Lessons from the guy who made it to the South Pole before anybody else

Amundsen in his work clothes.

Amundsen in his work clothes.

Today is one day after the one week anniversary of the 101st anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole.  I meant to get this up last week, but I am bad at remembering anniversaries (just ask my partner).  This is a column I wrote for a now defunct part of the American Management Association’s Web site.  It seemed appropriate for this cold, snowy day in New York.


[Published December 14, 2011]

Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the great feats in the history of management: Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole, the first such successful expedition in human history.

It might seem odd to mention exploration and management in the same breath, but we would not remember the names of all the great explorers, from Leaf Erickson to Neil Armstrong, if they had run out of supplies or lost command of their teams somewhere along the way.

Amundsen had no technological or financial advantage over his rivals.  It was great leadership that gave him an edge, and his 1911 expedition reveals a lot about the nature of effective and even great management.

To understand the immensity of Amundsen’s accomplishment, you have to understand what going to the South Pole was like in 1911.  Before radio, airplanes, and satellites, going to Antarctica was more like visiting the moon than going somewhere on earth.

The distances are unthinkably vast.  Antarctica is far larger than the United States of America, and the fastest form of travel in 1911 was the dog sled.  Imagine sledding from New York City to central Iowa and back and not encountering a single human being or hospitable environment along the way.

The conditions were harsh and often lethal.  Winds in the Antarctic can blow as fast as 340 miles per hour, and temperatures can drop to minus 140 degrees fahrenheit.  Some of the so-called “dry” regions have not seen rain for over two million years.

In such a place, a few extra pounds of weight in a backpack, or a delay of just a few hours can be a death sentence.  Amundsen’s rival for the Pole in 1911, British captain Robert Falcon Scott, perished along with his men on their return trip, at a camp just eleven miles from their nearest supply station.  The penalty for logistical failure was not lost profit or customer dissatisfaction, but death.

Even today, going to the Antarctic is a risky venture.  Just this year, harsh weather meant a two month delay in extracting American researcher and stroke victim Renee-Nicole Douceur from the South Pole to a hospital in the United States.  An anniversary expedition trying to follow Amundsen’s overland route had to resort this week to air travel in order to reach the pole by today’s deadline.

So what makes a person even want to go to the South Pole, and what makes them succeed in the attempt?

Like any successful manager, Amundsen had a rare combination of vision and pragmatism.  He was crazy enough to try to be the first human ever to reach the South Pole, but he was also focused enough to allow nothing to get in the way.  Unlike rival expeditions, Amundsen’s team did not stop to take photographs or conduct scientific surveys.  Their journey was a relentless and single-minded dash across hundreds of miles to their sole objective.

Amundsen also displayed a remarkable amount of flexibility and innovation.  He had originally raised money and commanded public interest for an expedition to the North Pole, but when that prize was claimed by other explorers, he switched gears and headed south.  Amundsen had no shame about exchanging the wool clothing favored by previous expeditions for Inuit-style animal skins, which were better at keeping him and his men warm.  And unlike his rival Scott, he took a less known but potentially more direct route, and his gamble paid off.  His oddest and most effective innovation was selecting the weaker pack animals to be food for the stronger ones at crucial moments along the way.  Though distasteful, this was an elegant and effective solution to a supply problem that had hampered previous attempts.

Persistence was also an important factor.  It propelled the expedition past a false start too early in the season that drained much needed resources, and fomented internal dissent, causing Amundsen to leave one rebellious member of his party behind at base camp.

For all of Amundsen’s daring, he was meticulous about the few factors under his control, and was willing to spend a great deal of time testing his methods and equipment.  He famously said that “adventure is just bad planning.”  He and his team spent an entire year establishing and stocking supply depots at regular intervals along the planned route, settling for nothing less than their exact placement.  These short, safer journeys inland revealed flaws in the team makeup and transportation methods that were corrected before the final expedition.

Given that Scott’s doomed expedition was prey to supply depots placed too far apart and impaired by the death of untested pack animals, it is likely that Amundsen’s long and careful attention to mundane details not only assured him prime place in the history books, but also saved his life.

But even more than the qualities already mentioned, there are two which all successful polar adventurers have displayed, and which psychologists screening potential polar teams have identified as crucial: patience and a sense of humor.  At the core of both is the wisdom that, even when you have planned to within an inch of your life, the world is still going to surprise you.  In other words, the only sure defense against the hostile and unknown is hope.