Leadership lessons can be poles apart

The great Antarctic explorers took markedly different approaches to their expeditions, and there's much that modern business leaders can learn from them.

Over the holiday season, many business people have probably enjoyed reading Peter Fitzsimons' recently released account of the adventures of Douglas Mawson, the great Australian Antarctic explorer. Woven through this absorbing book are parallel stories of the men who raced for the South Pole in the early 1900s – Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen. It is heroic stuff, almost unimaginable to us today. Yet, as I reflected on their epic journeys, I realised that these journeys, and the men who took them, offer important lessons to business leaders. Here are some of them:

Clarity of mission

Captain Scott’s expedition had multiple objectives; he wanted to be first to reach the South Pole, but his was also a scientific mission. So many people, so much equipment, so many complications if your task is to win a race! In contrast, Roald Amundsen had a very simple objective: to get to the pole first. He travelled relatively light. His team was small. He took few photographs and barely paused for breath. Although both teams started at about the same time, Amundsen won by a month.

How often have I seen businesses bogged down and confused by complex mission statements that fail to do the early "heavy lifting" in defining the scope and scale of the enterprise. If you want to win you must have great clarity of purpose, whether you are an Antarctic explorer or the chief executive of a clothing company.

Make your own luck

All of the famous Antarctic expeditions had several things in common; imagination, great determination, and extraordinary courage. Yet they shared another quality that was even more important – planning and attention to detail. The explorers understood the huge risks they were taking and tried to leave nothing to chance. Here is how Roald Amundsen wrote of this: "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.”

Napoleon Bonaparte had the same idea of luck in mind when he would enquire of a potential new general, "is he lucky?" So often, what looks lucky or easy is the result of intense professionalism. Really good business people display a relentless attention to their craft; they are watchful, careful, thinking ahead and taking nothing for granted.

Get the business model (modus operandi) right

The tragic end to Scott’s expedition was due largely to selecting the wrong MO. Scott chose to rely largely on motorised transport (which quickly broke down), or on horses (which were hard to feed and could not handle the appalling conditions). Amundsen chose to rely exclusively on dogs – incredibly tough and used to freezing conditions, and able to be fed from local sources (seal and penguin meat, or other dogs).

The business model is our equivalent here, and getting it right is mission critical just as it was for the explorers. If we are in professional services we must strike the right balance between geography and business unit. If we are retailers, we must know how to reconcile old and new channel strategies. If we are manufacturers, we must embrace competitive, cost-effective technologies but not be too far ahead of the curve.

Shoot the horses (and the dogs)

Both Scott and Amundsen showed no compunction in turning beasts of burden into food. Amundsen slaughtered large numbers of his dog team as soon as they were more useful as food than as mediums of transport. Similarly, Scott’s team systematically shot and ate their horses. Both leaders were also ruthless in their selection of individuals to make the final assault on their objective.

There is a vital business message here, although it is not fashionable. Business leaders must be quite dispassionate in ensuring that all resources are properly utilised. Accountability and performance are not discretionary. There is no room in a good business for passengers.

Dress for the occasion

The Antarctic explorers did not stroll on the ice in corduroys and tweed jackets. They were engaged in a dangerous activity where the uniform provided critical protection from the elements. It is strange that, in so many businesses we think it is acceptable to walk into a meeting in chinos and a check shirt. Don’t we understand, as the ice men did (and as military personnel do), that a degree of formality in dress is essential if we are to engage in dangerous missions? The business of business is, at heart, very serious. Our approach to it, including our dress and our language, needs to reflect the reality that we are on an expedition, not a day trip or a holiday.

Lead from the front

Whatever their limitations, the ice men were leaders in the most literal sense. All of them were prepared to take personal risks and share the burden of the mission in a hands-on way. None of them asked a team member to do anything that they would not personally be willing to do.

In business, especially in a large enterprise, this form of leadership needs to take on a more sophisticated expression but the principle of leading from the front is valid. It is, in a sense, leadership by warrior. There is nothing quite as motivating as a warrior-leader.

Christopher Tipler is a Melbourne-based management advisor and author of Corpus RIOS – The how and what of business strategy. His website corpusrios.com contains more material on this and related topics.

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