Leadership Skills or Behavior? The True Lessons From the Race to the South Pole


In Kishore Sengupta and Ludo Van der Heyden’s HBR blog article “Leadership Lessons of the Race to the South Pole,” they recap the conquest of the South Pole exactly 100 years ago and explore the leadership lessons learned from the famous race between two great explorers, Norway’s Roald Amundsen and Britain’s Robert Scott.

Sengupta and Van der Heyden explain the key “differences between Amundsen’s and Scott’s strategy and leadership” and how these leadership style differences affected the outcome of the race, where Amundsen reaches the pole first.

Ultimately, I think Sengupta and Van der Heyden’s conclusions are a stretch, but first I’ll bring you up to speed on the story as Sengupta and Van der Heyden explain it.  Let’s begin by looking at the leadership styles of both explorers.

Amundsen’s leadership style focused on preparation.  He determined that “when conditions are not right, it is better to turn back rather than rely on hope and luck.”  On the other hand, Scott remained confident despite his lack of experience in the polar artic area and chose not to rely on the expertise of others.

Based on the advice of polar explorer Fritjof Nansen, Amundsen chose dogs for sledges, while Scott did not.  Amundsen decided to use skis for speed while Scott did not; instead, Scott selected ponies and motorized sledges, neither of which had been tested in polar conditions.

Sengupta and Van der Heyden tie the race results to Amundsen and Scott’s leadership styles.  In particular, Scott’s personality and leadership style was shaped by his military background and played a major role in Scott’s failure to reach the pole before Amundsen.  They further assert that Scott was “inclined to press ahead with a mission rather than change or even abandon it, as if perseverance and courage alone could make the difference between success and failure.  Like all military men he was competitive.  Since he was engaged in a race, he pressed on, despite worsening weather conditions.”

Sengupta and Van der Heyden ultimately make a bold conclusion in the last paragraph of the article: “When people face uncertainty, experience, the ability to learn from it, obsessive planning, and a willingness to alter course will trump determination and courage every time. It is Britain’s tragedy that this lesson was ignored in three years later in the Great War of 1914-18.  A generation of brave young men were sent uselessly and unquestioningly to their deaths in the execution of plans drawn up by stubborn old men schooled in a very different kind of war.”

While the premise of the article is interesting tying leadership styles to the results of the Great Race to the South Pole, I believe the authors are misguided in their attempts to minimize the qualities of determination and courage.

Both history and business are filled with examples of leaders who acted quickly in situations that demanded sharp focus, single-minded purpose and the ability to proceed despite the odds.  Of course, in the example that the authors cite here, Scott failed to exercise good judgment because his “determination and courage” were driven by glory-bound ego and not the sense to balance his instincts with the proper planning and wisdom to make wise decisions.

My colleagues and I have had the great opportunity to teach and coach leadership development and strategic leadership skills across the globe, and we encourage our participants to consider what we call The Leadership Platform.

The Leadership Platform is comprised of Character, Commitment, Competency and Collaboration – a true balance of leadership skills and behaviors.  Amundsen chose to employ this balance.  Certainly it would be hard to argue that just because he was an obsessive planner that he lacked determination and courage.  Scott, on the other hand, ignored the balance, and he and his party suffered the grim consequences.

The Greatness of Leadership is found in that balance … not in setting apart legitimate leadership behaviors, such as courage, as the folly of “stubborn old men.”



About Jack Dempsey

Jack Dempsey, CEO, heads Pretium Solutions’ Customer Experience & Sales Area focusing on Customer Loyalty, Brand Loyalty and Customer Retention Strategies. He directs Pretium’s revolutionary customer loyalty program, the Golden Touchpoint™. Pretium Solutions is a premier provider of cutting-edge, sustainable and globally-recognized customer experience management solutions and customer service, call center and sales training, consulting and leadership programs. Pretium shows companies how to create, build and maintain customer loyalty, the most important measure of a company’s success with its customers and the most profitable customer service outcome.

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