Learning from today’s thought leaders and authors.
June 1, 2013
An exclusive interview with Dennis N.T. Perkins, author of Into the Storm.
Daniel R. Murphy:
Dennis, thank you for agreeing to speak to us about your work and especially about your new book, Into the Storm. You discuss the research and preparation you did to create this book in the book itself. It sounds like you did a vast amount of research, including multiple trips to Australia. Is this the most researched book you’ve ever written?
Dennis N.T. Perkins:
Dan, it’s my pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity to share more of the background of my book.
To respond to your question, I would say that Into the Storm is the book that involved the greatest amount of “hands-on” research. My previous book, Leading at The Edge, took a great deal of time and effort but that research primarily focused on reading journals and accounts of the Shackleton expedition, and talking with experts on Antarctica. Bob Headland, a historian from the Scott Polar Research Institute was particularly helpful.
After writing Leading at The Edge, I traveled to Antarctica to retrace Shackleton’s footsteps. With Into the Storm, I had an opportunity to interview sailors who competed in the Sydney to Hobart race, and to sail on a boat myself.
How important is it that you actually sailed on a boat in a Sydney to Hobart race yourself? How did that enable you to write a better book?
I’m convinced that there is nothing like personal experience to provide deep insight into leadership and group dynamics. It’s one thing to talk about the challenges of teamwork when the crew is tired, hungry, and cold. It’s another thing to feel all of those things as a crew member after sailing for days in a sleep-deprived state.
My work is focused on developing ideas that have practical value outside the academic world, and I always try to immerse myself in the things I write about. With the Sydney to Hobart race, the immersion was both figurative and literal. As a result, I felt more confident in my conclusions. Of course, as a bonus, I was able to buy a round of drinks for my friends in Tasmania after completing the 700 mile race!
Isn’t this almost two books in one? The first part is an exciting page turner – an adventure story if you will. The second part is an analysis of what lessons we can learn from the success of the amateur crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler in the 1998 race. The advantage of that approach is obvious, you engage the reader during the first part, leading them to read the second part. Are there risks to writing a book this way?
That’s a very thoughtful question, Dan. In my previous book, each chapter was organized around a particular leadership lesson taken from Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. Consequently, each chapter combined parts of the story with leadership lessons and examples.
This time, I decided to write the book in the same form that I use for presentations: first, the story, and second, the lessons. As a joke with my co-author, Jillian Murphy, I referred to the first approach as a “Beef Wellington” style of writing. It’s a very good recipe, but it is extraordinarily time-consuming. And it is challenging to get the narrative arc of the story to flow.
In characterizing the second model of “story, first” and “lessons, second” I used the metaphor of a “Whiskey and Cookies” recipe. Because the story of the Sydney to Hobart race was so complicated and it involved so many different boats, I felt that the narrative needed to be told in one cohesive chunk. This approach also gave me the opportunity to incorporate other stories in the “lessons” section without breaking the flow of the action.
Readers seem to like both approaches to writing, so my current thinking is that they’re simply different recipes that vary. The risk with the first is that the story could become disjointed. The risk with the second is that people might read the first part, and ignore the lessons in the second. The feedback I’ve gotten so far suggests that we have managed to avoid both problems, but it’s an issue that we have given considerable thought to.
The 1998 race was a life and death struggle. It truly is a challenge “at The Edge” as you describe it. How applicable are the lessons from such an extreme challenge to ordinary people struggling to succeed with ordinary teams faced with much less challenging problems?
Our approach is grounded in the idea of using stories of adventure and survival to illustrate key principles of leadership and teamwork. We chose that approach because we wanted vivid stories that would capture people’s attention, and that people could remember under conditions of adversity.
We understand that a team challenge in a business environment may not involve physical danger like the Sydney to Hobart race, but we believe that the teamwork principles that enabled the AFR Midnight Rambler to succeed apply equally to business challenges. The consequences may be different, and a firm may go out of business without fatalities. Any organization that wants to win has got to achieve the highest level of team performance.
The 10 teamwork strategies described in the book act as a bridge between stories of adventure and survival and other team challenges. In an ocean race, “mastering the art of rapid recovery,” might apply to a capsize. In a business environment, it could mean recovering from a disastrous fourth-quarter. The situation is different, but the concept applies to both.
You discuss the benefits of “group leadership” in this book. You also concede that in some ways someone has to be in charge. How does a team reconcile these two concepts in their application on a day to day basis?
