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Posted by Sarah Brown on 22 Mar '21

Which leader would you have followed - Scott or Amundsen?

Leaders today are facing life-and-death choices during the Pandemic. A century ago, Scott and Amundsen also made decisions that impacted who lived and who died and how they did it providing some useful insights for leadership today.

In the last year, we have probably seen more of our leaders than ever before, and they have directly impacted our daily lives, so what they say and do, at least to me, has seemed to matter more. Only as we look back may it become clear who did a good job.

There are many elements to leadership, but I believe its primary role is to: set a culture of getting things done, ensure the values translate into how people behave & guarantee an inspiring vision.

The critical importance of leadership is illustrated by research into the 2008 financial crisis, which impacted the whole world & cost trillions in jobs, homes & lost productivity. It identified that it could have been avoided with good leadership. The leadership issues identified included: a lack of transparency, integrity & respect; & irresponsibility to both shareholders & society. These issues contributed to the excessive leverage in financial markets & subsequent problems. The crisis also showed what can happen when behaviour becomes disconnected from values.

In my book shortly to be published, "Winning by being Good", I write about the three fundamental leadership principles in the Responsible Organisation Charter©. I also have a case study that some people may think is controversial as it suggests that Scott was a poor leader. I would be interested in your opinion. Who do you think have been the Scotts, and who the Amundsens in the current global crises?

A Case Study -Two differing styles of leadership
A story – the race to the South Pole

In 1911 Amundsen & Scott both led famous expeditions to the South Pole – one to disaster, the other success. In 'Great by Choice' (Collins & Hansen, 2011), the differences in leadership style are outlined & used to illustrate the differences between leaders of successful businesses & also those that fail.

Superficially, Amundsen & Scott were similar; both had led successful expeditions in cold climates before & were only four years different in age, at 39 & 43, respectively. However, Amundsen continually sought to grow & improve & be prepared for the unexpected. He spent time in his 20s obtaining a sailing Masters certificate, experimented with eating raw dolphin in case he ever needed to eat it to survive & went to live with the Eskimos to learn how they managed in sub-zero conditions.

As well as observing how they used dog sledges, he also learnt that they didn't rush, so that they avoided sweating, which turns to ice in the cold. From his time with them, he decided to use dog sledges & capitalise on the dogs being carnivores by killing the weaker ones to feed the others as the journey progressed. He also adopted Eskimo clothing, loose & protective & so designed to minimise sweat.

In contrast, Scott chose to use ponies, which struggled in the extreme cold. Ponies don't eat meat, so the weak ones couldn't be used to feed the others & they all died very early into the expedition. He also used unproven motor sledges, whose engines broke within the first few days. Consequently, for most of the journey, Scott's men had to pull the sledges themselves, using up their calories & physical strength.

Scott only stored one ton of supplies for 17 men compared to Amundsen, who had three tons for his team of five. Amundsen then carried extra supplies so that if they missed a single depot, they would still have enough left over to go another 100 miles. In contrast, Scott took very few spare supplies so that missing any depot would be disastrous &, of course, he had also not allowed for the extra calories needed for the manual labour of towing the sledges.

To find the primary storage depots, Amundsen used 20 black pennants spread out around it, so he had an obvious target of 10 kilometres if he got off course because of bad weather.

Scott used a single flag for his storage depots & left no markings on the path, so if he got lost, there was little chance of finding the depot. Similarly, Scott had a single thermometer for vital altitude measurements & exploded in "an outburst of wrath" when it broke. In contrast, Amundsen had four thermometers to cover in case of accidents.

When things started to go wrong for Scott, he blamed bad luck, particularly the weather. They both left at about the same time. Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 15th & was back at his base camp in good shape as planned on January 25th. Scott was much slower because his men had to haul the sledges & only reached the pole on January 17th, over a month later than Amundsen. He was then starting his return as the weather began to get worse. He & his final two companions died in March, just 10 miles short of his supply depot.

As the Scott & Amundsen story illustrates, a good leader is as prepared as possible for the unknown & takes responsibility rather than blaming luck.

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