POWER POINTS: Leading at the Edge : Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition by Dennis T. Perkins

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

Ernest Shackleton’s adventure is one of the most noteworthy adventures of all time. This story of boldness, imagination, and rugged determination is PACKED TO THE BRIM with leadership lessons! Dennis Perkins does a fine job of distilling the best lessons from this extraordinary story! 

***Disclaimer: Part Two of this book is “Case Studies”. I did not read this entire section… because I don’t particularly care about these case studies. You might though… so read away!


STRATEGY #1 – Vision and Quick Victories: Never lose sight of the ultimate goal, and focus energy on short term objectives.

  • Leaders are always looking for “ideas in a form they can remember.” Stories are one of the best ways to teach memorable leadership maxims.


  • Shackleton’s family motto: “Fortitudine Vincimus” (By endurance we conquer).


  • While pursuing the long-term goal, be sure to focus on the critical short-term tasks that create momentum and ensure survival.


  • Overcome uncertainty with ritual and structure! “When leaders move into unexplored terrain, ambiguity and uncertainty are inevitable. Establishing critical organizational structures – a ‘matter-of-fact groove’ – can give people the sense of order they need to be productive.” Maintaining a “Business as usual” structure is critical in times of chaos. 


  • In times of chaos, look for opportunities and tasks that will distract the negative energies of the team and occupy them with the “ordinary cares of life.”


  • “There is nothing quite like responsibility – especially a role in which others depend on you – to focus your attention. As a leader, you must continually scan for people who exhibit nervousness and anxiety. When you find them, figure out a way to capture that free-floating energy. 


  • “Anxiety is energy without a goal.”

STRATEGY #2 – Symbolism and Personal Example: Set a personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors.

  • “Leaders need to be aware that their personal presences is a unique source of energy and power.”

STRATEGY #3 – Optimism and Reality: Instill optimism and self-confidence, but stay grounded in reality.

  • Shackleton “appreciated how deeply one man, or a small group of men, could affect the psychology of the others.”


  • Shackleton “spent time nourishing the spirit of optimism within himself.” His attitude was “You’ve damn well got to be optimistic.”


  • When caught in the middle of a blizzard on his first expedition to the South Pole, Shackleton spent time reading Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” (I LOVE this! He found time/space to read! He took this kind of weighty literature with him on this trip!)


  • When stranded in the middle of the frozen Antarctic sea, Shackleton “led the men in a lively discussion about the prospect of an expedition to Alaska! […] It provided a future focus and promise that there would be another adventure.”


  • Question: “How candid should a leader be in sharing their uncensored doubts and inner feelings when faced with adversity?” Answer: “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. […] 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.


  • Effective leadership demands that the leader embrace the harsh reality while maintaining optimism. This is what Jim Collins explains in the “Stockdale Paradox”.

STRATEGY #4 – Stamina: Take care of yourself: maintain your stamina and let go of guilt.

  • “There is an inherent tension between taking care of one’s self – of preserving one’s own well-being – and accomplishing the mission at any cost.”


  • There may be times when you choose to make personal sacrifice to further or accomplish the mission – but be careful. “As the leader, you are the foundation of your expedition. If you fail to maintain your own stamina, then you will be unable to summon the energy need to reach The Edge. Furthermore, taking care of yourself is essential because others in your team will take their cues from your behavior. If you want others to have the reserves of energy they will need to do their jobs, you will need to reinforce that message by personal example.


  • “‘One hand for the sailor and one hand for the ship.’ In other words, do what you need to do to accomplish your work – but make sure that you keep one hand free to keep yourself from being washed overboard.”


  • “Fischer was strong, but he was not invincible.” Commentary on Scott Fischer, a famous mountain climber who died on Mt. Everest because he exceeded his personal reserves. What is true of Fischer is true of you. You may be strong… but you are NOT invincible.


  • Leading at The Edge will put leaders in situations where they must make risky decisions. Sometimes they will make the wrong one. Sometimes people will be hurt, money will be lost, equipment destroyed, etc. Leaders must learn from their mistakes, make necessary adjustments, and move forward refusing to be crippled by guilt.