My previous book highlighted the role of Ernest Shackleton, the leader of his Antarctic expedition. I decided to write Into the Storm as a complementary book that would highlight ways in which team members can play a leadership role.
A friend of mine read the proposal for the book and sent me an e-mail asking, “What happened to leadership?” Specifically, he wondered how I could go from a book that was “all about Shackleton” to almost “nothing about Ed Psaltis,” the skipper of the AFR Midnight Rambler.
I realized then that my focus on teamwork had caused me to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Every successful team I’ve been involved with – including Marine Corps units in combat – has had a competent leader. Both aboard ship, and in the Marine Corps, there is a skipper. At the same time, other individuals were able to assume a leadership role when the situation demanded it.
I devoted a section of Into the Storm to the “Role of the Skipper,” and I outlined a set of critical tasks in which the formal leader has a unique role. I believe that the leader needs to keep the team aligned; to demonstrate passion; to instill optimism and confidence that the team will succeed; and to set an example.
This last point is particularly important. While everyone on the team will take their cues about behavior from everyone else, the actions of the skipper are magnified. If the leader is narcissistic and self-centered, the culture of the team will mirror that style but if the leader thinks of the team first – if the team is the “rock star” – then the foundation is set for collaboration and exceptional teamwork.
The little 35 foot AFR Midnight Rambler beat larger boats, better equipped boats, faster boats and professionally crewed boats. What were the most important things about the crew and its interaction that brought about that victory?
There were a number of factors that went into the victory of the AFR Midnight Rambler. One of the most important ingredients was the fact that these were excellent sailors who had the technical skill to navigate through a horrific storm. But I believe that there was far more than seamanship involved in their victory.
I tried to capture the key elements of the Rambler’s success with 10 Teamwork at The Edge strategies:
- Make the team the rock star.
- Remove all excuses for failure.
- Find and focus on the winning scenario.
- Build a gung-ho culture of learning and innovation.
- Be willing to sail into the storm.
- Cut through the noise of the wind and the waves.
- Find ways to share the helm.
- Step up to conflict – and deal with the things that slow you down.
- Master the art of rapid recovery.
- Never give up – there’s always another move.
I believe that these principles were critical for the AFR Midnight Rambler, and that they are essential for any team faced with daunting challenges.
When the huge storm hit many boats turned around or sought safe refuge. The winner was part of a smaller group that sailed on despite the life threatening storm. What can we learn about assessing risks and taking them head on from this?
I believe the most critical lesson is the importance of separating psychological perceptions of risk from statistical risk. Our decision-making can often be influenced by the presence of a dread risk: a low probability, high consequence event. When we are faced with things that give us the chills, we do things that make us feel secure but are actually illogical.
An example I gave in the book deals with people who chose to drive after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They were understandably afraid of flying, but highway fatalities increased. Faced with a dread risk, people made choices that seemed intuitively right – but were actually more dangerous.
Effective teams can draw on what I call the power of team risk intelligence. When faced with big challenges and uncertainty, teams can use their collective intelligence and understanding to analyze risks and make choices that are informed and thoughtful.
In your daily work with organizations struggling to make teams work, how often do you teach the lessons from Into the Storm?
Another good question. I would say whenever I work with a team I am always trying to teach the lessons from Into the Storm. Sometimes this teaching is done explicitly, using the story as a metaphor. In other cases, it might be thought of as an invisible template that I use to guide my thinking and my counsel to clients.
This is not your first book. You also wrote Leading at The Edge about the Earnest Shackleton adventure to the South Pole a century ago. What lessons did you learn while researching and writing Into the Storm that are different from Leading at The Edge?
In my view, there are certain elements of leadership and teamwork that are timeless. For example, the crews of both the Endurance expedition and the Midnight Rambler worked together to survive in the face of death. Both Ernest Shackleton and Ed Psaltis demonstrated exceptional leadership.
Because of the nature of relationships among members of the Midnight Rambler crew – and because of changing views about the nature of authority – there may have been more opportunities for the Ramblers to question Ed Psaltis’ decision-making. I would say that there was nothing in the second book that contradicted principles that came out of my earlier research. It was more that the story of the Midnight Rambler simply expanded my knowledge of leadership and teamwork.
During this race the AFR Midnight Rambler team appears to have mastered the management of egos as well as playing to the team’s individual strengths. This developed over a long period of time as the crew had worked together in multiple races. How does a newer team apply these lessons without that long lead time?
Your question underscores an important caveat about team development. I’ve seen leaders who felt that by taking team members out for a weekend off-site event – and, perhaps by taking some team assessment instruments – they would emerge Monday morning with a highly functioning, rock star team.
