Leading At The Edge | Notes & Review

Posted on January 23, 2012


Dennis N.T. Perkins. Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. AMACOM, 2000. (268 pages)

This path has led me to believe that the essence of leadership can be found in this ultimate crucible of human endeavor. I am convinced that by understanding the things that work when survival is at stake — when financial incentives or promotions become irrelevant, and when fear and self-interest surface — we can understand how to lead under other conditions. By studying The Edge, we can learn the things needed to lead organizations to their full potential, and we can remember these principles when we ourselves are stretched, stressed, and challenged. (xvii)

The underlying ingredients of triumph are expressed in these ten strategies:

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

Part One: Ten Strategies for Leading at The Edge

1. Vision and Quick Victories:

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

Be Willing to Find a “New Mark” | 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. (16)

Do Something! | …do something concrete, …take decisive action. (17) Discover the importance of sustaining psychological momentum. (18) 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. (19) […many are more concerned about the appearance of working hard than about the work’s outcome. This focus on activity over results diverts energy from more important asks and is a significant barrier to success.] (20)

Look Beyond Your Own Needs for Action | Maintain a balance between [your own] needs and the needs of the team… (23)

Overcome Uncertainty with Structure | Establishing a critical organization structure — a “matter-of-fact” groove” — can give people the sense of order they need to be productive. (25)

Create Engaging Distractions | Winning leaders cultivate the ability to monitor the condition of each person on the team and to sense when individuals are becoming overwhelmed. They need to direct negative energy toward activities that divert people’s attention from their problems and harness this energy for positive results. (26)

2. Symbolism and Personal Example:

Set a personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors.

Particularly under conditions of stress and discouragement, visible leadership can mean the difference between success and failure. (29)

Give the Right Speech | When the situation is dire, the power of the right words is striking. (30) Establishing strong individual relationships is an important part of leadership. But there are times when the role demands something different, when the energy of the entire group or organization needs to be mobilized. On these occasions, the leader needs to face his or her team and communicate a message to the team as a whole — to make a speech. (31) The right speech needs to be authentic, and it needs to be delivered with sincerity. (32)

Use Vivid Symbols | It is one thing to tell people that a task needs to be done, and it is another to dramatize the challenge with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors. These symbols can be as dramatic as throwing gold sovereigns into the snow, or they can be more prosaic. Whatever the symbol, it needs to be vivid and memorable. (34)

Be Visible: Let People See You Leading | Leaders can be quietly competent, but they must be visible. (37)

3. Optimism and Reality:

Instill optimism and self-confidence, but stay grounded in reality.

It is the capacity to look at odds that are impossible, to believe that it is still possible to win, and to convince others that you are right. (40)

Cultivate Optimism in Yourself | Before you can instill optimism in others, you first need to find it in yourself. (41) Optimism may not be a natural act for everyone, but there is reason to believe that it is an ability that can be learned and greatly improved. The key lies in the inner dialogue that goes on, often unnoticed, almost all the time for all of us. (42)

The reality is that this “self-talk” is part of human nature, and the first step in cultivating optimism is to pay close attention to what you say to yourself. If you are aware of this inner dialogue, especially during times of adversity or setback, you will be conscious of the messages you are sending yourself about failure or success. The right messages are energizing, and the wrong ones are deflating. | The way to develop a feeling of optimism is to consistently send positive messages that override voices of discouragement and pessimism. Some of the mechanics of sending these positive messages may sound hokey or contrived. I agree; They may seem contrived — but they often work. (42)

Spread the Spirit of Optimism | Leaders who are successful at The Edge are able to instill in others the belief that the organization will achieve its goals. But just how does a leader radiate optimism? How does a leader spread “the spirit” when survival is not at stake? (45)

