(Adapted from blog post originally posted on August 4, 2014)
I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Oslo and the Fram Museum, which houses arguably one of the world’s most important polar ships, the Fram.
The Fram ship was captained by Captain Roald Amundsen as he led the first men towards the South Pole during an era considered the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This was an era of intense rivalry and competition as men and nations were competing to be the first to achieve feats of exploration.
The rivalry between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott are legendary as both men vied with one another to be the first to reach the South Pole.
Amundsen won and earned the distinction of being the first man to reach the South Pole. Scott who managed to reach the Pole later met with a tragic end and never made it back to his camp.
There are numerous accounts about their journeys and the historical reactions that followed both Amundsen and Scott’s achievements.
I want to highlight the six leadership lessons one can learn from Amundsen’s approach to his trip to the South Pole.
- Clarity of mission
- Clear and consistent leadership
- Attention to detail
- Constant preparation
- Avoid arm-chair expects (and get the right people into the team!)
- Luck – is what you make of it
1. Clarity of mission
Amundsen was very clear that his primary objective was to be the first man to reach the South Pole. He expended his energy, his thoughts and his efforts to this one single endeavour.
On the other hand, Scott’s agenda was never very clear and he wanted to conduct scientific research, exploration and also reach the pole but nothing was clear defined. One example was when Scott and his team were returning from the Pole, defeated and already running low on supplies, he decided to stop at the top of the Beardmore glacier and deemed it fit to ‘geologise’ and subsequently add more than 15 kilograms of rock to their loads, which slowed them down further and precipitated the crew’s sad demise.
Amundsen was very clear about what his expedition’s objectives were and what his own ambition was and set out to dispassionately attain it.
A confused mission and vision will ultimately confuse your team and lead to misaligned goals and values which will scupper any business or programme.
2. Clear leadership
Scott was a product of his times and was extremely formal, conventional and hierarchical and this is what the English establishment demanded this of anyone who was leading an official British mission.
Amundsen on the other hand was an extremely competitive, relentless and focused individual who was also hugely innovative and was ruthlessly direct in his leadership.
As an example, most of Scott’s team (which was made up of sixty five men) was was picked by various external parties. Within that team included a Captain Oates with whom Scott clashed with on numerous ocassions. Oates was never silent about his conflict with Scott either which only served to undermine Scott further.
Amundsen on the other hand handpicked 19 men for his lean Fram expedition. In his team was a Hjalmar Johansen who was a noted explorer too. However, there was an incident where Amundsen made a mistake in setting off for a trek too early. This mistake almost cost the life of one of the men and Johansen publicly berated Amundsen in front of the other men. Amundsen dismissed Johansen from the expedition to preserve the unity and integrity of the team.
One may argue that Amundsen could have taken a different tact or approach. Ultimately, for an expedition into a great unknown, there has to be absolutely clarity and trust.
Constant undermining of leadership would have led to mistrust and confusion and in the end cost lives.
As the National Geographic puts it very eloquently, “Amundsen was also a man of towering ambition, prey to the same dangerous dreams and impulses that drive all explorers to risk their lives in wild places. Amundsen’s greatness is not that he lacked such driving forces but that he mastered them.”
It is vital that whilst there is space for disagreements and diversity of thought within any team, once a decision has been taken, it has to be followed through by everyone and anyone seeking to undermine a decision after it has been taken has to be either counselled or removed from the business.
3. Attention to detail
The clarity of the big picture is important. For any project or mission to succeed, the attention to detail, regardless of how minute, is also crucial.
In the case of Amundsen, he had a laser-like focus on every aspect of the Fram expedition – from the food chosen to the mode of travel to the choice of clothing.
Amundsen knew that in order to travel the distances they were targeting, they had to be able to get around quicker than if they were to do so purely on foot. To this end, Amundsen spent considerable time perfecting their ski equipment and footwear. This was something Scott’s team did not do sufficiently and towards the later stages of Scott’s expedition, this proved to be fatal.
Amundsen also spent considerable time with the Inuits and adopted fur suits along with their windproof outfits. The Inuits also wore their clothing loosely to reduce sweating (which helps retain body heat and also prevent freezing of clothes).
Even the way the fuel cans were sealed played a big role in the Antarctic expeditions. Scott had used incorrect washers for the fuel cans which led to evaporation of the fuel – which is a critical component in turning ice to water for drinking. Amundsen had worked this out earlier and had ensured that the cans were sealed properly to prevent any loss of fuel.
Food was an important component in the expedition which Amundsen paid a great deal of attention to. Amundsen, following his time with the Innuits, understood that an exclusively meat diet consisting of penguin and fresh seal meat was vital to remaining healthy. Although this wasn’t understood scientifically then, fresh seal and penguin meat provided enough Vitamin C to prevent scurvy (an ailment that afflicted sailors in those days and which was fatal in the long run if not treated).
On the other hand, a number of historians have indicated that the lack of good nutrition was one of the many reasons for Scott’s failure. They also tended to overcook the penguin and seal meat (to remove the ‘fishy’ taste) which destroyed the Vitamin C present in them. Amundsen’s indifference to palate meant that his expedition ensured that they ate very unappetising biscuits (made from oatmeal, yeast – with enough Vitamin B, beef fat and pounded dried beef!) and which provided them with essential roughage. Again, this is something the British expedition team chose to ignore.
As Geir Klover, director of the Fram Museum in Oslo, explains, “”Amundsen had a tremendous reputation. He was a meticulous planner, easily the best organised explorer of his generation.”
The attention to detail, especially for major campaigns, is absolutely critical in not only determining the success or failure of the campaign, but between life and death.
4. Constant preparation
During the winter months, Amundsen and his team spent the days optimising their equipment, their clothing, their logistics and working to improve their efficiency. It was an extremely focused team with a clear view of what needed to be done to achieve the task at hand.
Scott’s team spent the time engaged in a series of meetings, lectures, reviews, and reading. This led to missed opportunities for the team to review their practical and operational needs and performance.
A clear vision, decisive leadership and attention to detail are matters which determine how well a team is prepared for a mission.
The need for constant preparation is vital and whilst it is easy to slip into a routine of meetings, conferences and discussions, without preparing for the tasks at hand, it will be near impossible to do a great job.
5. Avoid arm-chair experts (and get the right people into the team!)
Amundsen had one of Norway’s skiing champions in his team (despite the fact he wasn’t an explore or mountaineer). He also ensured that he had canine experts and dog handlers to choose the best dogs for his journey.
Scott chose not to use dogs – which he thought was more noble. This was also counter to the prevailing view in Britain in those days that dogs were of dubious value as a means of Antarctic transport (which was subsequently proven to be false).
To further compound matters, Scott had also instructed a member of his team who knew nothing about horses to choose the ponies for the expedition. The ponies chosen were of poor quality, age and condition and which only served to hinder Scott’s expedition.
Amundsen also made it a point to engage with the right people and subject matter experts (such as Fridtjof Nansen – another famous Nordic explorer) as he formulated his journey towards the South Pole.
6. Luck – is what you make of it
Amundsen summed it up best when he said:
“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it.
Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”