For Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen, 1911 was a year to remember. Having set out with a team of five, Amundsen accomplished the impossible, becoming the first person to successfully travel to the South Pole.
What made Amundsen’s accomplishment even more remarkable was that he was literally racing another team – led by accomplished polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott – across the frozen continent.
Despite being similar in almost every way, Scott’s journey ended in complete disaster.
Not only did Scott and his men fail to arrive at the Pole first – Amundsen had planted the flag of his Norwegian king long before Scott arrived – they died a bitter, frozen death just ten miles away from their supply depot months after Amundsen’s team had returned safely to their homes half a world away.
Although Scott’s journals portray a man convinced that Mother Nature was out to get him, success for Amundsen and failure for Scott, argues Jim Collins and Morten Hansen in Great by Choice (2011), had nothing to do with luck or chance.
Both leaders were experienced and well-financed polar explorers who literally left their respective base camps within days of each other in October of 1911.
Both faced difficult – and at times horrific – weather conditions. Both overcame seemingly impossible physical obstacles and both had their initial plans blindsided by unexpected circumstances.
Instead, success in the quest to conquer the South Pole had everything to do with Amundsen’s planning and preparation – for both his historic journey AND for his career as an explorer.
Knowing that exploration of polar regions would require almost unheard of levels of determination and perseverance, he biked from Norway to Spain – a distance of almost 2,000 miles – to harden himself.
Knowing that understanding the inhospitable conditions of Artic regions depended on more than professional hunches, he apprenticed with Eskimos and learned lessons about living in a land of ice that had been perfected and passed down from generation to generation.
Knowing that survival could sometimes require finding unusual food sources in remote locations, he practiced eating raw dolphin.
On the actual 1911 expedition, Amundsen brought along three tons of supplies for five men. He placed black flags at precise intervals for miles along both sides of every supply depot to ensure than they could be easily found – even by teams that had wandered badly off course.
Heck, y’all : He brought FOUR thermometers on the trip.
Perhaps the best example, however, of Amundsen’s commitment to planning was his refusal – despite near perfect weather conditions – to make one final 45-mile sprint to the South Pole on December 12, 1911.
To do so would almost certainly give him a better chance of beating Scott to the final destination that both were pursuing.
But to do so would also break a pattern that he had set for his team when they had set out three months earlier: Moving no more than 15-20 miles in any given day.
For Amundsen, 15-20 miles was an unwavering target.
Moving more than 15-20 miles in a day – no matter how suitable the weather – would leave his men and his animals overextended and unable to overcome unexpected events in subsequent days.
Similarly, moving less than 15-20 miles in a day would expose his expedition to the inhospitable climate for too long.
To put it simply, Amundsen refused to let conditions dictate his actions.
Conditions, on the other hand, were Scott’s puppet-master.
When the weather was perfect, he would drive his men forward in a blind sprint. When the weather was awful – or when his men needed time to recover from their self-imposed exhaustion – he’d spend days cowering in his tent.
The result these two distinct approaches to polar progress is entirely predictable: Amundsen and his slow-but-steady pioneers arrived at the South Pole a full 34 DAYS ahead of Scott’s weary and exhausted – and soon to perish – team.
Amundsen, according to Collins and Hansen, succeeded because of an absolute commitment to discipline, a term they define in this way:
“Discipline, in essence, is consistency of action – consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time.
Discipline is not the same as regimentation. Discipline is not the same as measurement. Discipline is not the same as hierarchical obedience or adherence to bureaucratic rules.
True discipline requires the independence of mind to reject pressures to conform in ways incompatible with values, performance standards, and long-term aspirations.”
(Kindle Location 357-363)
There are real lessons in Amundsen’s success for the leaders of complex organizations like professional learning communities.
Here are three highlighted by Collins and Hansen in Great by Choice:
Consistency of action depends on setting realistic goals.
Organizational discipline, argue Collins and Hansen, is dependent on building organizational confidence in employees – and organizational confidence is a result of consistently meeting growth targets.
Over the course of their months in Antarctica, Amundsen’s men grew to believe in their own abilities to succeed regardless of what each new day might bring because “success” was defined as 15-20 miles of progress – a goal that they met time and again regardless of what Mother Nature decided to throw at them.
Scott’s men, on the other hand, quickly came to believe that there was little that THEY could do to control their own circumstances. Good days and bad days were the result of the weather instead of their own efforts.
The responsibility of leaders, then, is to understand circumstances well enough to set growth targets that are simultaneously challenging and attainable.
Stretch your organization too far and you are left with a discouraged and exhausted workforce. Fail to stretch your organization enough and you’ll never make progress.
Consistency of action depends on making forward progress every single day.
Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of his men and believing in the goals that he had set for his expedition, Amundsen often walked straight through conditions that Scott considered impossible.
In fact, Amundsen’s expedition woke up to gale force winds 15 different times on their journey to the pole. They traveled on 8 of those days.
Scott’s team, on the other hand, faced gale force winds six times during their trek and never even thought about moving forward.
Look closely at each man’s journal during one December blizzard and Amundsen’s propensity to act becomes clear.
“I doubt if any party could travel in such weather,” wrote Scott (Scott as cited in Collins & Hansen, 2011, Kindle Location 1030).
“It has been an unpleasant day,” wrote Amundsen, “storm, drift and frostbite, but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal” (Amundsen as cited in Collins & Hansen, 2011, Kindle Location 1035).
Once they’ve set realistic organizational goals, the most successful leaders are unwavering in their commitment to making measurable forward progress every single day.
Consistency of action depends on a willingness to push back against outside forces.
Despite being an incredibly successful explorer, Amundsen was at his core a conservative guy who refused to embrace popular changes without sufficient evidence.
Scott, on the other hand, was blinded by “progress,” resulting in his decision to embrace a promising new technology – the motor sledge.
An early version of the snowmobile, the motor sledge SHOULD have given Scott’s team a huge advantage over Amundsen’s expedition, which was relying on more traditional dog sleds for transportation.
Unfortunately for Scott, the motor sledges – which hadn’t been previously tested in the South Pole – failed within the first few days of the expedition, leaving his men to “man haul” gear hundreds of miles through miserable conditions.
While Amundsen’s initial decision to ignore the motor sledge may have left him outside of the mainstream view of the direction that polar exploration was heading, he refused to conform to common expectations until he was convinced that those expectations were right for his team.
That’s an important lesson for organizational leaders: In a world of almost constant change, it’s difficult NOT to conform, isn’t it?
While it may be difficult to push back against outside expectations, however, resistance to the unsubstantiated whims that can leave an organization distracted is a defining trait of the most successful leaders.
Sure, Scott’s decision to head to the South Pole with motor sledges was sexy. But survival in harsh circumstances depends on something more than sexy.
It depends on consistency.
Is any of this making sense?
More importantly, how does your school measure up against Amundsen in terms of organizational discipline?
Are you setting realistic goals? Are you insisting on making measurable forward progress every single day? Are you resisting the inevitable distractions that bring down organizations every single day?
If not, are you prepared to be buried by circumstances?
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