: Please explain why the Sydney to Hobart Race in 1998 “proved to be the most perilous in the event’s sixty-five year history?”

Perkins: The Sydney to Hobart Race is always a challenging race, but in 1998 conditions were extraordinarily dangerous. As the fleet sailed down the coast of Australia, boats were hit by an unexpected weather-bomb – a massive storm that created 80 foot waves and winds over 100 miles an hour.

In 1998, 115 boats and 1,135 sailors crossed the starting line. By the time the race was over, only forty-four boats reached the finish line. Five had sunk, seven were abandoned at sea, twenty-five crewmen were washed overboard, and fifty-five sailors were rescued in an operation involving twenty-five aircraft, six vessels, and approximately 1,000 people. It was the largest search and rescue operation in the history of Australia.

Morris: Please explain why you selected AFR Midnight Rambler to be the focal point throughout the book’s narrative.

Perkins: A number of books have been written about the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race, but most focused on the tragedy and loss of life. The spotlight was on death and destruction. When I looked further, however, I found that the story of the AFR Midnight Rambler had been almost completely overlooked.

While many crews tried to maneuver around the storm, the 35 foot AFR Midnight Rambler chose to head directly into its path. After battling mountainous waves and hurricane force winds in the Bass Strait, the tiny boat arrived safely in Hobart, three days and sixteen hours later.

Their decision to head into the eye of the storm – along with extraordinary tenacity, optimism, courage, and teamwork – enabled this crew of amateur sailors to beat professionals on much larger and better financed boats. The skipper, Ed Psaltis, and his crew of six were proclaimed the Overall Winners and awarded the coveted Tattersall’s Cup. They were the smallest boat in ten years to win the race.

I immersed myself in the saga of the Midnight Rambler and I contacted the skipper, Ed Psaltis. The more I heard about his philosophy, and the more I learned about the way the crew worked together, the more engaged I became. It was clear to me that the success of the AFR Midnight Rambler was not a fluke or mere luck. It was the result of a consistent set of exemplary practices that embody the concept of Teamwork at The Edge.

Through my research on the Sydney to Hobart Race I have learned about many inspiring stories of teamwork and overcoming adversity. As I said to “The Ramblers,” however, I believe that theirs was a story that deserved to be told. And it seemed like the perfect vehicle – or vessel – for illustrating the key principles underlying Teamwork at The Edge.

Morris: You also have much interest and value to say about lessons in teamwork to be learned from several ships’ captains, for example, from Ed Psaltis.

Perkins: I’ve learned much from Ed, but one lesson stands out: The importance of finding and focusing on a winning scenario. The issue of optimism is a critical aspect of the Hobart race. As in any endurance event, people get tired, both physically and mentally. If there isn’t a spark – something to aim for, or some good news – the team can get demoralized very quickly.

It’s critical to avoid irrational exuberance and to stay connected to reality. But Ed always tries to keep a positive outlook, and to see some way in which the crew can see the race as a “win.” As Ed puts it, “That’s what keeps the crew going when they’re cold and hungry and tired. We won’t win every race, but if we’ve got a chance of beating our arch rival, we’ll keep at it.”

Morris: Roger Hickman

Perkins: Roger Hickman is the skipper of a renowned boat called Wild Rose, and is one of Australia’s most experienced offshore ocean racers. He won the 1993 Sydney to Hobart Race and many other trophies, and was exceptionally generous with his observations about effective teamwork.

I was curious about the role luck played in the race, and “Hicko” responded:

“With an event like the Sydney to Hobart Race, luck plays a part. But if you’re not smart enough or good enough or professional enough to be in the right place at the right time, you won’t get lucky either. If you work very, very hard and have a good team around you, you will get luckier. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

So luck is always at play, but exceptional teamwork and hard work make for “luckier” boats.

Morris: Neville Crichton

Perkins: Neville Crichton is the owner and skipper of the super maxi yacht Alfa Romeo. Crichton comes from a long line of adventurers. His grandfather accompanied Ernest Shackleton on an expedition in the Antarctic and he is a distinguished sailor. Crichton has carried the New Zealand flag to victory in almost 200 races throughout the world, and he was honored by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to yachting and business.