Just how candid should leaders be in sharing their uncensored doubts and inner feelings when faced with adversity? | There are those who believe that personal authenticity demands complete openness, and that leaders should reveal the depths of their emotional inner life. They argue that anything other than this level of disclosure is patronizing — and that openness creates space for others to be similarly revealing. | My perspective is different. I believe there are times in which leaders need to maintain their composure, despite the natural inclination to express feelings of discouragement, fear, or even despair. This is not to say that they should shield others from reality or withhold basic information about the situation. Rather, it is to say that there are times at The Edge in which the perceived attitude of the leader is a powerful force that can create energy and optimism or fear and pessimism: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. | When fears and doubts are expressed openly, it may be difficult or impossible to rekindle the optimism that is so important for success. Therefore, I believe the role of the leader demands that personal fears are best controlled or dampened until negative information is digested. Then a discussion of concerns can be coupled with potential solutions and a positive message of hope for the future. (46)

Build the Right Team “Optimism Quotient” | When selecting people for key roles, it is natural to think about the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for top performance. Other personal qualities, such as the ability to work with others, and values, such as integrity, are often considered carefully. But it is less obvious that an individual’s characteristic tendency toward optimism or pessimism may be an important — in some cases, the most important — factor in a particular role. | This is not to suggest that everyone take a personality test as part of the selection process. But it does argue for looking carefully at the way individuals respond to adversity and for explicitly including those with optimistic attitudes in difficult team assignments. (49)

Know How to Reframe a Tough Situation | I had read that the Chinese character for crisis, Weigee, incorporates two figures: The upper character represents “danger,” the lower one “opportunity.” (51) [VIA: Note, this may be fallacious. Character interpretation can be complicated.]

Stay Grounded in Reality |

There’s something in the nature of CEO’s–pride, vanity, a primal need for control, an obsession with success, good old-fashion idealism–that makes many smart, well-regarded chief executives into idiots when the world turns against them. They rationalize. They justify. They circle their wagons, build bunkers, mollify their troops. They claim themselves “victims” of their “situations.” In these trying times for executives, denial is more popular than ever.

Patricia Sellers, “CEOs in Denial,” Fortune, Vol. 139, No. 12 (June 21, 1999), p.80

Optimism is an important leadership quality, but denial is deadly. (54) The lesson is clear. Resist the temptation to exclude contrary ideas; stay in touch with reality. Find people who will tell you the truth, and reward them for doing so. (54)

4. Stamina:

Take care of yourself: Maintain your stamina and let go of guilt.

Look Out for Yourself as Well as Your Crew | At The Edge, leaders need to demonstrate concern for others and monitor the health of those who work for them. They also need to extend this awareness to themselves and to recognize that event he most energetic individual has limits. (61)

Beware of “Summit Fever” | In work situations, the emotional fever to meet deadlines, complete projects, or accomplish business goals can be dangerously analogous to that experienced by mountain climbers and pilots. Leaders need to be aware of this threat and build in safeguards to ensure that they maintain a sense of perspective and recognize when it is time to make camp, turn around, or pull out of a dive. (62)

Find Outlets for Your Own Feelings |

  • Talk to friends
  • Keep a journal
  • Write letters home
  • See a counselor or coach

Let Go of Guilt (But Learn from Mistakes) |

5. The Team Message:

Reinforce the team message constantly: “We are one–we live or die together.”

Establish a Shared Identity | Value statements, for example, can be used effectively to create a common culture and identity. (73)

Maintain the Bonds of Communication | Few organizational challenges are as emotionally demanding as coordinating an aircraft rescue or maintaining team integrity in a prisoner of war camp. But the need for frequent communication is always important in maintaining a sense of team unity. (77)

Keep Everyone Informed, Involved, and Thinking About Solutions | A unified team is one in which every member understands the task to be done and feels a sense of deep personal responsibility for the success of the group’s efforts. For this to happen, each person must have a clear picture of the challenges faced by the team. This implies the open sharing of information, options, and potential consequences of choices. (79) Information really is power. It can be shared openly or it can be closely held and doled out reluctantly. But I have never seen a cohesive team when vital information is hoarded or restricted to a few key decision makers. (80)

Leverage Everyone’s Talents — And Deal with Performance Problems Constructively | Probably no leadership task is more difficult than dealing with poor performers while, at the same time, maintaining sensitivity to individual feelings and team unity. Leading at The Edge involves dealing with that complicated mix, however, and team cohesiveness is never advanced by overlooking individuals who fail to pull their weight. | When it comes to performance problems, I have seldom, if ever heard a leader say, “I acted too quickly to deal with the issue.” The tendency is to do just the opposite — wait until performance has deteriorated to the point that there is no possibility of recovery or until others have been alienated by being let down by the poor performer. An unwillingness to deal with performance detracts from, rather than supports, team integrity. (83) The best leaders are sensitive to individual needs and skills, and they find ways of using diverse talents. When corrective action needs to be taken, it is done in a way that avoids isolating or scapegoating people. Successful leaders continually drive home the team message: “We are one: We live or die together.” (84)

6. Core Team Values:

Minimize status differences and insist on courtesy and mutual respect.

