Nancy Koehn

Leadership Insights

Racing to Win: How Two Antarctic Adventurers Led Very Different Expeditions

By Nancy Koehn | Jan 7, 2014 | Comments (2)

As winter arrives and snow and ice accumulate in many parts of the country, it is somehow fitting that I am working on a book chapter about the early 20th-century polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Many readers of the Athenahealth Leadership Forum know the broad outlines of his story: how in early 1915 his ship became locked in pack ice less than 100 miles off the coast of Antarctica and eventually sank, leaving Shackleton and his 27 men stranded on floating ice, and how against overwhelming odds (and without text messages, smart phones or Google maps), he managed to bring the entire crew home alive almost two years later.

I have been teaching, speaking and writing about this story for almost ten years. Students and executives are fascinated by it, not only because it is a tale of great adventure and survival amid life threatening conditions, but also because Shackleton’s leadership during the 21 months that he and his men were stranded is rich with lessons for our own turbulent time.

I understood this well when I began drafting my book chapter about Shackleton six months ago. In the process, I rediscovered an earlier example of men trying to make history on the dangerous, seductive and, at the time, largely un-chartered continent of Antarctica.

Like the Shackleton story, the 1911-1912 race to discover the South Pole contains several critical insights for health care leaders today, such as the importance of preparation, caring for and nurturing your team, and understanding your competition in relation to your organization’s ultimate goals.

A Tale of Two Journeys to the South Pole

The rivalry unfolded between two explorers and their respective teams and nations: Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott of Britain. Each man hoped to be the first to reach the pole and return safely, thus claiming the honor for his country. It was a contest of nationalism, ego, speed, survival, and above all, leadership.

Under Amundsen’s command, the five-man Norwegian team succeeded brilliantly. Using dog sleds and skis, the men traveled the 700 miles from base camp to the Pole in 49 days, covering an average of about 14 miles a day over terrain that included climbing and crossing the 10,000-foot Transantarctic Mountains and avoiding hundreds of crevasses.

On December 14, 1911, they arrived at the southernmost point on earth, a destination that had eluded many explorers before them. The Norwegians proudly planted their country’s flag.

Despite having traveled in the chill of Antarctica’s summer when the thermometer hovered as low as -50 degrees (Fahrenheit), the men were energized — physically and mentally—a result of Amundsen’s meticulous logistical planning, disciplined energy management (of men and dogs), and his thoughtful leadership, day after day.

As they headed north to return to base camp, the Norwegians could rely on the route they had carefully staked out—using black flags and cairns built of snow—on their outbound journey. The five men and remaining dogs traveled efficiently (Under orders articulated by Amundsen and agreed to by his men at the outset of the expedition, more than half the dogs were shot along the way to the Pole. As hard as this was emotionally for the men, they recognized the culling was necessary not only to reduce the number of mouths to feed as the loads lightened and the distance to the Pole decreased, but also to provide fresh meat for the men and the dogs still pulling).

Amundsen and his companions rested at frequent intervals, traveling by night to avoid the snow blindness that besets men facing north in the Antarctic summer. They slept during the day, often spending up to 16 hours in their sleeping bags—on their leader’s orders—to ensure the men were rested physically and mentally. They also ate well, living off food and fuel that had been cached in the snow (and prominently marked with rows of black flags that stretched a mile across) when they had traveled south to the Pole. When the team grew closer to base camp, the pace accelerated, spurred on by the extra weight the men were able to shed by jettisoning unneeded food and fuel supplies.

How did two leaders, starting from roughly similar locations and times and racing for the same goal come to such radically different ends? Why did one group succeed so completely and the other fail so miserably?

On January 26, 1912, Amundsen and his four teammates arrived back at base camp. They were ten days ahead of schedule. They were in high spirits, and they were healthy and well nourished (Amundsen actually gained weight on the journey, a result of his decision to increase daily rations for men and dogs on the homeward leg). Measured against virtually any standard, the journey had been a tour de force.

Roland Huntford, author of several books on Antarctic explorers, including The Last Place on Earth, which reconstructs the 1911-12 race for the South Pole, called Amundsen’s expedition in that book, “his masterpiece, a culmination of the classical age of Polar exploration and perhaps, the greatest snow journey ever made.”

On The Other Hand …

By marked contrast, the British team, led by Scott, arrived at the Pole on January 17, 1912, more than a month after Amundsen’s expedition had laid claim to the place. Scott and his four companions had traveled roughly the same distance south as their rivals, with both teams setting out—two weeks apart—from different points on the northern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. But where the Norwegians had been healthy and focused when they arrived at the South Pole, Scott and his men were debilitated and dispirited after an exhausting journey.

Although the British team had left base camp with ponies to pull the sledging loads, the animals proved ill-suited to the terrain and had to be shot before the expedition reached the Transantarctic Mountains. From that point on, some 300 miles north of the Pole, the British party had man-hauled their sledges. It was backbreaking work with the men pulling an average of 200 pounds apiece, made more difficult by the absence of snowshoes and the party’s lack of systematic training in using skis. As one team member recorded in his diary, according to Huntford’s book: “I have never pulled so hard, or so nearly crushed my inside into my backbone by the everlasting jerking with all my strength on the canvas band round my unfortunate tummy.”

