Legends of leadership and management – Roald Amundsen (1872 – 1928)


He was an explorer with a dream of reaching the ends of the earth. He achieved it through sound management techniques in an era/area where information was still at a discovery stage. He is credited with being the first to reach both the North and the South Poles. His South Pole conquest stands out because he was up against the well-advertised and well-resourced British Antarctic Expedition from Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Through brilliant foresight and sound management, he reached his destination 34 days ahead of Scott and returned safely to tell the story.

For that outstanding achievement, Roald Amundsen makes it to the list of legends of leadership and management.

The goal and the focus: Very early in his career as an explorer, Amundsen was focused on reaching the Poles. From intense study of logs of previous expeditions to living with the Netsilik Eskimos and acclimatizing with their way of living, Amundsen ensured he understood and was well prepared for, the challenge.

Keeping the door to learning open: One of the key elements of Amundsen’s successful South Pole conquest was his time spent with the Netsilik Eskimos towards learning their diet, their clothing and their survival skills. As a result of the Netsilik lessons learned, Amundsen’s party reached the Pole with relative ease and actually gained weight on average when they returned to the base camp.

Another learning of survival skills happened when Amundsen and his crew mates got ice-locked during an Antarctic expedition in 1898 and had to endure the Antarctic winter. The expedition doctor Frederick Cook saved the crew from scurvy by hunting for animals and feeding the crew fresh meat. In cases where citrus fruits are lacking, fresh meat from animals that make their own vitamin C (which most do) contains enough of the vitamin to prevent scurvy, and even partly treat it. This was an important lesson in survival in the polar region, for Amundsen.

Risk Management – Identifying risk and taking mitigation steps: Amundsen did not let destiny manage him, he managed destiny. His experience — and that of others — taught him that successful explorers are cautious. He believed that bad luck is often the result of insufficient preparation

One of the most outstanding elements of his risk management plan was his careful layout of depots along his path.

Amundsen had the last180 miles of his route marked like a Norwegian ski course using marker flags initially every eight miles. He added to this by using parts of empty food containers that had been prepared by painting the outside black resulting in a marker every mile. From 82 degrees on Amundsen built a 6 ft cairnevery three miles with a note inside recording the cairn’s position, the distance to the next depot, and direction to the next cairn, In order not to miss a depot considering the snow and great distances, Amundsen took precautions. Each depot laid out up to 85 degrees (laid out every degree of latitude) had a line of bamboo flags laid out transversely every half-mile for 5 miles on either side of the depot so that the retuning party did not have any trouble locating the depot despite heavy snow.

Amundsen had three times the depots Scott had. This ultimately was a contributing factor to the demise of Scott and his party on their return journey. The bodies of Scott and his party were discovered some 18 km (11 miles) short of a depot – that might have saved their lives if they had reached it.

Bold decision making backed by data: Amundsen was a thorough analyst. He relied heavily on data and facts to come to a conclusion. And once the facts lay before him, he did not hesitate to make bold decisions.

The shortest route to the South Pole was avoided by explorers because of a fear of the thin ice sheet. His analysis of the logs of prior expeditions indicated that not much had changed with respect to the geology of the region. So he decided to take the shorter less frequented route to the South Pole – a decision that paid off with respect to the timing and the safety of the explorers – he ended up reducing the route by 112 Km and as a result, he reached the South Pole 34 days before Robert Scott.


On September 12, before spring had set in, Amundsen made his first dash for the South Pole.  The result was the death of valuable dogs and frostbite on the feet of his men that would require a month to heal. Amundsen promptly decided to hurry back to his base and patiently wait for spring. He desperately wanted to win the race to the South Pole, but he realized that it involved teamwork with his men and the weather. Like great managers, Amundsen was aggressive but not stupid.

Focus on Operational Efficiency: Amundsen first evaluated the shortest possible route to the South Pole and then evaluated the fastest way to get to it and back.

Amundsen realized that skis would be the fastest way to traverse through the Antarctic ice. So he recruited a team of well experienced skiers, with champion skier, Olav Bjaaland, as the front runner. In contrast, Scott never learned to ski proficiently, so he and his men trudged, pulling their own sledges.

Amundsen knew from his time with the Inuit that dogs were superior haulers and that the issue of calories would eventually determine survival or death. Scott grossly miscalculated the calorie burn from man-hauling, and that combined with poor food depot planning (location, contents, fuel) contributed to his team’s demise. It is reported that Amundsen’s team actually gained weight during their successful return trip.

In the end, Amundsen’s expedition benefited from his careful preparation, good equipment, appropriate clothing, an understanding of dogs and their handling, and the effective use of skis


In Amundsen’s own words:I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.


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