This egalitarian spirit had two critical benefits. First, it ensured that every member of the expedition would do his utmost to accomplish whatever work needed to be done. Second, it served to minimize the resentments that inevitably rise when, under conditions of stress, hardship, and deprivation, there is a perception that some are more equal than others. (90)

The degree of rigid stratification is hardly conducive to teamwork at The Edge. Hierarchy itself, however, is not the problem. People understand the need for legitimate authority and for differences in salaries, roles, and titles. What fragments a group is the perception of an elite “upper class” — a sense of superiority conferred on a chosen few. Thus, the critical leadership challenge is to create an environment in which each person experiences a basic sense of respect regardless of his or her role in the organization. (92)

Insist on Mutual Respect and Courtesy |  It is not possible to force one human being to have genuine feelings of concern about another. But it is possible to create an environment in which taking care of others becomes a normative behavior and — over time — these caring behaviors help forge emotional bonds. (93)

Two of the party at least were very close to death. Indeed, it might be said that [Shackleton] kept a finger on each man’s pulse. Whenever he noticed that a man seemed extra cold and shivered, he would immediately order another hot drink of milk to be prepared and served to all. He never let the man know that it was on his account, lest he become nervous about himself and, while we all participated, it was the coldest, naturally, who got the greatest advantage.

Leaders who want team members to care about each other need to model that behavior themselves. It is not something that can be delegated, and it cannot be feigned. If it is modeled and reinforced, though, over time it will become part of the culture of the team. (96)

7. Conflict:

Master conflict — deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents, and void needless power struggles.

Conflict: The very mention of the word can raise feelings of anxiety. Competent executives who fearlessly enter the competitive marketplace often go to great lengths to avoid interpersonal friction. Yet conflict is a predictable component in the volatile mix of attitudes and emotions found in organizations at The Edge. It comes in many forms: direct arguments, disagreements, sabotage, and passive aggression. | If handled ineptly or suppressed, unresolved tension can be incredibly destructive. At the Survival Edge, it can result in loss o life, either through physical attack or breakdowns in teamwork. For organizations in which physical survival is not the issue, conflict can mean decreased productivity, increased stress, wasted energy, and diminished problem-solving ability. It can also result in an unhappy workplace, loss of revenue, vulnerability to competition, and ultimately, organizational death. (98-99)

Deal with Anger in Small Doses | Perhaps the first step in promoting healthy conflict is to understand — and really to internalize — that conflict and caring are not mutually exclusive. …The second step in dealing with conflict is to create an effective process that encourages team members to surface their differences and to identify those lurking problems that need to be addressed. (104)

Engage Dissidents | In difficult leadership situations, we are often tempted to ignore or isolate individuals whose personalities rub us the wrong way or who have a knack for stirring up trouble. While this is an understandable reaction, it is the wrong one. It only creates space for further problems, and rejecting dissidents is ultimately detrimental to the organization. A more productive response — however counterintuitive it may seem — requires doing just the opposite: (109)

  • Identify those individuals or groups that may be undermining your leadership.
  • Be proactive and keep troublemakers close by.
  • Find ways to minimize the negative impact of their behaviors.
  • Make sure these people are engaged, in some way, in the decision-making process.
  • Treat everyone, including dissidents, with respect, even when they are antagonistic.
  • Be willing to set limits, and make it clear that this works both ways. Inappropriate, rude or bullying behavior cannot be tolerated.
  • Avoid the temptation to denigrate malcontents and keep your personal opinions about people to yourself — and your closest advisers.

Avoid Needless Power Struggles |

8. Lighten Up!

Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.