Unlike many wealthy businesspeople, Crichton is a hands-on skipper who actually sails his boat. And he is committed to learning as a team. As Crichton describes the team on Alfa Romeo:

“We have a talk, as a crew, before the start of the race, and after the race we have a debriefing and we take notes. We follow up and we fix things that go wrong and that applies even if I’m the skipper. If I’ve ‘stuffed up’ the start, it’s discussed and we find out why. It’s not an embarrassment. We talk openly about it, we take notes on it, and we fix it for the next race.”

The ability to talk openly about why things get “stuffed up” is a hallmark of winning teams.

Morris: Is there anyone else involved in the race that, in your opinion, will also be of great interest to your readers?

Perkins: For many who enter the Sydney to Hobart Race, the event has nothing to do with money or fame. These sailors compete simply because of their passion for the sport, and they enter year after year. Among these veteran racers, one legendary figure stands out.

I heard about John Walker on my first trip to Australia. Fascinated by his reputation, I was eager to meet John in person and find out what drew him to the race. He shared his story in the living room of his beautiful home, high on a hill north of Sydney. One side of the home was nothing but windows that framed an extraordinary view of his boat, Impeccable, resting gently at anchor down the slope.

John was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, of Jewish ancestry. A talented athlete, he became his country’s national figure skating champion in 1938. Then, during the Nazi occupation of Prague, he was imprisoned in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

John spent almost four years in the camps, learning to survive under conditions more horrific than any I could imagine. He emerged from the concentration camps, finished his degree in mechanical engineering, and helped rebuild his family business. The business thrived until Czechoslovakia’s Communist Government nationalized the company and took possession of the family’s assets.

Desperate to escape from a second totalitarian existence, John was faced with another challenge. As he attempted to leave the country, John was told that he could not get a passport until he paid off all the mortgages on the property that had been confiscated. John and his family managed to scrape together enough money to escape. They immigrated to Australia in 1949, and John eventually established a successful timber business.

I was surprised to learn that John had only begun ocean racing at age 60. He found that he loved the sport and eventually gathered a sailing family to complement his natural family and his business family. Named Ocean Racing Veteran of the Year on three occasions, John has won awards in almost all of Australia’s major ocean classics, and he has come in second and third in the Sydney to Hobart Race. The year I did the race he had just turned 84. He skippered Impeccable for his twenty-third trip to Hobart, equaling the record for the oldest skipper.

John’s wife, Helen, was not so enthusiastic about his sailing, and a year later I inquired about his plans. I received an email in return saying, “Surprise, surprise, I will be doing the Hobart again. I have to do it while I am young.”

Sure enough, John sailed the Hobart again at age 85, and once more at 86, to become the oldest skipper ever in the history of the Sydney to Hobart Race.

John sailed into Hobart after four days at sea showing no sign of fatigue, his hand firmly on the tiller. The Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia presented him with a cake, and reporters asked questions about his exploits. In his quiet sophisticated way, John summed up his feelings: “It was special because of the crews that have been with me for many years. I never set out to create any records. I sail because I love it, the camaraderie with my crew and everything that goes with it.”

John Walker is truly one of the most charming, thoughtful, and kind individuals I have ever met. I keep a photo in my office of John at the helm of Impeccable wearing his red foul-weather gear. For me, and many others, he will always be an inspiration.

Morris: I cannot think of another film that dramatizes the dangers at sea during treacherous weather more effectively than The Perfect Storm. Do you think there will be a film based on Into the Storm? Please explain.

Perkins: Interestingly enough, I was out in California for the making of The Perfect Storm. A friend of mine, Gail Katz, produced the film which was under the direction of Wolfgang Petersen. It was great to see George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg jumping on animated fish in a giant wave tank. It was so realistic, even though it was a Hollywood set I felt like I was at sea!

A few years later, I got wind of the film about the ’98 Sydney to Hobart Race that was to be based on the book The Proving Ground. The book provides an excellent description of the race and the tragedy, but it makes no mention of the triumphant Midnight Rambler. I went out to Hollywood to speak with people involved in the film, making the case that the story of The Rambler‘s was an overlooked gem.

As sometimes happens, news about the film gradually faded and I’m just not sure exactly what happened. But I have written a “treatment” – essentially, a synopsis of what a film about Into the Storm might look like – and I’ve sent it to Gail. No word yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the teamwork aboard the Midnight Rambler differ from the teamwork aboard Endurance?

