November, 1999 - Volume 4, Number 2
Polar Race Offers Leadership Lessons
By Robert Gunther, Senior Writer, Wharton Leadership Digest
Late in 1911, two men set out on a roundtrip journey of 1,500 miles across
the frozen Antarctic. They were racing to reach the South Pole - the last
undiscovered extreme of the planet at the end of an age of discovery.
Although they chose different routes, they were pursuing the same goal
under roughly the same conditions. Norway's Roald Amundsen arrived first
and came back with all his men in good health with supplies to spare.
Britain's Robert Scott and his men perished on their return.
In The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South
Pole, British journalist Roland Huntford draws a sharp contrast between
the leadership styles of the two men. His meticulous account of the two
expeditions offers an opportunity to compare two very different types
of leadership and their impact under comparable conditions. Among the
lessons highlighted by Huntford's account:
- Listening well: Amundsen created what he termed a "little republic"
in which he sought feedback. He held frequent debriefings with his men
and redesigned his tents and other equipment based on their suggestions.
Scott, on the other hand, who had spent is life in the military, insisted
on rigid discipline. He was openly dismissive of suggestions from his
men and expected blind obedience even to the most wrongheaded order.
In laying their supply depots for the return from the pole, one of Scott's
men urged him to move his last depot 30 miles closer to the pole, but
Scott ignored the advice - and the party would later die just 11 miles
from this "one-ton" depot that would have saved their lives. Huntford
writes that "The Norwegians were fired by the willpower of a leaders
who understood that the human personality is an instrument to be played
with a living touch. Scott saw his men as puppets on a string."
- Learning continuously: Even after more than a decade of polar
exploration, Scott never learned to use skis, dogs or Eskimo clothing
effectively. Although Scott knew about these methods - and the weaknesses
of the traditional British use of ponies and man-hauling of equipment
had been amply demonstrated - he never mastered them. By contrast, Amundsen
had spent a lifetime studying the indigenous peoples in the Arctic and
their methods of dog-handling and polar survival. He voraciously digested
the accounts of previous explorers, looking for fresh insights on strategies
for survival. Even as they were at their base camp just prior to departure
for the pole, Amundsen's men were still redesigning their sledges, skis
and boots to reduce weight and improve performance.
- Allowing margins of error: Amundsen prepared for the worst,
carrying more than ten times the food and fuel per person than Scott
and placing supplies far closer to the pole for his return. Scott expected
the best and was disappointed when the unpredictable polar regions did
not cooperate, and he and his men would ultimately perish from starvation
when they were pinned down by an extended storm. "In a journey of four
months Scott had not allowed for four days' bad weather," Huntford notes.
- Paying attention to detail: Amundsen gave meticulous thought
to the smallest details because he believed that a few pounds of supplies
or several minutes of warmth could mean the difference between life
and death in sub-zero conditions. "It we are to win," he told his men,
"not a trouser button must be missing." While Scott marked his supply
depots for the return trip from the pole with a single flag - making
location of them like looking for a needle in a haystack - Amundsen
established a 10-mile barrier of numbered flags across his path. Even
if Amundsen missed a depot, as he once did in a dense fog, he was sure
to encounter one of the warning flags.
- Molding team dynamics: Amundsen devoted special attention to
the dynamics of his group. As they wintered at the base camp, he created
a morning game of guessing the outside temperature, offering prizes
to the man who came closest. The purpose was to get the men out in the
fresh air first thing in the morning, an effective antidote to the irritability
that insidiously crept into camp life.
- Crafting the record: For all his strengths in leading the expedition,
Amundsen underestimated the importance of the battle for superiority
in public perception, an area in which Scott and his supporters were
very adept. Scott's heroic efforts and colorful accounts made him a
martyr and legend, while Amundsen's preparation and straightforward
detachment in reporting his achievements turned his success on the ice
into a defeat in public opinion. Like today's business environment,
polar regions are frequently uncertain and at times unforgiving. These
are the circumstances in which leadership, Huntford's comparison implies,
can mean the difference between triumph or tragedy.
Source: Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and
Amundsen's Race to the South Pole (Modern Library, 1999; originally
published in 1979 as Scott and Amundsen).
Survival Rates in Arctic Expeditions
Jonathan M. Karpoff of the University of Washington compared 35 public
and 56 privately-funded expeditions to discover the North Pole or explore
other parts of the arctic between 1818 and 1909. He found that the privately-financed
teams survived better: The death rate of crew members for the private
expeditions stood at 6.2 percent, while for public expeditions, 8.9 percent.
Of the private journeys that utilized ships, the ship loss rate reached
21 percent; for public expeditions, 33 percent.
Statistical analysis reveals that the variant survival rates were not
due to distinctive objectives or risk taking between the public and private
expeditions. Compared with publicly-backed journeys, Karpoff finds instead
that privately-sponsored expeditions were far more often led by those
who had (1) initiated and organized the trips; (2) brought prior experience
in arctic exploration; and (3) mastered innovative techniques for organizing
expeditions. The difference, then, was not the kind of sponsorship itself
but the distinctive leadership that resulted.
Source: Jonathan M. Karpoff, "Public Versus Private Initiative
in Arctic Exploration: The Effects of Incentives and Organizational Form"
The fourth annual Wharton Leadership Conference on May 18, 2000, is
focusing on developing leaders for fast-moving organizations.
Business firms and public organizations are learning to move fast before
their markets and publics move past them. Fast-acting leadership is increasingly
essential for companies and agencies to stay ahead of the curve, and the
challenge is to build leaders within and recruit them from outside who
know how to make fast and accurate decisions, who can implement strategies
and create change at the speed of sound if not light. A capacity to drive
a fast-moving organization and to be a quick and nimble mover is an essential
skill for leadership ahead.
Confirmed speakers addressing these issues include:
Lawton Burns, Professor of Health Care Systems and Management and Director
of the Center for Health Management and Economics at the Wharton School,
and author of many articles on the restructuring of medical centers and
John Byrne, senior writer at Business Week and author of Chainsaw:
The Notorious Career of Al Dunlap In the Era of Profit-At-Any-Price
Ram Charan, co-author of Every Growth Business Is A Growth Business
and co-author of "Why CEOs Fail," Fortune Magazine, June 21, 1999.
Kathleen Eisenhardt, Professor of Strategy and Organization at Stanford
University and co-author of Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured
William Pasmore, principal at Delta Consulting Group and author of
Creating Strategic Change: Designing the Flexible, High-Performing Organization
Noel Tichy, author of The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies
Build Leaders at Every Level (1997), and co-author of Every Growth
Business Is A Growth Business: How Your Company Can Prosper Year After
Edward Zajac, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Kellogg Graduate
School of Management, Northwestern University, and author of numerous
articles on strategy, leadership, and governance.
To receive additional information on the conference as it becomes available,
send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In becoming the new chief executive of AT&T, Michael Armstrong "arrived
with a reputation as a change agent while chairman and CEO of Hughes Electronics
Corp., and previously, as an executive at IBM. He initially made decisions
at Hughes so quickly, he later recalled, that some subordinates asked
in exasperation, 'Wasn't that kind of a hip shot?' And he replied, 'Hell,
"'Time', he says now, 'is your enemy.'"
Source: Rebecca Blumstein and Joann S. Lublin, "Amid All the
Bets, One Stands Out: AT&T Ventures into Cable." Wall Street Journal,
Nov. 5, 1999, pp. A1, 8.