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Dennis N. T. Perkins, Ph.D. (Branford, CT) is president of the Syncretics Group, a consultancy that specializes in effective leadership. Margaret P. Holtman is director of employee development at Hartford Life, Inc. Paul R. Kessler is a managing consultant at Stromberg Consulting. Catherine McCarthy, Ph.D., is a principal of the consulting firm Kaye & McCarthy.
|The Shackleton Saga||1||(14)|
|Part One Ten Strategies for Leading at The Edge|
|Part Two Case Studies in Leading at The Edge|
|Part Three Continuing Your Expedition|
|Part Four Resources for Leading at The Edge|
Vision and Quick Victories
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.
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.
CEO Andy Grove's decision to alter Intel's direction provides a clear example of how this tactic can be applied in a business setting. Intel, a company now synonymous with 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 1986.
After considering many options, Grove determined to take Intel out of the memory-chip business and make a full-fledged 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.
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 some 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 was 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 . 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 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 pre-crisis level. The Tylenol capsules were eventually replaced with more tamper-resistant caplets. Decisive action saved the company's market and--more important--its reputation.
Although the problems facing Continental Airlines in 1994 did not involve loss of life, the company and its leaders were faced with a similarly daunting situation. Greg Brenneman, president and COO, described the state of the organization:
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 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.
Bob, a senior manager in a large federal agency based in Washington, D.C., exemplifies this spirit of moving forward. 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.
The Karluk was not designed for these ice conditions, and Bartlett advised turning back while there was still time. Stefansson refused, and they plowed ahead. On August 13, the ice pack closed around the Karluk . No one was particularly concerned, since they expected the sea conditions to change. In fact, they "cavorted about on the ice for hours," enjoying the scenery.
After sitting for five weeks waiting for the ice to open, Stefansson became impatient. He was a leader who thrived on activity, and the delay hardly suited him. He concluded that "the Karluk was not to move under her own power again, and that we were in for a voyage such as that of the Jeanette or the Fram , drifting for years, if we had the luck to remain unbroken...."
Having reached that conclusion, and dreading the prospect of inaction, Stefansson set out on a personal expedition. On September 19, he abruptly announced that he was going to hunt for caribou. Caribou were apparently extinct in the region, so this appeared to many as simply an excuse to leave the ill-fated ship. Stefansson loaded two sledges with food and ammunition and, after posing for photographs, set out with four others for Point Barrow. He left a letter with Bartlett promising to be back to the ship in ten days "if no accident happens."
In September 1913, with the expedition trapped and separated from its leader, the Karluk drifted into the realm of "ultimate inaccessibility," into the frozen Arctic Sea. When the Karluk was carried out to sea, Stefansson made an effort to follow, but by then it was too late. Apparently reconciled to the loss of the ship, Stefansson went on with his plans for mapping and geographic discovery. He was not seen again until 1918, when he suddenly reappeared after five years of exploration.
Stefansson later rationalized his decision to abandon the expedition, and he minimized the plight of the crew. He was, as he later reported, convinced that the destruction of the Karluk would take place slowly and that the crew would be able to salvage their critical supplies and reach safety. He was partly right. They were able to retrieve most of the stores and equipment. What he did not foresee, or apparently care about, is that many would not reach safety and would die in the ice.
Stefansson left behind a leadership vacuum that was never filled, but one thing is clear: If the energy of the crew had been focused and directed, the story of the Karluk expedition might have had a very different and much happier ending.
Lessons for Leaders
Vilhjalmur Stefansson did a good job of focusing anxiety--but only his own. Stefansson's caribou hunt is a glaring example of a leader who focused on his own needs for action while neglecting the rest of the organization. This sort of self-involved activity is not, of course, unique to polar explorers.
I observed one senior executive at a leading aerospace firm whose behavior under stress paralleled that of the Karluk leader. Whenever this executive was faced with a financial downturn, he closed his door, sat behind his computer, and stared at spreadsheets for hours. By endlessly running the numbers, he focused his own anxiety. This self-absorption left the rest of the management team adrift, wondering who was steering the company.