The multipurpose nature of humor makes it a sort of leadership Swiss Army knife. (123)

The “Southwest Way to a Sense of Humor” includes these guidelines:

  • Think funny. Look for the flip side of situations, and make outrageous thoughts fun.
  • Adopt a playful attitude. Stay open to silly or nonconformist thoughts and behaviors.
  • Be the first to laugh. Try to be the first to find humor in stressful situations.
  • Laugh with, not at. Promote healthy, constructive humor.
  • Laugh at yourself. take work seriously, but not yourself.

9. Risk:

Be willing to take the Big Risk.

Risk taking for its on sake, however, is not the subject of this chapter. Needless risk taking is a form of bravado that endangers organizational stability, or even lives. (125)

Never Take an Unnecessary Chance |

When a Risk is Justified, Do Not Hesitate |

“…a man sits as many risks as he runs. – Henry David Thoreau

Clearly, leaders at The Edge need to be comfortable with the discomfort of risk. Unnecessary risks should be avoided, but there are times for bold moves. Understand the risks you face and evaluate them carefully. Then balance risk and return, and have the courage to step up to those calculated risks that are worth taking. (137)

10. Tenacious Creativity:

Never give up — there’s always another move.

Finding creative solutions to daunting problems is a difficult task under the best of circumstances. It is even more challenging at The Edge. Fear, physical exhaustion, and psychological weariness are integral parts of the journey faced by those at the limits of survival — or by organizations striving to achieve the highest possible levels of performance. Yet it is precisely in these stressful situations that the ability to solve problems becomes most critical and that the need for innovation is the greatest. This chapter explores tactics for approaching this formidable challenge. (139)

Encourage Relentless Creativity at The Edge | Rather than expecting things to go right, successful leaders under these conditions should be prepared for things to go wrong. In fact, when at The Edge, a realistic expectation is that things will go wrong with greater frequency and magnitude than ever before. Once this reality is accepted, daunting problems become a normal part of the journey. Then the leadership challenge becomes one of mobilizing the collective creativity of the team to find a solution. (148) | Tenacious creativity…demands flexibility, and it requires recognizing what works and what doesn’t. When a strategy fails, acknowledge it and find another one. When the obvious moves are exhausted, keep looking for new ones. Do not dismiss any idea, no matter how farfetched, without thoroughly considering it. Think the unthinkable, and encourage others to do so as well. The unshakable belief that there is always another move will give you the energy to search for solutions, and creativity will give you the ability to find them. (149)

Part Two: Case Studies in Leading at The Edge

11. Introduction to the Case Studies
12. Business Communication Systems (AT&T/Lucent Technologies): Back to the Future
13. Rice Health Systems: Healing a Sick Organization
14. Weyerhaeuser Company: Transforming a Culture
15. Malden Mills: Rising from the Ashes

Part Three: Continuing Your Expedition

16. Learning to Lead at The Edge

Cultivate Poised Incompetence | You have to be willing to be incompetent in order to learn. Just because you don’t know what you are doing doesn’t mean you have to be embarrassed or upset or convinced something’s wrong with you. (217)

Learn to Love the Plateau | …the level place in the learning process. (218) | Whether you are learning a martial art or learning to be a leader, you need to develop the capacity to stay in that frustrating place when there are no immediate signs of progress. (218)

Come to Terms with Fear |

Find an Environment That Supports Learning | If you want to realize your full potential as a leader, look at the culture of the organization where you work. (221)

Practice the Art of Thriving | The art of thriving focuses on sustaining career achievement and personal well-being throughout the life cycle. I believe that people who do this successfully are able to integrate the five components of the life structure shown in Figure 16-1.

Work |  Are you using your unique strengths and distinctive abilities in your work? Are you enjoying what you are doing? Are you having fun? Are you intrinsically interested in the work you are doing? Do you find the substance of the work engaging? Is your work a creative expression of who you are?

Relationships | Where are you sources of support and nurturance? Who are the people in your life who care about you as a person, rather than simply as a representation of a job title? Do you have a sense of belonging in some group or community other than work? Are you making time to nurture the relationships that are important in your life?

