Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition

Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition

by Dennis N.T. Perkins, Margaret P. Holtman, Jillian B. Murphy

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Stranded in the frozen Antarctic sea for nearly two years, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his team of 27 polar explorers endured extreme temperatures, hazardous ice, dwindling food, and complete isolation. Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the group remained cohesive, congenial, and mercifully alive—a fact that speaks


Stranded in the frozen Antarctic sea for nearly two years, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his team of 27 polar explorers endured extreme temperatures, hazardous ice, dwindling food, and complete isolation. Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the group remained cohesive, congenial, and mercifully alive—a fact that speaks not just to luck but to an unparalleled feat of leadership.

Drawing on this amazing story, Leading at The Edge demonstrates the importance of a strong leader in times of adversity, uncertainty, and change. The book reveals 10 timeless leadership lessons that show readers how to:

• Instill optimism while staying grounded in reality

• Have the courage to step up to risks worth taking

• Consistently reinforce the team message

• Set a personal example

• Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about

• Never give up

Part adventure tale, part leadership guide, the second edition features additional lessons, new case studies of the strategies in action, tools to uncover and resolve conflicts, and expanded resources. An updated epilogue compares the leadership styles of the famous polar explorers Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott.

Today’s leaders have much to learn from this gripping account of survival against all odds. Leading at The Edge will help them bring order to chaos—and achieve success in the face of adversity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"After having read a dozen or two leadership books over the past decade, this book stands out...The author does an exceptional job…” --Suite101

“…interpretation of Shackleton’s strategies is relatable to today’s leaders showing that leadership skills transcend time.” --Yahoo Voices

"The lessons are powerful, the real world examples revealing and the book worthy of much discussion and thought." --Hike Bike and Travel

“… tells the story of survival, and along the way points out how Shackleton's leadership made a difference.This is what makes this book such a compelling read.” --Mindconnection

“…succeeds in crafting a true leadership guide for the 21st century.” --Risk Mangement magazine

“The lessons are not just about leadership, but about life, persistence and the extraordinary resilience.” --A Slice of Leadership

“…book will change the way you think about and approach leadership in a crisis situation…” --Blog Business World

"… there are many leadership lessons to be learned from Shackleton’s amazing adventure.”--ABA Banking Journal

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
Second Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition
By Dennis N. T. Perkins Margaret P. Holtman Jillian B. Murphy


Copyright © 2012 Dennis N.T. Perkins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-3194-8

Chapter One

Vision and Quick Victories

Strategy 1: Never lose sight of the ultimate goal, and focus energy on short-term objectives.

... I feel sure that it is the right thing to attempt a march.... It will be much better for the men in general to feel that even though progress is slow, they are on their way to land, than it will be simply to sit down and wait for the tardy northwesterly drift to take us out of this cruel waste of ice. —Ernest Shackleton

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 demonstrated 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 demise 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." With no prospect of rescue, facing an unknown future with little chance of survival, he turned to his crew and simply said: "So now we'll go home."

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." 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 original 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?"

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 software businesses. It redirected resources to new product lines: Intel chips for tablet computers and smartphones. With each of these moves, Intel was finding a new mark and forging ahead in Shackleton style.

Do Something!

When Endurance went down, the crew's anxiety might have been overwhelming. Instead, their energy was focused and channeled. Although many of their activities did not produce positive results, Shackleton was tireless in finding ways to capture the free-floating anxiety that permeated their situation. Shackleton looked for every opportunity to do something concrete, to take decisive action.

The initial attempt to drag Endurance's heavily laden lifeboats was a complete failure. Their goal was to head northwest for Paulet Island, hoping to reach the emergency food stores that Shackleton knew had been left some twelve years before. This trek of 312 miles was an unbelievably ambitious undertaking. Even Shackleton had expressed doubts that it could be accomplished at the projected rate of five miles a day—the best they could hope for, dragging sleds and lifeboats across the jagged ice. The boats were essential, since their plan was to reach open water and then to sail to safety.

