Choosing risks and winning aspirations ; the Race to the Pole

[An excerpt from the book “Risky Strategy” to be published in 2016]

We see an intriguing relationship between “winning” and “risk” in the race to the South Pole in 1910, between the English Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian Roald Admundsen.  For both explorers, winning was in part at least about being the first to reach the South Pole, one of the last unexplored areas on Earth.  For both, this undoubtedly involved a high level of personal risk, to themselves and their chosen teams. But this is where the similarities end.

Admundsen reached the Pole first, and returned to their ship with a team completely in tact. Scott by contrast arrived at the Pole weeks later;  he and his entire team failed to return alive.

What else was different?  Firstly, their specified goals were different. Admundsen had a single goal: to be the first to reach the South Pole.  It was probably the best example of a clearly defined and focused winning aspiration – easy to confirm or measure success.  Scott had two goals: to get to the Pole first, like Admundsen, and to gather scientific information about the Antarctic.  As a result of this, they each took different types of risks.

For Scott with his dual goals, in a situation where time was a critical factor,he delayed on his return trip to collect geological samples, which also added weight to his sledges.  Admundsen, on the other hand, took a different kind of risk, which was consistent with his winning goal. While Scott chose a route from McMurdo Sound, which had already been partly explored by Ernest Shackleton in 2007,  Admundsen chose an unchartered route, from the Bay of Whales, which was on the edge of the Great Ice Barrier, where explorers had feared that the ice could fracture and send you floating away.  But Admundsen chose this because it was 60 miles closer to the Pole. In addition, because Scott has assumed Admundsen would choose the same route as him, he assumed that he was ahead of him, as there were no signs of Admundsen’s tracks.  With this assumption, he had no compelling driver to go faster.

However, in this amazing story, even though the single-minded winning goal that Admundsen led to certain risks, he compensated for this by reducing risk in other ways. He had investigated the records of other explorers who had been in the area, and noted that the ice had remained unchanged for decades.  So this gave him more confidence in his choice of routes.

Admundsen had also researched the best type of transport to use extensively by spending time with the Inuit Eskimos in the Arctic.  He used dogs which were very well suited to the extreme conditions. Scott, on the other hand, for most of the journey used a combination of ponies, motor sledges and man-hauling. The motor sledges were untested and quickly broke down. The ponies although they could haul heavier loads than dogs were also ill suited – they had no natural vegetation to feed on, sweated through their hides which led heavy ice to form and caused them to sink more deeply into the snow – they all had to be put down.  This left man-hauling for most of the journey, recommended by Shackleton to be the best and most noble approach. But a noble but ill-conceived approach didn’t get the job done.

What this famous piece of history tells us about winning and risk, is that while a winning aspiration creates the need and appetite for risk, leaders need to be choiceful about which risks they take, which ones they work hard to avoid.