Leading at the Edge: A book review by Bob Morris

Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition (Second Edition)
Dennis N. T. Perkins with Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian Murphy
AMACOM (2000)

Great Leadersip Under Duress

I read this book and then published a review about it in 2000 after I had spent several hours examining an exhibition that was on view from April until October, 1999, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It documented one of the greatest tales of survival in expedition history: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 voyage to the Antarctic. Just one day’s sail from the continent, the ship Endurance became trapped in sea ice. Frozen fast for ten months, the ship was crushed and destroyed by ice pressure, and the crew was forced to abandon ship. After camping on the ice for five months, Shackleton made two open boat journeys, one of which–a treacherous 800-mile ocean crossing to South Georgia Island–is now considered one of the greatest boat journeys in history. Trekking across the mountains of South Georgia, Shackleton reached the island’s remote whaling station, organized a rescue team, and saved all of the men he had left behind.

This is one of the most exciting books I have read in recent years. In collaboration with others, Perkins briefly reviews the key details of the “Shackleton Saga” before shifting his attention (in Part One) to ten leadership strategies which, he correctly suggests, have direct, indeed compelling relevance to the contemporary business world. They are:

o Never lose sight of the ultimate goal, and focus energy on short-term objectives.
0 Set a personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behavior.
o Instill optimism and self-confidence, but stay grounded in reality.
o Take care of yourself: Maintain your stamina and let go of guilt.
o Reinforce the team message constantly: “We are one — we live or die together.”
o Minimize staff differences and insist on courtesy and mutual respect.
o Master conflict — deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles.
o Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.
o Be willing to take the Big Risk.
o Never give up — there’s always another move.

Examine any of today’s great organizations and you will encounter an abundance of evidence of these ten lessons’ effectiveness.

In Part Two, Perkins provides four case studies based on Business Communication Systems (AT&T/Lucent Technologies), Rice Health Systems, Weyerhaeuser Company, and Malden Mills. The material in Part Three suggests how to “lead at the edge” and then, in an Epilogue, Perkins provides his “perspective” on success and failure. Part Four consists of various resources: Critical Leadership Skills Survey, Your Leadership Expedition: A Personal Development Plan, Your Leadership Expedition Map, Further Readings from The Edge, and a wealth of notes on the text.

From the time that Ernest Shackleton set sail (December 5, 1914) on the Endurance with his crew of 26 seamen and scientists until he and his crew finally reached South Georgia (May 10, 1916), he steadfastly followed each of these ten strategies. The challenges encountered along the way (“at the edge”) are almost beyond comprehension. All of these challenges are discussed in chilling detail in Caroline Alexander’s brilliant study, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Anarctic Expedition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). If you have a taste for great adventure and/or an interest in great leadership, I urge you to read Perkins’ book, preferably in combination with Alexander’s.

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