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Corporate Leadership Lessons from Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition

Dennis N.T. Perkins|Author of "Leading at The Edge"
Wednesday, 28 Mar 2012 | 10:52 AM ET

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Leading at The Edge by Dennis N.T. Perkins, author of Leading at The Edge, Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition, Second Edition."

What is it that enables leaders and teams to overcome conditions of extreme adversity? What enables people to work together to overcome insurmountable obstacles? What are the specific things that a leader can do to create a cohesive team that can beat the odds?

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

These are questions that I have confronted as a leader, as a teacher, and as a consultant to organizations faced with unprecedented challenges. In my search to find practical answers to these questions, I decided to take a somewhat unconventional approach: to look for leadership insights in stories of groups that have pressed the limits of human endurance -- a place I call The Edge.

In my quest to find vivid examples of what can be accomplished when people work together to overcome adversity, one story stood out -- the saga of Ernest Shackleton and his Trans-Antarctic expedition. Better than any other, the Shackleton saga encapsulated the strategies that I found to be critical for success at The Edge.

Nearly 100 years ago, Shackleton and his crew of 27 explorers were stranded in Antarctica when their ship, the Endurance, became frozen in solid pack ice. Working with picks, saws, and other hand tools, the expedition made two attempts to break free. They failed both times, and the expedition ultimately spent almost two years stranded on the ice.

After the ship was crushed, the crew faced starvation, extreme temperatures, and complete isolation. Yet, with little hope of rescue, members of the expedition remained cohesive and in relatively good spirits during the 634 day ordeal.

What was it that enabled Shackleton and his teammates to overcome extreme adversity and return without loss of life? I'm convinced that the safe return of Shackleton's expedition can be attributed to much more than luck. I believe that the leadership strategies that enabled Shackleton's crew to triumph can be found in a set of principles common to many other stories of survival. I also believe that these strategies can be used by leaders in any organization facing today's unprecedented levels of turbulence, ambiguity, and uncertainty.

The Ten Strategies for Success outlined in Leading at the Edge are vividly portrayed with examples from the Shackleton expedition, and from other contemporary stories of teams at The Edge. Practical illustrations of precisely how leaders can apply these strategies to situations in the business world complement the gripping survival case studies.

Taken together, the book provides a blueprint that will help leaders and their teams:

  • Overcome fear and anxiety
  • Draw on the power of personal example
  • Stay optimistic, yet grounded in reality
  • Maintain their stamina in the face of overwhelming demands
  • Reinforce the message of team unity
  • Deal productively with conflict and dissent
  • Use appropriate humor to deal with tension
  • Step up to appropriate risks, and
  • Build a culture of tenacious creativity

The strategies that worked nearly one hundred years ago for Ernest Shackleton work equally well today. For example, Shackleton's ordeal lasted almost two years, but the journey of Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger was much shorter. It lasted a total of six minutes, and he landed in the same city from which he departed. But when Sullenberger brought the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 safely in for an emergency landing on the ice-cold Hudson River, he was demonstrating the same set of exceptional skills as Shackleton.

The Trans-Antarctic Expedition and the Miracle on the Hudson both provide vivid, powerful lessons for leaders. Beyond that, they inspire us all to excel in the face of adversity.

It is sometimes said that hope is not a strategy, and this is true. But the corollary is, without hope, who needs a strategy? Leaders need to take concrete steps in the face of adversity and, at the same time, provide hope and inspiration. By understanding stories of triumph at The Edge, we can learn how to do both.

Dennis N.T. Perkins, Ph.D., author of Leading at The Edge, Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition, Second Edition, is Chief Executive Officer of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to effective leadership in demanding environments. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he served as a Marine company commander and later a faculty member of the Yale School of Management. He has taken his passion for The Edge to Antarctica, where he retraced Shackleton's journey, and now resides in Madison, Connecticut. For more information please visit http://www.syncreticsgroup.com and http://www.amacombooks.org

Adapted from LEADING AT THE EDGE: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition, Second Edition by Dennis N.T. Perkins, with Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian B. Murphy (AMACOM; March 28, 2012; $15.00 Paperback; 978-0-8144-3194-8).

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks

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