STRATEGY #5 – The Team Message: Reinforce the team message constantly: “We are one – we live or die together.”

  • “Sustained success turns on cohesive effort.”


  • “Keep everyone informed, involved, and thinking about solutions.”


  • “Team cohesiveness is never advanced by overlooking individuals who fail to pull their weight.” Address, quickly, underperformers.

STRATEGY #6 – Core Team Values: Minimize status differences and insist on courtesy and mutual respect.

  • “Hierarchy itself 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.”


  • Examples of actions that will dismantle a culture of “elitism” are: thoughtful resource allocation, information distribution, a fair approach to project/task assignment, leadership involvement (i.e. leadership in the trenches), accessibility to leadership and opportunity for personal/professional development.

STRATEGY #7 – Conflict: Master conflict – deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles.

  • Conflict is unavoidable, particularly in high speed organizations. The challenge for leaders is NOT how to eliminate conflict, but how to manage it so that it is productive.


  • “Ironically, the emphasis on teamwork in today’s corporate culture can serve to drive conflicts underground.”


  • Three reasons to deal with conflict, anger, and negative feelings in small doses:
    • “Conflict not expressed means that problems are not being confronted.”
    • “Conflict not expressed directly surfaces in other, non-productive ways.
    • “Conflict not expressed and resolved can escalate out of control, with disastrous consequences.”


  • Conflict and caring are NOT mutually exclusive.


  • What is your process for surfacing potential anger points and “lurking problems”?


  • Avoid “family secrets” in the work place! Discuss the things that everyone knows! Dismantle anxiety through discussion!


  • “Shackleton clearly recognized that hurt feelings needed immediate attention to prevent anger or resentment from building.”


  • “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:
    • 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.
    • 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.


  • Sometimes “walking away” from a dissident is the best option. (Knowing when to “Proverbs 26:4-5” is a point of distinction for wise and effective leaders).


  • Avoid creating situations in which people feel trapped. Feeling “trapped” causes people to escalate the conflict because they see no way out. Always give your opponent a Golden Bridge.”

STRATEGY #8 – Lighten Up: Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.

  • “Under extreme pressure, the ability to lighten up, celebrate, and laugh can make all the difference. It can make a spiral of depression and stimulate creativity. It can enable people to step back and get psychological distance on their problems. It can cut through fear and tension. Finally, it can enable a team to refocus, reenergize, and surmount daunting obstacles.”


  • “Celebration and humor are neither superfluous nor luxuries. They are imperatives.”


  • “If you can’t fix it, feature it.” (Figure out how to make your liability an asset. NOTE: humor will help you in this venture)


  • “Effective leaders find ways of building celebration into the culture of their organization.”


  • Be on the lookout for “vital mental medicine” in your organization. For Shackleton, it was a twelve pound Zither Banjo that he rescued from the sinking Endurance. He knew that “on an ice-floe any little diversion is more welcome than people living in civilized conditions can perhaps imagine” (Frank Worley’s diary).


  • “Humor is one of the most effective leadership tools.”

STRATEGY #9 – Risk: Be willing to take the Big Risk.

  • Shackleton “was brave, the bravest man I have seen, but he was never foolhardy. When necessary he would undertake the most dangerous things, and do so fearlessly; but always would he approach them in a thoughtful manner and perform them in the safest way.” Frank Worley


  • Never take an unnecessary chance, but when a risk is justified do not hesitate. 


  • “A man sits as many risks as he runs.” Henry David Thoreau


  • There are times when doing nothing, or not deciding, is more dangerous than doing something, or making a bold decision.


  • In some situations, “the decision that appears to be the safe choice is often the one that carries with it the greatest risk.”


  • “You can’t steal second with one foot on first.” David Pottruck

STRATEGY #10 – Tenacious Creativity: Never give up – there’s always another move.

  • “The expedition’s ability to reach safety was due to more than simple persistence. The success of Shackleton’s crew also depended on the ability to stand in the face of death and think creatively about potential solutions.”


  • Expect things to go wrong with greater frequency and magnitude when living “on the edge.” Once you are prepared for this, everything becomes a normal part of your rhythm. 


  • “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.”


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