What It Takes to Win: Extreme Lessons from Polar Explorers

03 Jan. 2012 | Comments (0)

One hundred years ago, the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen and his team planted the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, becoming the first humans in history to reach it. They had won against the British team, led by Robert Falcon Scott, who would arrive 34 days later, only to stare in defeat at the flag waving in the wind. On the return journey, Scott and his men labored on, frost-bitten, hungry, and exhausted. As the brutal winter closed in, they could no longer keep up, and they died in their tent, only 11 miles from the next depot of food and shelter.

In an earlier post, Kishore Sengupta and Ludo Van der Heyden were able to discern some leadership lessons from the race — that you need more than determination and courage to get you ahead. There's even more we can learn here. Why did Amundsen win and Scott lose? When Jim Collins and I studied who won big in highly uncertain industries, we found that those leaders — including Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Herb Kelleher — had much in common with Amundsen, while their peers shared traits with Scott (see our book Great by Choice).

Choose unity before competence. Unlike Scott, Amundsen had gone to extraordinary length to pick the best people, those with the highest competence (e.g., a champion skier, a world-class dogsled driver). The best business leaders also understood the importance of that single task. In 1992, for example, Bill Gates said, "take our 20 best people away and I tell you that Microsoft would become an unimportant company."

But even more importantly, Amundsen emphasized unity and teamwork over individual competence. He got rid of his best person, Johansen, and booted him from the final assault team because he had quarreled with Amundsen openly in front of all the others. Amundsen could not risk fracture in his team, which could jeopardize the whole enterprise. Likewise, Bill Gates was quick to manage out people who didn't fit, including two presidents, James Towne and Michael Hallman.

This principle may seem harsh; for sure, Amundsen was not nice, warm, and fuzzy. However, he didn't take the easy path ("let's hope it will work out") but made difficult choices ahead of time. In selecting people, it is not about being nice, but rigorous.

Channel paranoia. Amundsen planned for everything going wrong, while Scott relied on everything going right. Unlike Scott, Amundsen built buffers and safety margins wherever he could. For a primary supply depot, he placed 20 black pennants around it so that they would not miss the depot on the return journey (in which case they would die). Scott, in contrast, put a single flag on his primary depot.

Like Amundsen, the best business leaders had productive paranoia, being hyper-vigilant about potentially bad events that can hit your company and then turning that fear into preparation and clearheaded action. Andy Grove of Intel went around "looking for the black cloud in the silver lining." He even titled his book Only the Paranoid Survive. Leaders need to draw up a list of all the bad things that can happen, build cash reserves, hedge, and acquire options, to prepare for the worst. This requires fanatic discipline.

Cultivate a growth mindset. Amundsen spent his entire life learning things for polar exploration. During one trip he experimented with eating raw dolphin meat, just to see if it could be useful if shipwrecked. He went and lived with the Eskimos to learn how to run dog sledges in harsh conditions. In a twist of history, he learned from Scott's previous Discovery expedition the importance of marking the depots; during that expedition, Scott and Shackleton almost died because they could not find the depot on the return. But Scott did not learn that lesson himself.

Psychologist Carol Dweck advocates the importance of a growth mindset, having the attitude that ability comes from hard work and learning and not some innate fixed skill and intelligence. This sums up the pair perfectly: While Amundsen continuously pushed to learn and learn, Scott seemed a prisoner of his own fixed mind and British norms of the day.

The leaders we studied in Great by Choice had the learning mindset, too; they continuously experimented with new ideas, using data and observations to learn new things. In our HBR article on collaborative leadership, Herminia Ibarra and I argue that leaders need to instill the growth mindset and learning goals in their company to spur innovation.

Not all time in life is equal. People often get stuck in routine work and fail to see disruptions and big changes. It turns out that Amundsen's entire expedition was aimed at the North Pole. Yes, the North. But as he was planning, he received crushing news: The North had fallen to Cook and Peary. A big change indeed. Amundsen, in secret, decided to go south. Only when the ship was at the port of Madeira, Portugal, did he tell his crew.

Like the best business leaders we studied, Amundsen "zoomed out" (what's the new situation?), then "zoomed in" (redirect to the South). When a big change or opportunity came along, they took a step back, assessed the new situation, asked whether it called for a change, and if it did, then made the change and zoomed in to execute brilliantly.

In 1980, IBM managers visited a company called Digital Research to use its CP/M operating system for the new personal computer. But that meeting didn't go well, and the IBMers turned to Microsoft in frustration, but Microsoft was not in that business. In that moment, Bill Gates zoomed out, recognized the opportunity, then zoomed in to deliver an operating system — which became Windows. Great leaders zoom out, then zoom in to confront disruption and change.

Amundsen conquered the South Pole and lived. Scott lost the race and died. Are you — and the leaders around you — an Amundsen or a Scott?

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 12/14/2011.

  • About the Author: Morten Hansen

    Morten Hansen Morten T. Hansen is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and at INSEAD, France. He is the author of Collaboration and coauthor of Great by Choice (with Jim Collins). Follow Morten on…

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