In spite of the dangers, Shackleton understood the need to try. The task was nearly impossible, but this immediate activity shifted attention from the loss they had just suffered to the clearly defined task ahead. After recovering supplies from the ship and packing the sleds, the journey began. Shackleton and three others forged ahead, searching for a passable route.

Their route was obstructed by a series of pressure ridges, each of which required heavy chopping with shovels and mountaineering pickaxes. The advance party was forced to perform the mind-numbing work of clearing a level trail, and the rest of the expedition followed, man-hauling the sleds in relays. After three hours on the trail, the expedition had gone only a mile from the ship in a straight line.

Ironically, the rising temperatures of the next day made things even worse. The expedition members were now plowing through snow stew, bulldozing their way inch by inch, foot by foot. The men sweated profusely, swore at the snow, and made little progress. At the end of the day, they had bulled their way just one more mile. Realizing that it was impossible to go on, Shackleton faced reality and called a halt to the march.

Not surprisingly, this change of plans created no small measure of disappointment. After all, this was to be a march to the open ocean, and eventual rescue. Once more, Shackleton defused a potentially destructive mood, turning the crew's attention toward salvaging any remaining food, clothing, and other supplies from the wreckage of Endurance. Frank Wild and six others returned to retrieve gear and—most important—the third lifeboat. Then, all hands focused on the new task of establishing Ocean Camp.

Shackleton's first decision after Endurance went down was in some ways a glaring mistake. They had no chance of covering the vast distance to Paulet Island, and precious energy was wasted on an unreachable goal. Or was it?

Shackleton had discovered the absolute importance of sustaining psychological momentum on an earlier adventure, the British Antarctic expedition of 1907–1909. Marooned in McMurdo Sound, he sensed growing frustration and anxiety among the expedition members. To create an outlet, he proposed climbing Mount Erebus. The ascent was marked by days of suffering, sickness, and fatigue, but it concluded with a major achievement: the first ascent of an Antarctic peak.

The "sledge march," like the ascent of Mount Erebus, served its purpose. The march kept the crew from dwelling on its misfortune and redirected their energy toward concrete action. Perhaps most important, the effort forced the members of the expedition to work together toward a common goal.

Lessons for Leaders

Leading at The Edge means seizing every opportunity for decisive action and refusing to be discouraged when some efforts prove unsuccessful. The very act of doing something concrete creates a sense of momentum, and a series of small victories will lay the foundation for eventual success.

James Burke, CEO of Tylenol-maker Johnson & Johnson, faced a difficult (and now iconic) decision in September 1982, after an unknown person laced Extra Strength Tylenol capsules with cyanide, causing seven deaths. His handling of the Tylenol danger is a powerful illustration of the value of decisive action in a crisis situation. He had to choose between waiting for conclusive evidence of a nationwide threat or incurring the cost of recalling all the capsules.

The public had come to equate Johnson & Johnson's products with health and safety; now people were panicking. The company's response would be critical to restoring trust in Tylenol, the company's top-selling product, and the rest of the firm's product line.

The way in which Burke and J&J responded is now regarded as the gold standard of crisis management. Burke's and the firm's actions were guided by the company credo: "The first responsibility is to the customer." Burke quickly formed a strategy team to deal with the crisis, posted a $100,000 reward for finding the killer, ran full-page newspaper and television ads offering consumers an exchange of capsules for tablets, set up a toll-free hotline to field questions, and established public programs to reach doctors and other significant constituencies.

The company redesigned its packaging and eventually retrieved some 31 million capsules from stores and homes around the country. Three months after the crisis, thanks to the company's quick action, tablet sales had returned to 80 percent of the precrisis level. The Tylenol capsules were eventually replaced with more tamper-resistant caplets. Decisive action saved the company's market and—more important—its reputation.

The problems faced by Continental Airlines did not involve loss of life, but the company and its leaders faced a similarly daunting situation. Greg Brenneman, former president and COO, described the state of the airlines during one crisis:

Managers were paralyzed by anxiety. The company had gone through ten presidents in ten years, so standard operating procedure was to do nothing while awaiting new management. The product, in a word, was terrible; the company's results showed it.... And the company hadn't posted a profit outside of bankruptcy since 1978.