Needless to say, I have never seen an exceptional team built in a weekend. However, if an off-site event is seen as a first step in building a team, then the journey has begun. And if the team has a clear image of what they want to become – and I believe the story of the Ramblers can help clarify that image – then it’s possible for a team to make rapid progress.
You identify ten key team strategies for success. Are there one or two of those strategies that you consider most important and if so, why?
I’m a bit conflicted about responding to this question, because I believe they’re all important. My first thought was that it’s a little bit like asking “Which note is the most critical in a music scale?” They are all essential.
If pressed, however, I would say that the sine qua non of effective teamwork would be strategy #1: Make the team the rock star, and strategy #10: Never give up – there’s always another move.
The first strategy emphasizes the importance of team unity, and draws on a phrase frequently voiced by the crew of the Midnight Rambler. The second, which originated in my research on the Shackleton expedition, is a hallmark of any team that succeeds in the face of overwhelming odds: perseverance.
During this race the crew had to be constantly and intensely focused. Unlike our ordinary world experience, filled with multiple distractions, the crew had to be focused to survive and lacked those distractions. How do we duplicate that kind of focus in the ordinary work world?
It is true that the crew of the Midnight Rambler had to stay intensely focused to survive a hurricane, and that other teams have more flexibility to shift their attention and still survive. But I think it is misleading to suggest that the Ramblers had no choice but to stay focused, or that they had no distractions.
Other boats, for example, were distracted by conflicts about the right choice of action. Or, perhaps because of fear, they got caught up in doing low priority tasks and forgot the most critical things that should have been dealt with. There were points at which the Ramblers were distracted, but they were always able to bring their attention back to deal with the most pressing problems.
For organizations facing difficult but more routine problems, the challenge is one of creating a sense of excitement and passion for winning. This is more like a typical ocean race – tough, but without the hurricane.
I believe that passion can be developed in any organization in which team members have a clear image of what it means to win, and when team members come together and have a shared sense of mateship. This sense of cohesion requires time, effort and dedication. But the exhilaration that comes from being part of that kind of team effort can make even routine tasks exciting.
You are a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. How important are the lessons you learned from that preparation to your development of leadership and teamwork skills and strategies?
There is no question that my training at the Naval Academy, and later in the Marine Corps, created the foundation that permeates all of my thinking about leadership and teamwork.
After I returned from Vietnam, I realized that I could take the things I had learned in the crucible of combat and share them with those facing other life challenges. And I found that I could apply the writing and conceptual skills developed in the academic world to shape my message. My goal was to integrate two very different worlds, and to use this hybrid approach in a positive way to make a difference in peoples’ lives.
I try to keep learning new things, but I know that much of my early thinking was influenced by stories I first heard as a midshipman at Annapolis. John Paul Jones’ remark, “I have not yet begun to fight,” has served me well in many situations.
What kind of work do you do at Syncretics Group and how do you use what you’ve learned from writing these great books?
We help leaders, teams, and organizations achieve their greatest potential in demanding environments. We do this through our writing, with our keynote presentations, and executive coaching.
It is tremendously rewarding work, and we have found that our approach is effective in organizations throughout the world. Our stories and metaphors travel well, and they’re not wedded to any particular culture. They are sagas of triumph over adversity, and we are inspired by seeing the success of our clients.
Two final questions: is there another book in the works that we can look forward to; and, do you have any final thoughts you would like to add?
I met with my colleagues just yesterday, and I raised the possibility of doing another book. The idea came from a conversation with a friend who had faced a difficult ethical challenge. As he described the story he ended with a phrase, “In the end, all you have left is your integrity.”
It was a great story, and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to put together a book that might be called Stories from The Edge. The book would highlight critical, challenging moments faced by a number of individuals in all walks of life. It would outline their choices and decisions, and perhaps lessons learned.
I believe it would be useful and fun to write, but for the time being I need to make sure that the firm and families have completed our “rapid recovery” from the storm of writing our last book.
My final thought is to thank you for your thoughtful and provocative questions. I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on my writing, my client work, and the future.
Thank you again so much for sharing these thoughts with our readers. I highly recommend this book and hope our readers will check it out.
Read the Books2Wealth Review of Into the Storm.
This interview is copyright protected by Daniel R. Murphy 2013. Permission is granted to reproduce this article in its entirety if proper credit is given. Attribution should be as follows: “Books2Wealth Interview, © Daniel R. Murphy, used by permission, www.books2wealth.com. “