Scott and his men were inadequately clothed and most likely suffering the early symptoms of scurvy, a result of poor nutritional preparation. Most ominous, as they stood at the pole and surveyed the Norwegian flag—unmistakable evidence that their rivals had won the race—the British leader and his four companions were hungry. The British explorers were each burning up more calories per day hauling sledges than Scott had budgeted for in stocking rations. Adding to collective concern about their condition and the 700-mile return trip to base camp was the knowledge that Scott had laid only two food and fuel depots along the 210-mile expanse between the northern edge of the mountain range and 80 degrees latitude — by comparison, Amundsen had laid seven along this distance.

Finally, each member of the British team realized that although Scott had originally planned to make the final assault on the pole with three other men, he had decided at the last minute to include another. Five men, instead of four, had thus made the push toward the pole; five men now had to get back safely (on foot) to base camp. But since Scott’s team had planned, carried, and cached rations for four men, the caloric arithmetic did not add up.

(Scott’s group took this photograph of themselves using a string to operate the shutter on 17 January 1912, the day after they discovered Amundsen had reached the pole first.)

Scott undoubtedly knew this as he wrote in his journal at the South Pole: “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority…Now for the run home, and a desperate struggle to get the news through first. I wonder if we can do it.”

During the first three weeks of the return journey, heading north with the polar wind behind them, the British team averaged a brisk 14 miles a day as they hauled one sledge. But it soon became apparent that the men were marching for their lives. Scott had cut his food rations too fine, supplies ran low and the team consistently had to drive themselves hard to reach the next depot, frequently struggling to find the caches they had laid on the outward journey but had not adequately marked.

Many days they marched 12 hours or more.

Scott did not think to switch to traveling at night in order to have the sun behind him and avoid snowblindness, so the British explorers found the visibility poor and often strained to find the tracks they had originally made heading south. Exhausted and depleted, all five men seemed to have suffered the cold more intently than the Norwegians, who were well fed, rested and clothed (in garments Amundsen had tested, adjusted and retested before setting out from base camp).

By early February, all five British explorers, dehydrated and in two cases, injured, were slowly starving. On February 17, one of the five, Edgar Evans, died in his sleep, a victim of frostbite, intermittent paralysis and hunger. The remaining four men toiled on, struggling to reach the depots as travel slowed to six to seven miles a day.

At the depots, they discovered that the paraffin they had stored there for fuel to heat food and melt snow into drinking water had leaked out in cold temperatures (Amundsen had prepared for this well-known contingency, termed “paraffin creep,” by storing the fuel in hermetically sealed tins. Fifty years later one of his tins was found at 85 degrees latitude, its contents still intact).

In mid-March, another member of the British party, Titus Oates, succumbed to gangrene, starvation and temperatures that hovered between -22 degrees and -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Unable to walk any distance and knowing that his companions were too weak to pull him on the sledge, Oates climbed out of the tent and into the whirling snow. He was not seen again.

By March 21, Scott and his two remaining companions had hauled their sledge to within 11 miles—a bit more than a day’s march—from the next depot, which was located between 80 and 79 degrees latitude south. Weak, ill, and starving, they were about 130 miles south of base camp. A blizzard struck.

Hemmed in by the storm, the three men lay down to die in the tent. Their bodies, diaries and last letters were found seven months later. In Scott’s letter to the public, he blamed the weather, the terrain, Oates’s sickening, and fuel shortages at the depots for the failure of the mission.

Exploring Comparative Outcomes

How did two leaders and their teams, starting from roughly similar locations and times and racing for the same goal over similarly unchartered terrain come to such radically different—and in Scott’s case, terrible—ends? Why did one group succeed so completely and the other fail so miserably?

In part two of this series we explore those very questions and the startling and powerful comparative leadership lessons to be learned from the triumphs of Amundsen and the failures of Scott.

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration.

Share this:

Tags: , ,


  • Ellen Harrington-Kane from EasterSeals wrote:

    Since attending the leadership conference in Boston last summer, I have developed a near obsession with this topic and ordered the book, then the DVD’s of The Last Place on Earth. I felt that learning more about these two other teams rounded out the story of Shackleton and provided additional examples of leadership in action–from nearly opposite ends of the continuum. Seeing these two expeditions that were nearly simultaneous really drove home some of those important lessons. Thank you for introducing me to this topic and I look forward to part two.

  • Dana Carter from @DanaCarter wrote:

    An exciting read and rewarding example of two thoughts of leadership. But I cant resist the reflection comparing today’s example of corporate leadership.

Post A Comment

We encourage your comments and questions here and hope to spur a lively dialogue around issues and ideas of shared concern. We will make every effort to respond to direct questions in as timely a fashion as possible. We do, however, reserve the right not to post any comments that use inappropriate language or are otherwise counter in tone or substance to the spirit and purpose of this blog.


from athenahealth