The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound.

Most of our learning about leadership comes from personal experience, from the experiences of others, from texts and professional materials, and from presentations and training. The content of these sources is specifically about leadership. This is what I call direct learning.

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

Capt. Robert F. Scott, R.N. (left), leader of the British expedition, and Capt. Roald Amundsen (right), leader of the Norwegian expedition.

But there are other ways to learn about leadership — ways I call indirect. One slightly surprising source of lessons about leadership is film. Many films aren't directly about leadership and yet, indirectly, they have much to teach us. One of these is The Last Place on Earth.

I mention The Last Place on Earth because it's the story of the race to the South Pole, which occurred in the Antarctic summer of 1911-1912. The film is based on the book of the same title, by Roland Huntford. I recommend both.

In this program, we use the history of this event to explore important lessons about leadership in modern organizations. From this story we can learn lessons about planning, scope creep, risk management, improvisation, discipline, organizational politics, team dynamics, technology management, and the importance of simplicity.

Attendees learn valuable lessons from history that they can immediately apply in leadership roles at work. The drama of the story of Amundsen and Scott makes these lessons more intriguing, easier to learn, and much, much more memorable.

Program structure and content

Each of the lessons we examine is illustrated with background and stories from one or both of the two expeditions. The stories are memorable, and told with an emphasis on their value to leaders, project managers, sponsors, managers, business analysts, and executives in project-oriented organizations. This program is available as a keynote, workshop, seminar, breakout, or clinic.

This program is most suitable for keynote presentations and conference general sessions, or for large groups. Heavily illustrated with maps and original photographs, the stories bring the events of 1908 through 1912 — just over 100 years ago — to life. It is especially suitable for audiences that desire some relief from the sometimes-dry style of presentations that address similar subject matter. Audience interaction and table discussions about accompanying prepared discussion questions bring the lessons of the Race to the Pole into focus in the context of modern organizations.

Learning objectives

This program conveys lessons about leadership that are especially valuable for high-risk endeavors. Some examples:

The quality and effectiveness of leadership matter most when troubles loom. And when leadership fails, not much else can succeed. We examine possible sources of trouble in the areas below. For the shorter formats, coverage of the outline below is selective.

  • Planning: Planning is the foundation of it all. Replanning is a dangerous fiction, because planning is never really finished.
  • Scope creep: Maintaining focus requires constant vigilance. A single lapse can doom the entire effort.
  • Risk management: Think of everything that can go wrong, and prepare for it. Then, you will still have missed something important.
  • Improvisation: Improvisation is a useful skill, but relying on it as an alternative to planning is foolhardy.
  • Discipline: Self-discipline and self-control are as important to the team as they are to the individual.
  • Organizational politics: The organization at large always imposes tight constraints. Sometimes, they must be circumvented.
  • Team dynamics: Multiple overlapping skill sets is a key to harmony.
  • Technology management: The most reliable path to success is doing something new with familiar technology. The least reliable: doing something new with unfamiliar technology.
  • Simplicity: Venturing into the unknown with a complicated plan is a high-risk endeavor. Simplicity rules.

Learning model

We usually think of leadership skills as rather technical — free of emotional content. We hold this belief even though we know that our most difficult situations can be highly charged. Despite our most sincere beliefs, elevating the performance of an organization does require learning to apply leadership skills even in situations of high emotional content. That's why this program uses a learning model that differs from the one often used for technical content.

Our learning model is partly experiential, which makes the material accessible even during moments of stress. Using a mix of presentation, simulation, group discussion, and metaphorical team problems, we make available to participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations.

Target audience

Project managers, program managers, managers, executives, business analysts, leaders, and project team members. Participants at all levels of experience can benefit.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

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