Leaders at The Edge need to maintain a balance between their own needs and the needs of the team, and they must concentrate on engaging the whole organization. By doing so, they will channel their own anxiety and simultaneously ensure that the expedition maintains momentum and focus.
Overcome Uncertainty with Structure
There are times at The Edge when it is simply not possible to take proactive, decisive action. But there are other ways of focusing team energy, even when direct forward movement is blocked. Shackleton's ability to create structure and order was effective even when there was little to do but wait. These routines provided a sense of stability, and they helped quell the ever-present anxiety about the future.
To understand just how important these structures were to the stranded crew, picture the inherent chaos of their environment. Adrift on the ice, they were a sorry collection of castaways. Their equipment was primitive at best, with reindeer-skin sleeping bags and rudimentary tents. Their new home was a seesaw of shifting, grinding ice that moved without warning.
In the middle of the first night, a crack opened in the middle of their encampment. The men were awakened by Shackleton blowing the alarm whistle. Tents and stores were moved to the larger section of the floe, but the incident made it clear that their temporary refuge was not a safe home.
While the environment had changed for the worse, the crew's routines had not. From the outset, Shackleton had understood the importance of these essential systems; the necessity of organization had been underscored by the state of his crew after the voyage from London to South Georgia.
Shackleton had stayed behind in England to deal with the perpetual problem of raising money for the expedition. There were harbor and coal bills to contend with and wages to be paid to the crew's families while they were away. This left Frank Worsley, the captain, to take Endurance on the first leg of the journey, from London to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Worsley would later show himself a brilliant navigator, but his initial command was a disaster. He was a leader who shared Shackleton's ebullience, but lacked an understanding of the importance of order and organization. Early on, the captain's erratic nature gave Shackleton reason for concern, and he expressed his doubts in a letter to Ernest Perris of the Daily Chronicle . Shackleton wrote that Worsley "was not the type to hold men well together," and that he was eager to have "the whole show under my own eyes."
The effects of this inconsistent, haphazard leadership were apparent when Shackleton arrived in Buenos Aires. He found the crew surly, fragmented, and often drunk. With Shackleton's arrival, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. His very presence restored a sense of order and security. As Orde-Lees put it, it was "splendid having Sir Ernest on board. Everything works like clockwork & one knows just where one is."
Unlike Worsley, Shackleton demonstrated fiery enthusiasm that was complemented by an ability to make order out of chaos. From the start, he established routines that continued after their original purpose had evaporated. Sea watches were kept even after Endurance was locked in the ice, and the daily chores of living together proceeded effortlessly. Ice was hauled on board for water, seals were hunted, and the radio watch was maintained.
This tactic of "business as usual" went a long way toward offsetting the bitter disappointment and frustration that everyone felt. Scientists did their work, even if the work was restricted to identifying stones from penguin stomachs. Frank Hurley, the photographer, recorded the changing panorama of ice and sky, and a routine was established for training the dogs.
Shackleton had learned from a previous journey the critical importance of managing the dogs, and he still held out hope that the transcontinental journey could be achieved. So each dog-team leader was assigned the task of producing an effective "work group" through regular practice and exercise.
The stabilizing role of structure became even more important after Endurance had been crushed and the expedition was cast out on the ice. Given the strain he was under, Shackleton demonstrated astonishing attention to detail. He realized, for example, that they might be forced to abandon their makeshift quarters in a hurry. He wrote up a detailed plan of just how that would be accomplished and pinned a copy of it to each tent. After reviewing the plan with the crewmembers, he warned them that an evacuation drill could be called at any minute--a sort of "pop quiz" to test their ability to respond.
These stabilizing structures, then, provided a foundation of organized activity that had vital, positive effects on the morale of the team. In his diary, Worsley summed up the sense of security and confidence that this contributed to the expedition:
I don't think we have a genuine pessimist amongst us. Certainly a good deal of our cheerfulness is due to the order & routine which Sir E. establishes.... The regular daily task & matter-of-fact groove into which everything settles inspires confidence in itself, & the Leader's state of mind is naturally reflected in the whole party.
