High Performance Teams #2 – Roald Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

I was given Roland Huntford’s “Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen” as a Christmas present. I’d previously read Huntford’s controversial “Scott and Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth” and was curious as to what else I’d learn. Huntford caused ructions within the British Establishment, along with the admirable master explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes when he dashed the myth and heroism of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and portrayed him as an incompetent, hubristic and completely unworthy adversary of the victorious Norwegian, Roald Amundsen. The attempt to resurrect Scott’s reputation led to the ignorance of actual fact, and the compilation of the actual and unedited diaries was Huntford’s final attempt to set the record straight.

Both men were ships’ captains with Scott being a captain in the Royal Navy and though both were of the same generation they did not hold a similar outlook. Scott, according to Huntford, “was burdened with heroic ideals; Amundsen simply wanted to attain the Pole. Scott followed the Romantic tradition of heroism as suffering; Amundsen came from a culture which saw to virtue in unnecessary risk to life and limb. Amundsen, like most Scandinavians, had an affinity with Nature, and a proper humility before her powers, so that he was suited to his task. Scott came from a society divorced from Nature and which thought it knew best, disqualifying him from the land he had chosen to invade.”

Amundsen’s success was no accident and a study of his apprenticeship as a seaman and arctic wayfarer leaves no doubt as

Robert Falcon Scott
Robert Falcon Scott

to why he succeeded and survived the trip to the South Pole while Scott perished. From the beginning Amundsen had an inquiring mind and valued actual experience and the proper cultivation of skill and expertise. During an extended stay at Antarctica on the Belgica under Adrian de Gerlach Amundsen experienced the dangers of polar travel first hand. The Belgica froze in an ice drift and the crew were marooned for nine months. They lived with the knowledge that the ship could be crushed at any time by the moving ice, and all suffered from scurvy. During this episode Amundsen observed and recorded what was happening, down to the details of his own swollen gums from scurvy. His learning proved to be the foundation on how he would approach his own polar expeditions.

Amundsen lived with the Eskimos and observed how they lived in arctic conditions. He found their fur coats to be more suitable to polar travel and survival than the more modern synthetic coats in fashion. He also discovered that their dogs made for more appropriate creatures for polar adventure than horses or ponies. The eskimo diet of fresh meat was the best approach to avoiding scurvy along with pemmican.

Roland Huntford
Roland Huntford

The Norwegian’s approach displays what psychologist Carol Dweck would term a “Growth Mind-set.” Over a number of decades her research has led her to the following conclusion: “It’s not our abilities and talent that bring us success, but whether we approach our goals with a fixed or growth mind-set.” People with a fixed mind-set believe that “either you have it or you don’t.” In this mind-set having to work hard is a sign of weakness. Their goal is to prove that they’re smart and not to lose face, which leads to an unwillingness to experiment and take risks.

Captain Scott’s mind-set was undoubtedly a fixed one, and the following passage from “Race to the South Pole” is very revealing: “Scott wanted to be the first man at the South Pole but, following the precept that ‘gentlemen don’t practice’, he had done nothing since Discovery to learn more about snow travel.” Amundsen settled on a combination of dogs pulling sledges along with his men skiing alongside. Scott viewed the use of dogs as primitive and decided to use unproven motor sledges along with ponies.

People with a growth mind-set hold the view that ability is malleable, and that real success comes from working hard and experimenting. If they hit a bump in the road they are not discouraged but view it as a learning experience and move on. It’s similar to building physical strength. If you want to get stronger you have to pump iron, whereas those with a fixed mind-set view it more in terms of height. If you want to get taller, well you’re out of luck. Amundsen left absolutely nothing to chance in his preparation for the trip to the South Pole whereas Huntford describes Scott as “learning on the job with a vengeance.”

Amundsen was painstaking in his approach to selecting his team. He wanted skilled experts who knew exactly what their role would be. They would also need to be psychologically strong, used to working in extreme conditions, driven and able to display initiative. According to Huntford, Amundsen “wanted ‘experienced people’ who were ‘adapted to working outside in cold weather to the highest degree’.” Amundsen felt that his own skiing skills weren’t what they could have been and he therefore hired champion skier Olav Bjaaland. Bjaaland was also an expert carpenter, and his input proved important when it came to paring back the weight of the sledges.

Olav Bjaaland

There didn’t seem to be any real rationale for Scott’s team selection beyond his preference for naval men. In fact one of Scott’s associates described the group as being “shoved together at random.”

Both men had a differing approach to managing team members with Amundsen “striving to avoid the appearance of interfering with the men’s activities, preferring that each team member felt trusted and autonomous,” whereas Scott “had a mania for conspicuous activity and treated its absence as insubordination.”

Amundsen’s original goal had been to lead the first expedition to the arctic, but the news in September 1909 that Frederick Cook and Robert Peary were both claiming to have been the first to successfully lead rival expeditions to the North Pole scuppered his dream. He quickly changed his plans and focus to conquering Antarctica. Informing only his brother and the expedition ship Fram’s officers, Amundsen kept his entire team, along with his sponsors and the Norwegian government, in the dark up until the point of no return off the coast of Portugal. Amundsen displayed the necessary leadership qualities of risk-taking, decisiveness and being able to operate stealthily. When informed of his altered plans and the reasons for the changes the ship’s crew voted unanimously to follow Amundsen on his quest to the South Pole.

His account of his trip south across an uncharted path is largely without surprises though one wonders at his

Amundsen at the South Pole
Amundsen at the South Pole

luck in successfully navigating the previously unknown and perilous Devil’s Glacier. His preparation and ability to carry out his plans were such that it’s hard to quibble when Huntford proclaims that “once more Amundsen proved that he had the moral and material reserves to deal with the unexpected.” Scott’s account is noteworthy for the litany of cock ups and the harrowing and desperately sad account of the team’s final days.

Amundsen’s team’s successful trip to the South Pole is an illustration not just of a High Performing team executing a brilliantly conceived strategy but also an exemplar of High Performance leadership at its finest.




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