In October 1911, two teams of adventurers made their final preparations in their quest to be the first people in modern history to reach the South Pole.

For one team, it would be a race to victory and a safe return home. For the second team, it would be a devastating defeat, reaching the Pole only to find the wind-whipped flags of their rivals planted 34 days earlier, followed by a race for their lives, a race that they lost in the end, as the advancing winter swallowed them up.

All five members of the second Pole team perished, staggering from exhaustion, suffering the dead-black pain of frostbite, and then freezing to death as some wrote their final journal entries and notes to loved ones back home.

It is a near-perfect matched pair.

Here we have two expedition leaders, Roald Amundsen, the winner, and Robert Falcon Scott, the loser, of similar ages [39 and 43] and with comparable experience.

Amundsen and Scott started their respective journeys for the Pole within days of each other, both facing a roundtrip of more than 1,400 miles into an uncertain and unforgiving environment, where temperatures could easily reach 20˚ below zero even during the summer, made worse by gale-force winds.

And keep in mind, this was 1911. They had no means of modern communication to call back to base camp, no radio, no cellphones, no satellite links, and a rescue would have been highly improbable at the South Pole if they screwed up.

Here we have two leaders, both on quests for extreme achievement in an extreme environment.

One leader led his team to victory and safety. The other led his team to defeat and death.

What separated these two men?

Why did one achieve spectacular success in such an extreme set of conditions, while the other failed even to survive?

Amundsen and Scott achieved dramatically different outcomes not because they faced dramatically different circumstances.

In the first 34 days of their respective expeditions, according to Roland Huntford in his superb book The Last Place on Earth, Amundsen and Scott had exactly the same ratio, 56%, of good days to bad days of weather.

If they faced the same environment in the same year with the same goal, the causes of their respective success and failure simply cannot be the environment.

They had different outcomes mainly because they displayed very different behaviors.

Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott had contrasting approaches in their race to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Scott hoped for the best-case scenario. He had one thermometer and one ton of food for 17 men for the trip.

He also stashed supplies for the return journey in one spot marked by a single flag [easily missed if they went off course].

Amundsen, on the other hand, prepared for every scenario with multiple thermometers, three tons of food and planted 20 markers around their return supplies.

Roald Amundsen exemplified extreme preparation and read obsessively for his journey whereas Robert Falcon Scott did the bare minimum.

While Amundsen’s team made history, Robert Scott’s team tragically died due to fatigue, hunger and frostbite.

In their analysis of great businesses and leaders, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, in their book Great by Choice, found that the ones that executed most successfully did not have any better ability to predict the future than their less successful counterparts. Instead, they were the ones who acknowledged they could not predict the unexpected and therefore prepared better.

As simple as this sounds, perhaps it is worth asking ourselves before our next meeting, did we do the reading?


Outstanding leaders embrace a paradox of control and non-control. On the one hand, they understand that they face continuous uncertainty and that they cannot control, and cannot accurately predict, significant aspects of the world around them. On the other hand, they reject the idea that forces outside their control or chance events will determine their results; they accept full responsibility for their own fate.


Source and thanks to: Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, recently reviewed by Lora Book Club members.

One thought on “Extreme preparation – The race to the South Pole

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s