Leading at The Edge
Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition
Author: Dennis N.T. Perkins
Pub Date: March 2012
Print Edition: $15.00
Print ISBN: 9780814431948
Page Count: 288
Format: Paper or Softback
Edition: Second Edition
e-Book ISBN: 9780814431610
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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 demon-
strated 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 de-
mise 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.”2 With no prospect of rescue, facing an unknown fu-
ture with little chance of survival, he turned to his crew and simply
said: “So now we’ll go home.”3
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.”4 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 orig-
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?”5
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 soft-
ware businesses. It redirected resources to new product lines: Intel chips
for tablet computers and smartphones.6 With each of these moves, Intel
was finding a new mark and forging ahead in Shackleton style.
* * * * *
Turn the page to enjoy an excerpt from
Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney-to-Hobart Ocean Race
Dennis N.T. Perkins and Jillian B. Murphy
Coming Fall 2012
Arthur Psaltis watches the boat’s digital readout as the wind speed
races from thirty-five knots, to forty, and then forty-five knots. At
sixty knots, the readout suddenly goes blank.Arthur stares at the
empty screen.Then it hits him:The metal fitting that holds the wind
meter on top of the mast has been torn off, rendering the instrument
The next blast of wind flattens the boat, driving its mast into the
water and flooding the cockpit.As the crew has done so many times
in practice, side by side on the rail with their backs to the sea, they
calmly take in the main sail.They know what they have to do. If the sail
stays up, the boat could be rolled 360 degrees and they might never
Conditions are treacherous and getting worse by the minute.The
noise is the most frightening part. It comes as a high-pitched scream, like
an old-fashioned kettle boiling furiously.The wind—reaching speeds of
nearly ninety miles per hour—howls around them, and the waves rise
higher than the fifty-foot mast, dwarfing the thirty-five-foot boat.
The heavy rain and spew from the waves spray the sailors on deck,
pelting their faces like gravel, and the constant noise makes talking nearly
impossible. The crew can communicate only by cupping their hands
around their mouths and shouting into each other’s ears.They slap the
hull of the boat to warn those below deck of oncoming big waves.
The men below deck are fighting a different battle.They can see
nothing of what is happening topside and find themselves in a constant
state of anxiety. As Ed expertly steers the boat up the face of the massive
waves, the men exhale each time the boat slides down the other side un-
scathed. It is an extraordinary feat of seamanship.
But not every time.When Ed miscalculates, the boat flies off the wave
and hangs in midair until it hits the trough between the waves.The impact
is like crashing into a block of cement.Trapped below, the crew waits
to see if the boat will explode, the weight of the rigging ramming the mast
through the hull like a pile driver. It is a horrible feeling knowing that the
boat might fill with water and sink in an instant.
As the boat shoots off the back of one towering wave, Chris Rockell,
a tough, rugby-playing New Zealander, is launched from his seated
position. He flies through the air, crashing into an exposed bolt that is
sticking through the overhead of the cabin. Chris falls backward and his
face turns red, covered with blood.
Terrified that his injury will force the team to quit the race, Chris
sticks his fingers into the wound to see if he touches “hard or squishy.”
Relieved to find his skull intact, he insists that the boat continue on and
not pull out of the race on his account.Concussed and barred from going
on deck,Chris carefully positions his weight on the high side of the boat
to act as ballast.
The crew members are literally fighting for their lives, and the worst
is yet to come.They are competing in what will become one of the most
dangerous and historic offshore ocean races in history.
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