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Leading At The Edge

Book Review of: Leading At The Edge

Second Edition
Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition

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Review of Leading At The Edge, by Dr. Dennis N.T. Perkins (Softcover, 2012)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


I'm very impressed with this book and highly recommend it to anyone in a management or leadership role. Dr. Perkins knows what he's talking about, and articulates it well. I like his writing style.

The title and subtitle accurately reflect the content of this book. Why is this worth commenting on? In today's nonfiction book market, the title and subtitle tend to poorly match the actual content of the book. Several books that I've recently read had subtitles written by a person who apparently had not read the book. This is the second edition of Leading At The Edge. In the Acknowledgements, Dr. Perkins praised the publisher (AMACOM), so apparently he's pleased that they get these kinds of details right.

Leading At the Edge compares extremely well to other works in the leadership literature. I say that after having read several dozen such books. I have leadership creds of my own (MBA, various executive positions in non-profits, various board positions in non-profits, stints in corporate America as team leader, project manager, department head, etc., and currently running a company I founded in 1997). I disagree with people who say some folks are natural born leaders. Yes, some folks have attributes that help them be leaders. But being an effective leader is something you learn how to do. And once you've learned how, you must keep returning to the principles of leadership almost constantly. That's one reason I like to pick up books on leadership. If you don't work at keeping your edge, it will get dull.

Dr. Perkins graduated from the US Naval Academy, which is no small feat. Actually, just getting in there is quite an accomplishment. As a US Marine, he served as a company commander in Vietnam. There, he learned many lessons in leadership. And he is quick to point out he learned some of these by screwing up. That kind of humility and honesty is characteristic of a good leader, and his expressing it added to the confidence I felt as a reader listening to what he had to say.

As the title says, this book provides lessons from 1914-1916 Endurance expedition to Antarctica, led by Sir Earnest Shackleton. It is, as some commentators have stated, one of the greatest survival stories of all time. In itself, it's a gripping tale. The odds against survival were very long, indeed. The various movies and books about this amazing victory over what was almost certain death nearly always include Shackleton's name in the title. Quick, what was the name of the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet? Did the name of the ship's captain come to mind?

There's a reason Shackleton's name has the prominence it does when the story of the Endurance and her crew is told. And that reason is leadership. Dr. Perkins tells the story of survival, and along the way points out how Shackleton's leadership made a difference. This is what makes this book such a compelling read for its genre.

It could be argued that polar explorers are a trained and disciplined lot who have contingency plans and survival skills that make survival pretty much a foregone conclusion. But such an argument would fall apart when looking at actual polar expeditions. A wise question in the statistical sciences is this: "Compared to what?" Dr. Perkins takes the time to give us a comparison to other polar expeditions. By comparing Shackleton's words and deeds to those of the leaders of other stranded polar expeditions, we get a "compared to what" context.

Providing this context for the analysis of the Endurance story is very helpful to the reader. I think it deepens the understanding level.

I'm always a little leery when someone writes a "lessons learned" book or article based on a famous event. Too many times, authors of such pieces draw on the popularized account rather than the historical account. I think Dr. Perkins' 13 pages of bibliography indicates he did his homework. Not only that, he personally went to Antarctica and retraced the route that Shackelton followed.

This book won't transform you into a first-rate leader. No book can do that. It does, however, provide valuable insight into what you can learn from good leadership and bad leadership. Dr. Perkins has arranged Part 1 of this book into ten chapters, each of which discusses a different leadership lesson to be learned from studying what Shackleton said and did.

Please note that in this book The Edge is written in title case and italics. I'm sure there's no trademark infringement on David Evans of U2, who uses the stage name "the Edge." These are entirely different fields of study.

Leading At The Edge, Second Edition, runs 225 pages of text. Unlike most books today, the page counting doesn't start well ahead of the actual content. Page 1 of the text is actually page one. There's no page count inflation going on, here. Hey, an honest leader!

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, already noted above. Part 2 consists of two chapters: Learning to Lead at The Edge, and Epilogue: What Makes an Exceptional Leader? Those are Chapters 11 and 12, respectively.

Part 3 is titled "Tools for Leading at The Edge." It contains several useful items, including a skills survey and a section on conflict resolution lessons from Aikido.


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