I recently finished reading Roland Huntford’s excellent book Last Place on Earth, a dual biography that retells the story of Scott and Amundsen in their race to be first to the South Pole in 1911-1912. It was a fascinating and moving book – in fact it was one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time.
The contrast made between Roald Amundsen, who successfully won the race and brought all his team home safely, with Robert Scott, who arrived at the Pole one month later but died along with his team on the return journey, is a great study in contrasting leadership styles.
I took numerous leadership lessons from the book, but here are the ones that stand out for me a few days later. All show Amundsen to be an outstanding planner, and contributed to his brilliant leadership.
Research: Scott led two expeditions to Antarctica, but each were his only experience in the polar environment. The race to the South Pole was also Amundsen’s second expedition in command, but prior to that he had sailed on another expedition to Antarctica, and had spent decades learning about and experiencing freezing climates in Norway. He constantly did all he could to learn about survival in polar climates; as a result his team not only survived but positively thrived on his South Pole expedition.
Skills: Amundsen identified that skiing and dog driving were the best ways to travel in polar regions, so he spent years developing his skills in both. And when he picked his team, he picked some of the best skiers and dog handlers in the world. By contrast, Scott wasn’t sure which was the best method of transport, and tried to use a combination of motor tractors, ponies, dogs and man-hauling to transport his sledges. But crucially he didn’t develop his skills in any of these, and didn’t take experts in any. The lesson is simple; what are the key skills necessary for your organisation’s mission? Will you take the time to become highly proficient in them, and then recruit people even better than you to make your team truly world class?
Equipment: Take the best equipment, and if you’re not sure what that is then get experts to choose the equipment for you. Scott took a cavalry officer (Captain Oates) to look after his ponies. But Oates didn’t get a say on which ponies were taken. Scott sent another team member who knew nothing about horses all the way to Siberia to buy the ponies, and as a result he spent a lot of money on poor quality animals. When Amundsen decided to take dogs he made sure he got one hundred of the best Greenland dogs available; he got a trusted friend and expert to choose them for him, and they got him all the way to the Pole and back.
Attitude: Both expeditions had their fair share of bad weather, but Scott consistently expected the best weather, and cursed the skies when he encountered blizzards. Amundsen consistently expected the worst weather, and was grateful when conditions were good. Amundsen reach his goal, won the race, and got all his men home safely. Scott reached the goal, but lost the race, and died on the return journey with four other men, cursing the bad luck that had supposedly taken away his victory and his life, but which in reality masked his poor planning.
So which are you most like between Scott and Amundsen? How can you develop your leadership to increase your team’s chances of a) winning, and b) always getting home safely?
Mark Williamson works as a director of One Rock. He’s an experienced leadership trainer, author of biographies on John Wesley and William Wilberforce, and is also passionate about praying for London. He enjoys good films, good food, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna. You can follow him on Twitter @markonerock.