The golden age of polar exploration lasted from about 1895 to 1912 during which time explorers raced to reach both the North Pole and South Pole. Even today those explorations and expeditions raise admiration and awe. Today, I want to discuss the race to the South Pole and what leadership lessons may be drawn from it. The three principals are Englishmen Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Of these three men, Shackleton turned back some 90 miles from the Pole, Scott made it to the South Pole some 35 days after Amundsen and died on the return leg, with all his men. Only Amundsen made it to the South Pole and returned to tell the tale.

In an earlier blog post, I considered Shackleton’s expeditions to the Pole, the Nimrod and Endurance expeditions. Today, I wanted to focus on the race between Amundsen and Scott. In the minds of most people Scott is the more famous for his (thoroughly British) heroic failure through sacrifice of his life and those of his men to walk to the Pole and back. Although he was beaten by Amundsen by some 35 days, Amundsen was viewed as not quite as ‘sporting’ because he used sleds pulled by dogs and skis for most of his trek to and from the South Pole.

In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, entitled “The Leadership Lessons of the Race to the South Pole”, authors Kishore Sengupta and Ludo Van der Heyden focused on the backgrounds of the two men as keys to their respective journeys. Amundsen was an avid skier growing up in Norway and early in life “embraced an early passion and became a professional explorer.” He spent three years opening the Northwest Passage where he lived among Eskimos and learnt many lessons he put to good use in his later Antarctic expeditions. He was in the Norwegian merchant marine.

Equally importantly is that Amundsen was on the Belgica expedition (1898-99) where he was part of a crew which spent a year icebound off Antarctica marooned in their ship. These experiences taught him to be cautious as an explorer. He learned to remain flexible and was ready to adapt targets and plans in light of conditions. When he found the conditions not right, he applied these lessons and turned back rather than rely on hope and luck. Most interestingly, he learned the lesson that bad luck is often the result of insufficient preparation.

Scott, conversely, had less experience in such climates. He was a naval officer most of his life, specializing in gunnery. He was chosen to lead the race to the Pole largely based upon his youth and rigor. His military background also played its part in his eventual demise. The authors noted, “He was inclined to press ahead with a mission rather than change or even abandon it, as if perseverance and courage alone could make the difference between success and failure. Like all military men he was competitive. Since he was engaged in a race, he pressed on, despite worsening weather conditions.”

In an article entitled “Race to the South Pole as a leadership case study” authors Dennis N. T. Perkins, Paul R. Kessler, and Catherine McCarthy considered four key leadership lessons.

A clear strategic focus

Amundsen initially desired to be the first to reach the North Pole. When Peary claimed that prize, he refocused his efforts to winning the race to the South Pole, which became his sole focus. His singular focus on this goal and no other allowed him to move forward to success. Scott, in contrast, lacked such focus with both scientific and exploration goals. Indeed, when Scott and his men’s bodies were found, they were hauling well over 100 lbs. of Antarctic rocks on their sleds to return home with them to England. The goals caused Scott to not only failed to achieve either but at the end cost he and his team their lives.

Successful leaders are open to Innovation

A second lesson is the leader’s critical role in fostering innovation. The process of innovation requires openness to new ideas and with the ability to learn from experience. On this dimension of leadership, there were striking differences between Amundsen and Scott. The Norwegians owed much of their success to the use of innovation in polar travel; including the use of skis, dogs, sleds, clothing and diet. Amundsen had also lived with North American Eskimos from whom he developed and refined ideas for polar life and travel. This made his trip to the pole remarkably routine, one might even say dull.

Scott, by contrast, was surprisingly resistant to the use of these superior methods and despite his lack of experience, he was not inclined to rely others who knew similar terrain. Scott experimented unsuccessfully with motor sledges and ponies and did not make made use of dogs, dog sleds or skis. Scott also minimized the use of skis even though they had been found to provide a speed advantage. Instead, he relied on two options that had not been tested in polar conditions: ponies and motorized sledges. Both failed in the Antarctic conditions, the motorized sledges would not operate, and the ponies died in the harsh conditions. This led Scott and his team to use the exhausting technique of man hauling.

Reliance on the team member

Here Scott completely failed as a leader to incorporate any insights from his crew. He believed that he as the commander had sole responsibility to review situations and make the correct determination. Amundsen (and Shackleton) drew upon the experiences of their crews. Perhaps that is due to the difference in their professional backgrounds as Amundsen had served in Norway’s merchant marine fleet, while Scott had been an officer in the British Navy.

Forging of team bonds

While Scott did create such loyalty that his entire team followed him to their deaths, his leadership style was not conducive to team cohesion. Conversely Shackleton and Amundsen both were able to access the emotional and physical needs of their team members and use that cohesion to manage conflicts and win over potential recalcitrant team members.

The final word

The Polar explorations are still with us today. Mention the name Robert Falcon Scott or the phrase “Scott of the Antarctic” and the almost universal reaction is one of admiration if not awe. Mention Shackleton and images of great courage, leadership and endurance flicker across your mind for his saving of the entire crew of the Endurance. However, mention Amundsen and if he is remembered, it is usually a very ho-hum, ‘isn’t he the chap who beat Scott to the Pole’. So perhaps the final word should come from Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Scott’s Nimrod expedition, who made the following observation: “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott. . . for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time”.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018