Polar Opposites — A Race to the Poles

Wise leadership led the Norwegians to the South Pole faster than their British counterparts.
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The year was 1911 when a group of Norwegian explorers, led by Roald Amundsen, accomplished what no one had before — they reached the South Pole in Antarctica. They arrived there five weeks before a rival group — led by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott — reached the same destination. The only difference was that Scott’s group did not view the same barren landscape their Norwegian counterparts had. Scott and his men reached the South Pole complete with pitched tents under the Norwegian flag.

Doomed to Fail

From the start, Scott’s expedition was doomed to fail, and many historians place the blame on his poor leadership.

The British expedition had many advantages over the smaller Norwegian group. Scott assumed that he was the “smartest person in the room” — that his years of experience in polar exploration made his victory over Amundsen a foregone conclusion. On the other hand, Amundsen displayed leadership qualities that were not obvious to his contemporaries, but that can serve as a guide to leaders today.

When one compares the Norwegian and British expeditions, the lessons for the leaders of today are fairly obvious.

Polarized Learning

Amundsen’s group was a smaller “brand” than Scott’s. Amundsen was willing to learn; specifically, he spent months studying the Eskimos of Greenland and Canada at a time when Europeans still looked down on aboriginals. Specifically, he sought to mimic the Eskimos’ dress and diet for his expedition. Scott’s team — the bigger “brand name” — was outfitted by Burberry.

Though he desired fame, Amundsen’s aim was to experience the journey to the South Pole, as one would expect from such an adventurer. Scott’s goal of reaching the South Pole first was to use his newfound celebrity and glory to leverage a promotion in the Royal Navy.

Much like Abraham Lincoln, who surrounded himself with individuals who he considered the best men to help him lead the country, Amundsen tried the same when recruiting his team. With an understanding of the brutal conditions his team would face, he did not seek “yes” men; he wanted a team that would ensure everyone’s success and survival. Scott recruited old friends and acquaintances, figuring that they would be able to learn the necessary skills under his leadership.

During the final leg of the journey, Amundsen placed his most skilled men at the front of the expedition. Scott, on the other hand, was wary to give up any semblance of leadership, no matter how cosmetic.

Lessons Learned

The most important difference between the two, of course, was the final result. Not only did the Norwegians reach the South Pole first; they survived. Scott and his polar team did not.

While the stakes differ greatly, today’s leaders can learn valuable lessons from Amundsen’s success and Scott’s failures.

  1. Prepare like Amundsen. Unlike Scott, Amundsen did not take anything for granted. While his career was marked with various experiences that seemingly could have prepared him for the polar journey. However, he prepared as if he were a novice, which is the calling card of any great leader. As a quote that is often attributed to Albert Einstein tells us: “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”
  2. Don’t be deterred by the size of your brand. Amundsen and his team were not a well-known brand as they embarked on Antarctica. Though his competitive nature meant that he wanted to win, Amundsen did not really have to win. Scott felt pressured by his own ambition and the ghost of Ernest Shackleton (still alive at the time of Scott’s expedition, this British explorer had set the southernmost record and Scott felt compelled to beat it) to reach the South Pole before his Norwegian counterpart.
  3. Be flexible, but have a plan. There is a difference between flexibility and aimlessness. Amundsen planned his expedition meticulously, and planned for any unfortunate situation, especially when it came to weather. Successful leaders often do this, taking variance into consideration. Scott, on the other hand, was often caught surprised by bad weather, and at times made last minute and fatal decisions. One of those, ordering a fifth man to join him during the last leg of the southern journey when the team had prepared for four, left him and his men vulnerable to starvation and exposure. Like those who live in the path of hurricanes often hear from local meteorologists — “expect the worst, hope for the best.” If expected, plan for it.

Good leaders tether themselves to the skill set that Amundsen subscribed to. They do not suffer from hubris, they hire for talent rather than ego, and they plan for any unforeseen circumstance. Hubris is the final death knell for many brands; ask brands like Blockbuster, Blackberry, and Bear Stearns.

Over one hundred years ago, two sets of explorers raced to the South Pole and sought new experiences, celebrity, glory, and adventure. Those certainly were achieved — Amundsen celebrity came from his successful journey, while Scott was remembered as a martyr who died during a journey where he sought glory for the British Empire. Those two men have provided us with lessons, however; and depending on what modern leaders do with those lessons, that could be Amundsen and Scott’s greatest legacy.

For more reading, check out Roland Huntford’s book The Last Place on Earth. You can also learn more about the expedition.

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