The power of exceptional teamwork and distributed leadership when people are pressed to the limits of human endurance
I recently read this book in combination with another, Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level, written by L. David Marquet. The authors focus on quite different vessels in quite different circumstances as their captain and crew struggle to cope with quite different challenges. However, the separate narratives share much in common, especially in terms of the leadership and teamwork lessons to be learned that Dennis N.T. Perkins and Marquet identify. (Perkins discusses many of these same insights in his previous book, Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition.) These lessons have direct and compelling relevance to almost any organization or team, whatever its size or nature may be.
Of course, there is much of great value to learn about leadership in hundreds of non-business classics such as Homer’s Odyssey, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and several novellas by Joseph Conrad. More recently, I learned a great deal from two books about Shackleton (the aforementioned account by Perkins and another by Caroline Alexander) and from Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. Great works of non-fiction as well as fiction engage our emotions and stimulate our minds. Above all, they tell a compelling “story” than increases and enriches our understanding of human nature, for better or worse.
Throughout the history of world literature, two metaphors remain among the most popular: the voyage and the journey. In this volume, Perkins recruits his reader to be a companion taken into a near-perfect storm. The voyage of the AFR Midnight Rambler becomes a journey of discovery for the reader as the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race (“the Everest of ocean racing”) proceeds, a race that “proved to be the most perilous in the event’s sixty-five-year history. As the fleet sailed down the coast of Australia, boats were hit by an unexpected [begin italics] weather bomb [end italics] — a massive storm that created 80-feet waves and 92-knot (105-mile-an-hour) winds.”
Keep in mind that Perkins is providing an account of a race. For the captains and crews competing in it, the initial objective was winning, then finishing, and ultimately, survival. Ed Saltis is the “lead character” in this riveting account. However, Perkins acknowledges, “To be clear, the story of the Midnight Rambler is not the only story that can be told about teamwork in the Sydney to Hobart Race. The lessons in this book incorporates insights from the conversations with many extraordinary sailors,” notably Roger Hickman (skipper of Wild Oats) and Adrienne Cahalan (its navigator) Neville Crichton (owner and skipper of the “super max” Alfa Romeo), and Rosebud crew mates, Jim Slaughter and Malcolm Park.
In Part One (Chapters 1-27), Perkins recounts the story of the Midnight Rambler and the Sydney to Hobart Race; in Part Two (Chapters 28-40), he shifts and his reader’s attention to “critical strategies for teamwork [when] at the edge.” Here they are:
1. Team Unity: Make the team the rock star
2. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare: Remove all excuses for failure
3. Balanced Optimism: Find and focus on the winning scenario
4. Relentless Learning: Build a gung ho culture of learning and innovation
5. Calculated Risk: willing to sail into the storm
6. Stay Connected: Cut through the noise of the wind and the waves
7. Step into the Breach: Find ways to share the helm
8. Eliminate Friction: Step up to the conflict — and deal with whatever slows you down
9. Practiced Resilience: Master the art if rapid recovery
10. Tenacious Creativity: Never give up — there’d always another move
By the time I reached the conclusion of this extraordinarily entertaining as well as informative book, I had gained a much deeper understanding of comments that Dennis N.T. Perkins shares in his Preface: “The demands placed on a crew of ocean racers are strikingly similar to those faced by any team working to overcome tough challenges. And I believe that, by understanding the things that make ocean racers successful, we can draw useful insights for a broad range of team [and individual] challenges.”
No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that Dennis N.T. Perkins provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of him and his work. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how the information, insights, and wisdom could perhaps be of substantial benefit to them as well as to their own organization.