Lessons for Leaders
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. Lawrence Bossidy's leadership of AlliedSignal illustrates the power of this approach.
Lack of confidence throughout the organization was the glaring concern for Bossidy when he took over the reins as CEO. "People were downtrodden, disillusioned, and disappointed. So the essential thing was to try to lift all boats, to communicate things that we could specifically do."
Bossidy's solution was to design a rigorous structure for the company's key processes. He reorganized human resources, detailing systems for selection, reward, development, and motivation. He established structures for strategic planning, including a process for identifying the obstacles that blocked AlliedSignal's success and for deciding how these barriers would be overcome. He revamped the operating plan and developed contingencies--"pre-considered options"--that could be implemented in response to changing external events. He also put in controls to ensure that the company would maintain a focus on its customers.
Bossidy's campaign of systematization extended to manufacturing. He made sure, for example, that the six sigma quality process--defined as 3.4 defects per million parts--was deeply embedded in the organization. He also instituted an employee-education program called "forever learning" in which every employee--including the operators on the floor--received forty hours of training a year.
The investment in these core processes halted AlliedSignal's drift, and it has paid off in financial performance. These efforts also changed the personality of the organization. As COO Fred Poses stated: "[Larry] can be relentless, but he also gives us a burning desire to win."
Create Engaging Distractions
At times during the twenty-three-month ordeal, the Shackleton expedition members, as a practical matter, had very little to do. Naturally, attention often turned to thoughts of home and, of course, food. Shackleton was always on the alert to find distractions that also made real contributions to the expedition. In one notable instance, a crewmember was so discouraged that he literally wanted to lie down and die. Shackleton fixed the problem: The despondent man was given the job of cook, and he became so preoccupied with his new role that he snapped out of his depression. Shackleton later recalled:
The task of keeping the galley fire alight was both difficult and strenuous, and it took his thoughts away from the chances of immediate dissolution. In fact, I found him a little gravely concerned over the drying of a naturally not over-clean pair of socks which were hung up in close proximity to our evening milk. Occupation had brought his thoughts back to the ordinary cares of life.
The transformation was remarkable. When challenged with a demanding task, a crewmember waiting to die became a valuable contributor.
Lessons for Leaders
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.
I recently came upon a contemporary example of an "engaging distraction." I was discussing human behavior under stress with a friend who is an airline pilot. He had just returned from an intensive training course on dealing with emergency water landings, and he shared an interesting observation.
The lifeboat section of the course dealt with procedures for instructing surviving passengers on a process for setting up a shelter over their rafts. The cover provided, he admitted, very limited protection from the elements, and the assembly task was complicated. The central purpose of the task, however, had little to do with physical protection. Instead, it was designed to give people a concrete activity that would occupy their minds while waiting for rescue.
There is nothing quite like responsibility--especially a role in which others depend on you--to focus your attention. As a leader at The Edge , 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. Assign them a special project. Give them added responsibility. As a martial arts instructor of mine used to say, "Anxiety is energy without a goal."
Defining a Long-Term Vision
Before you can communicate a long-term vision to others, you need to be clear in your own mind about your goals. This clarity needs to exist on two levels: a personal vision for you as a leader, and second, a vision for the organization.
1. What is your personal leadership vision? What are the qualities and behaviors that will be required to lead your organization to The Edge ?
2. What is The Edge Goal for your organization--the ultimate destination for the expedition you have undertaken? Is there a "new mark" that you should consider?
Focusing Energy on Short-Term Goals
1. What are the key opportunities for action? What concrete things can you do to create a sense of momentum and forward movement?
2. What are the structures and routines that you use to create a sense of stability? What other things might you do?
3. Can you think of any "engaging distractions" that would contribute to the morale of your organization?
4. What are your short-term milestones? How are you measuring success on the journey your expedition has undertaken?
Copyright © 2000 Dennis N. T. Perkins. All rights reserved.