On the verge of an unprecedented third declaration of bankruptcy, and with employee morale in shambles, Brenneman and former CEO Gordon Bethune devised a strategy for Continental that they called the "Go Forward Plan"—then they went forward. Brenneman remembers:

If you sit around devising elegant and complex strategies and then try to execute them through a series of flawless decisions, you're doomed. We saved Continental because we acted, and we never looked back.

These decisive actions by Continental's leaders enabled the airline to survive another sixteen years. It weathered the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the economic plight of the airline industry until merging with United Airlines. While he was at the helm, Bethune's leadership had a major impact on the airline: Continental went from receiving dismal customer reviews to winning prestigious awards for excellent quality and customer service.

The spirit of moving forward is exemplified in a story recounted by my friend Bob, a senior manager in a large federal agency based in Washington, D.C. Bob was given the task of revitalizing two regional offices, one located in New York, the other in Boston. Although he was in constant contact with the two offices by phone, he was often required to be physically present to troubleshoot. He did this by using the New York–Boston airline shuttle.

During one particularly hectic week, Bob ran to the airport and boarded the shuttle for Boston. As the plane was taxiing down the runway, he realized, panic-stricken, that he was not absolutely sure he had boarded the right plane. He could be going to the wrong city. Then, he took a breath and said to himself, "Don't worry, Bob, it's not such a big deal. You have so much to do that either city will work!" He kept his nerve, kept his momentum after the plane did land in Boston, and the revitalization effort succeeded.

There is a caveat here. A few years ago, I worked with a leading technology organization to try to discover why it expended so much time and resources and accomplished so little in the marketplace. What we found was a culture that valued activity over results.

A cultural icon within the company was the belief that it was important to be seen working late and on weekends. As I interviewed a number of senior executives, it became clear that many of them were more concerned about the appearance of working hard than they were about the work's outcome. This focus on activity over results diverted energy from more important tasks and was a significant barrier to the company's economic success.

Look Beyond Your Own Needs for Action

Shackleton's focused vision and decisive team actions contrast dramatically with those of Vilhjalmur Stefansson on the Karluk. The tragedy of the Karluk expedition resulted, in part, from a leader who failed to understand the distinction between individual actions and team motivation. Conceived by Stefansson, the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913 was intended to explore the possibility that there might be an undiscovered continent somewhere beneath the polar ice.

The expedition was, from the beginning, a flawed effort. Stefansson was an anthropologist and a self-promoter, not a seaman. Short of time, he chose the only available vessel, a twenty-four-year-old wooden barkentine known as the Karluk. It was a sailing vessel with an auxiliary engine designed for fishing. The ship was capable of limited speed, only five to seven knots. Karluk's main assets were her cheap price and her availability.

The captain, Robert Bartlett, was a better choice. He, too, was selected at the last minute, but at least he was a distinguished mariner. A native of Newfoundland, he had sailed with Admiral Robert Peary in his historic Arctic exploration in 1909. Captain Bartlett was disappointed in the ship and knew that it would never survive a winter trapped in the ice.

Confusion reigned from the start. Having left preparations to others, Stefansson reached Victoria, British Columbia, just three days before the Karluk was to sail. He arrived to find the boat a shambles and the crew anxious about their safety. Already, Stefansson had made incredible public statements that Karluk would press northward as far as possible and would probably be crushed and sink. Understandably, the crew was nervous about its uncertain fate.

The Karluk sailed from Vancouver Island on June 17, 1913. After fog, engine failure, and five broken hawsers, she finally reached Nome on July 8. On July 26, she sailed from Point Clarence, only to encounter an early blizzard and unusually heavy field ice.


Excerpted from LEADING AT THE EDGE by Dennis N. T. Perkins Margaret P. Holtman Jillian B. Murphy Copyright © 2012 by Dennis N.T. Perkins. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

DENNIS N.T. PERKINS, PH.D. is the chief executive officer of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to effective leadership in demanding environments. He has taken his passion for The Edge to Antarctica, where he retraced Shackleton's journey. MARGARET P. HOLTMAN and JILLIAN B. MURPHY are consultants specializing in leadership, coaching and team development.

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