Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Lessons in Leadership: The Race for the South Pole


I have always been fascinated by the polar explorers, boldly going where no one had gone before (much like startups).  After the North Pole was conquered by American Admiral Robert Peary in 1909, that left only one pole yet to conquer: the South Pole.  After a bold attempt, but failed effort, by Britain's Ernest Shackleton in 1909, the conquering of the South Pole ended up a thrilling footrace between Britain's Robert Falcon Scott and Norway's Roald Amundsen in 1910 and 1911.  But, the two explorers couldn't have been more different in their styles, approach and outcome.

Let's start with Scott, the British Navy Admiral, leading a British sponsored expedition under the primary mandate of scientific research and exploration (the only way the expedition could get government funding).  Although attainment of the South Pole was a goal, it was not the only priority of the expedition.  Scott was a military man with sailing experience in the polar region, but wasn't natively a polar land explorer.  So, using the best judgment of the British Navy, they decided to use mechanical sledges and horses, to carry the expedition to the pole.  Especially, since they would be needed to carry the heavy scientific equipment needed for the research portion of the expedition.  This expedition was highly publicized and the world was watching.

On the other hand was Amundsen, a proven polar explorer in Greenland, the Northwest Passage, Antarctica and elsewhere, who had fine tuned his polar survival and travel skills.  He knew the importance of sled dogs for speed and the native clothing and equipment best suited for hostile weather and environmental conditions.  And, more importantly, he was a man born to explore from his early years.  He wanted his legacy to be known as one of the world's greatest explorers.  If he couldn't have the North Pole, he'd better get the South Pole, and fast, to forever cement his legacy.  And, he certainly knew the element of surprise, basically hijacking a ship and crew heading for the North Pole on a scientific expedition, and redirecting it to the South Pole with the sole objective of getting to the pole before Scott and the British Expedition.  You can imagine Scott's surprise when he got a telegram from Amundson announcing that they were both wintering on Antarctica at the same time, and in essence, the race for the South Pole was on!!

Long story short, Amundsen won the race to the South Pole, beating Scott by four weeks, despite starting the expedition many weeks after Scott (so he made up 7-8 weeks in total).  You can imagine Scott's disappointment seeing the Norwegian flag planted at the pole upon his arrival.  And, to make matters worse, Scott and his crew, who had suffered so much in getting to the pole due to poor planning and equipment (forcing them to man-haul their way to the pole when the horses and sledges gave out), died a few weeks later on their return trip, largely due to starvation and not being able to find their food supply depot in storm conditions (a short 11 miles away).  Amundsen returned to Norway as a national hero (but was largely forgotten over the years), and Scott ended up frozen in the Antarctica ice (but, is forever remembered as one of Britain's beloved failures).

For a good read on this race for the South Pole and the different styles and personalities of Amundsen and Scott, check out Roland Huntford's, The Last Place on Earth, which does a great job of documenting the story.

There are plenty of key lessons here which may apply for your startup businesses: (i) you can't build more than one business at a time, you need a clear focus on one goal (Amundsen was solely focused on the South Pole, was wasn't bogged down with scientific research); (ii) you need to have the right assets and experienced team to get the job done (Amundsen won because he knew what to expect, and brought the right team, dogs and equipment for the conditions); (iii) the element of surprise is a huge advantage in acheiving your goals (keep your cards close to your chest until you have no choice but letting your competitors learn of your plans); (iv) know your own limitations of what is really possible or not (Scott man-hauling heavy gear over hundreds of miles in hostile conditions contributed to his demise); (v) it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game (Scott is equally memorialized in lessons from failure, as Amundsen was in lessons from success); (vi) make sure you take cash from investors that share your vision (as Scott taking government funding slowed down his expedition with scientific research, and contributed to his failure); and (vii) the devil is in the details, with planning of utmost importance (if Scott had better marked his trails to the supply depot and increased his food supplies on hand in case of unexpected weather, he could have survived).  This last point sure sounds like a startup not having enough cash reserves on hand for a rainy day.

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