Perkins: The successful ending of both stories is due, in large measure, to effective teamwork. I believe that members of the Midnight Rambler crew were more empowered to take the initiative and demonstrate leadership, and the crew of the Endurance was somewhat more hierarchical. But it’s clearly a relative comparison. There were numerous examples in which expedition members other than Shackleton stepped up to contribute. And neither crew would have survived if they had not worked together with amazing collaboration under extraordinary adversity.

Morris: That said, to what extent are the “teamwork challenges” aboard both ships comparable?

Perkins: Both crews faced extreme physical hardship, and all aboard knew that they could easily die. But the thing that stands out for me is the fact that both faced complete and constant uncertainty about the ultimate outcome. Neither crew knew how their stories would end. Everyone had to deal with this abnormal situation by doing the most mundane tasks just as they had always done them.

There is a certain surreal quality about being at The Edge. On the one hand, death can be minutes, days, or seconds away. On the other, to avoid catastrophe people need to act as if they are invulnerable.

The essential teamwork challenge is that people need to work together flawlessly in spite of their underlying fear. What has become clear through my research and experience is that fear doesn’t have to stop people from doing things. Fear doesn’t have to become an insurmountable barrier. In the best teams, people forge on in spite of their fears. And when people are part of an exceptional team, brave individuals can become even more courageous.

Morris: How do the “leadership challenges” differ?

Perkins: Although there were many similarities, Ed Psaltis and his team on the Midnight Rambler were physically together as they sailed into the towering waves and hurricane force winds. Ernest Shackleton had a larger team and, at various points, expedition members were in different boats. In addition, on his 800 mile journey to South Georgia Island, Shackleton’s second-in-command, Frank Wild, was designated as the leader of the “castaways” left behind.

Because of physical separation, other leaders had to make independent decisions in Shackleton’s absence. On the Midnight Rambler, Ed was always able to talk directly with Bob Thomas, his second-in-command, and to other members of the crew. But perhaps there are more similarities than differences.

Even in Shackleton’s case there was a fundamental alignment – even when leaders needed to take independent action. There are similarities to the situation faced by Admiral Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson’s practice of bringing ship captains together in the ward room for meals helped ensure that – though they had no direct communication during the battle – they understood each other well enough to maintain their cohesion even when physically separated.

Morris In The Art of War, Sun Tzu asserts that every battle is won or lost before it is fought. You seem to think that the same is true of ocean racing competition such as the Sydney to Hobart Race. Is that a fair assessment?

Perkins: I agree, and another way of thinking about it is that “the race starts before the gun goes off.”

Certainly, one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Rambler crew is their focus on careful preparation. One crew member, Michael Bencsik captured it this way:

“I can only describe our preparation as meticulous. It’s one of the key strengths of the team, and it starts with Ed Psaltis’ meticulous nature. The list of things to do usually runs into five or six full pages. Even if the boat is brand-new, the list is long. I think that preparation is one of the key reasons why we achieved success in the ’98 race. But it is also a key element in our ongoing ability to sail well.”

Ed’s checklist is a symbol of everything that the Ramblers do to maximize their chances of winning. They systematically review every aspect of the race – including the boat, the crew, and their strategy. Then they set about the task of ensuring that every element in this complex system is functioning to the best of its ability.

Reflecting on their careful process, Bob Thomas said, “When we’re finished with our preparation, we have removed all excuses for failure.”

Morris: In Part Two (Chapters 28-40), you shift your and your reader’s attention to ten “critical strategies for Teamwork at The Edge.” Which of them seems to be the most difficult to execute properly? Why?

Perkins: I believe that the most difficult strategy to execute varies from organization to organization, and perhaps to developmental stages of the same organization. For me, the most difficult strategy has been the first one I outlined in the book: Make the team the rock star.

The problem I’ve had is not with the fundamental concept – I believe I’m happy to share credit with others – but rather with a key tactic needed to implement a strategy: Find committed team members who want to go to Hobart.

The Ramblers have rejected a number of very talented sailors who were eager to do the Hobart but were unwilling to put in the hard miles leading up to the race. They’ve also rejected people who were willing to put in the time but didn’t have the stomach for the Hobart.

It is one thing to sail around the buoys in the harbor, but as I discovered it is quite another to be on the rail in the middle of the Bass Strait. In fact, at one point I thought to myself that a lot of the race experience could be replicated in three steps: First, buy a lot of expensive sailing gear; second, find a commercial laundromat; and third, climb into a large washing machine set on cold and stay there for three or four days. It’s not for everyone.