Physical Health |  Are you getting enough sleep, and are you resting well when you fall asleep? Are you eating a balanced diet? Are you using caffeine as a substitute for sleep or exercise? Are you getting enough exercise? Are you setting aside time — at least fifteen minutes a day — for concentrated relaxation and “decompression”?

Renewal |  Is there space in your life for you to engage in “regenerative” activities? Are there times when you can forget the needs of others and lose yourself in nonwork activities that are absorbing and renewing?

Sense of Purpose | How do you feel about the direction your life is taking? What are the deeper values that guide your work? Are the other parts of your life — work, relationships, physical health, and renewal — consistent with this sense of purpose?

17. Epilogue: A Perspective on Success and Failure

Depending on the yardstick used to measure success, Shackleton can be seen as a success or a failure, or a little of both. I believe that the more important question raised by Shackleton’s adventure, and by the other accounts in this book, is a much more personal one: How do you measure your own success as a leader? What are the standards by which you assess your own performance? (228)

Part Four: Resources for Leading at The Edge

Critical Leadership Skills Survey

Critical Leadership Skills Survey (.pdf) Critical Leadership Skills Survey (.doc)

Your Leadership Expedition: A Personal Development Plan


  1. What are your strengths as a leader — the skills, knowledge, and personal qualities that contribute to your ability to lead at the Edge?
  2. What are your developmental needs — the areas which, if developed, would increase your effectiveness as a leader?
  3. What are the activities that you find energizing — activities that stimulate you and that you find intrinsically enjoyable?
  4. What are your core values about leadership — the deep beliefs that provide guidance and meaning?


  1. Imagine that it is some time in the future. You have realized your full potential as a leader and are able to lead others to the limits of their performance.
  2. Write a detailed, vivid description of who you are and what you will be doing. What is at typical day like for you? What will you be thinking and feeling? Try to capture that image in as much detail as possible.
  3. Write a one-sentence, “high concept” statement that captures the essence of your vision.
  4. Is there a concrete image that symbolizes your vision?

Overcoming Barriers

  1. What are the barriers that stand between you and your vision? These obstacles may be external or internal, but they represent the “limiting beliefs” that prevent you from fully using your abilities. List them below, casting each barrier in the form of an “I” statement (e.g., “I can’t be a charismatic leader because I’m too introverted”).
  2. Select the barriers that represent the most problematic obstacles, and over which you have some degree of control.
  3. Now generate as many ideas as possible for dealing with these obstacles. It is often helpful to get help from friends and colleagues who may see solutions that elude you. Some other strategies for generating ideas are:
  • Opportunity framing. What hidden opportunities might be found in the problem?
  • Using a metaphor. What concrete images can be used to represent the problem (e.g., a brick wall, a mountain, or an ice pack)? How you would deal with these symbolic barriers may suggest a solution.
  • “Chunking down.” Try to break the obstacles down into smaller pieces. Can you now get a toehold or a “lead in the ice”?


  1. Now that you have developed a vision and set of strategies for overcoming obstacles, you can create a set of goals for moving toward your vision. To be most effective, these goals should be:
    • Specific. For example, your goal may be to “take the conflict resolution seminar offered by X university,” rather than more generally to “improve my conflict resolution skills.”
    • Positive. Goals should be stated in terms of “doing” rather than “avoiding” or “not doing.”
    • Challenging yet attainable. Stretch yourself, but don’t set unreasonable expectations.
  2. It is often helpful to create both a set of long-term (i.e., three to five years) goals and a set of short-term (i.e., six months to one year) goals.


  1. What are your external sources of reinforcement? How will you get help and support from others?
  2. What is your “backup plan” for dealing with adversity and setbacks?
  3. When and how will you take time to reflect on your progress?
  4. How will you reward yourself and celebrate success for interim accomplishments?
  5. What are the tangible symbols that will help you stay focused on your vision?

Your Leadership Expedition Map

Using a large sheet of paper, construct a flowchart that shows the route of your expedition. The point of departure is your assessment, where you are right now. The destination is your vision. Trace the route that you will follow, showing key milestones with expected completion dates, along with major obstacles and how you will get past them. Feel free to be creative and to use vivid images with strong personal associations.