A business team that aspires to excellence may not have the same physical challenges as an ocean racing crew, but lofty goals require sacrifice, dedication, and the ability to persevere. Selecting people with the right levels of confidence and motivation is fundamental, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that – by applying the right teamwork strategies – a crew with incompetent or unmotivated individuals will perform at the highest levels. I know from personal experience that there is no magic Teamwork at The Edge formula that will compensate for racing with the wrong crew.

I now have the right crew in my organization. As a result I feel that a strategy that has been almost unachievable is now within our sights. There may be other challenges to teamwork, but it’s great to be the skipper of a firm with a rock star team.

Morris: Here is a question I have wanted to ask you since first reading your explanation of The Edge. I realize that it is a great challenge to any organization to get there but, in my opinion, far more difficult to “remain” there. Do you agree? If so, how best to do it?

Perkins: In thinking about the Performance Edge, I see the challenges as different but equally difficult. There is a ramp-up to maximum performance that takes a huge amount of activation, energy, time, and dedication. But a team that has reached that level has some distinct advantages. One of the most important is that they become a magnet for individuals who want to be part of a winning organization. And there is a level of momentum that is created by a series of even small wins.

On the other hand, I agree that maintaining the Performance Edge is challenging and this is one area in which the skipper can make a unique contribution. In particular, the leader needs to demonstrate passion.

A leader’s passion is a magnetic force that pulls other people in. On the Midnight Rambler, Ed Psaltis’ passion stands out, especially to relative newcomers to the crew. In describing the impact of Ed’s will to win, crewmember Samantha Byron said:

“No boat had ever won both the Blue Water Point Score and the Short Ocean Point Score in the same year. It was a bold goal that had never been achieved before. But it was Ed’s vision, and it became the team vision, and then it became my vision. I think what makes Ed an exceptional leader is his complete drive to win. He is committed to driving the boat as fast as it can go. And he can take risks because of his comfort and trust in the team.”

No one who has ever sailed with Ed Psaltis has any doubt about his absolute, total commitment to winning. He is so passionate that his excitement sometimes needs to be offset by humor, or by the composure of others. But there is no mistaking the electric spark that comes from a leader who is excited to win. That enthusiasm is contagious, and it is a contagion that leads to victory. It is foundational to the challenge of maintaining the Performance Edge.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Leading at The Edge and Into the Storm and now is determined to develop the leadership and teamwork skills you endorse in the two books, to drive the given organization to “The Edge.” Where to begin?

Perkins: I believe the place to start is with the questions for reflection included at the end of the chapters in each book. In Leading at The Edge, the questions are included as part of the Expedition Log. With Into the Storm, the questions are listed as Navigation Points.

A CEO and a team that can have an honest conversation about questions can make enormous progress in achieving their Performance Edge. Of course, the questions are also provocative and can sometimes raise difficult issues.

To ensure that these issues get out on the table, I believe that individuals should independently answer the questions before coming together in a group setting to discuss their responses. And a CEO who really wants to “jump start” the organization may want to consider getting someone outside the immediate team to conduct interviews and record anonymous responses.

Many teams feel that they have candid conversations and open discussion. My experience, however, is that a process such as the one I described enables organizations to surface issues quickly, and that people speak much more frankly than if there were no warm-up.

Finally, I would stress that a key to the success of any process is a genuine commitment to leadership development and team effectiveness. People really have to invest in growing as leaders, and to doing the hard work of evolving as a team. When organizations are truly willing to work at it, amazing things are possible.

Morris:For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20 million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in these two books, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Perkins: I spent quite a bit of time thinking about this question, and finally concluded that there is no way I can avoid being a contrarian. I have worked with small companies, I own a small company myself, and I’ve worked with global organizations with billions of dollars in revenue. What I’ve concluded is that everything I write about is important for companies of all sizes.

The consequences of failure may in some ways, be greater in a global organization. Thousands of people can lose their jobs because of flaws in leadership or teamwork. But for a small family organization, a single person losing a job can be a life changing event.

Morris:Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Perkins: Responding to this I can only say that there was one question I’m glad you didn’t ask: “What’s your next book?” I would have to defer you to my wife, who’s had the experience of being married to a writer immersed in a book with deadlines. I’m sure she would have told you that the experience could be captured in a never-to-be-written book called Love at The Edge.

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To read Part 1 of the interview, please click here.

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

The Syncretics Group homepage

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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