Fergus O'Connell Novelist & Writer

Leadership Lessons from the Race to the South Pole: Why Amundsen Lived and Scott Died – out on 28 March.


The Case Study 

The race to be the first man to stand at the South Pole that took place, in the years 1910 through 1912, between the British explorer, Robert Scott and the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen is that rarest of leadership case studies.

Two different teams carry out the same project.  One is spectacularly successful, the other fails disastrously.  Not only that, both projects are documented.  One project leader writes a book based on his expedition diaries, the other’s expedition diaries are found after his death.

As such there is much to be learned from this story about leadership and the execution of projects.


Scott – Pro or Anti? 

You need to (or may already) know that this is a story that has polarized (no pun intended) opinion.  Up to the late seventies Scott was widely seen as a hero – a legend, particularly in his own country.  Roland Huntford’s iconoclastic 1979 book, Scott and Amundsen changed all that.  Huntford demolished Scott’s legend with the literary equivalent of a sledgehammer.  Huntford’s thesis was that Scott was an almost idiotic bungler while Amundsen was a cool professional who superbly executed a well thought-out plan.

Since then, the world has very much divided – very emotionally in some cases, it has to be said – between supporters and opponents of Huntford and thus, Scott.  You only have to look at the review comments on Amazon to see what strong feelings Huntford’s work continues to generate.

Thus, for example, the great Sir Ranulph Fiennes, would be a Scott defender.  In his book, Captain Scott, Fiennes tries to restore a lot of Scott’s reputation.   Given Fiennes’ achievements in Polar regions, his opinion is not one to be taken lightly.

Then there is, to take another example, Susan Solomon’s The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition which makes the case – based on available data – that Scott suffered unseasonably low temperatures on his return from the Pole and that this was the principle cause of his undoing.

My book doesn’t call it one way or the other.  I am neither pro nor anti Scott.  Rather it lets you, the reader, decide.  While I have my own views on both men and their expeditions, I try as far as is humanly possible, not to let those opinions intrude here.  I try to let the facts speak for themselves.  Huntford, for example, makes lots of judgments or gives opinions about Scott – for instance on his leadership style or his state of mind.  I have tried as far as possible to avoid doing that.

And when I do offer my opinion, I (a) make clear that it is just that – an opinion and (b) that I’m not trying to stuff it down your throat.  I’m merely stating my opinion based on my knowledge of the facts, my understanding of projects and whatever grasp of human nature I’ve managed to gain in my life.


Who Am I to Write This Book? 

It’s important for me to say too that I have never been to Antarctica.  I haven’t man-hauled sledges over ice.  I don’t know how to ski and have never driven a dog team.

But what I do have is that I know about projects.  In my own career and in my consulting work, I have seen and / or been involved in literally thousands of them.  (The biggest was the Special Olympics World Games 2003, the world’s biggest sporting event that year, where my company acted as project management consultants.) The fact is that I know a good project when I see one.  And I know a turkey when I see it.  There are certain characteristics that are common to all successful projects.  Equally there are certain characteristics common to failed ones.

This book then looks at these two projects through this lens – as examples of projects.  The questions it poses are quite simple – were these projects well or badly planned?  Executed?  In short, were they well led?


Why Another Scott and Amundsen book?

On the day I wrote this preface, I did a search on the term ‘Scott Amundsen’ on Amazon.

I got 704 results.

Does the world really need another Scott and Amundsen book?

Well actually, I think it does.  Nobody has looked at this project through the lens through which we’re going to look at it.  Nobody has said, ‘If these are the characteristics of a successful project, how do these two projects measure up?’

So the book is a new way, that hasn’t been tried before, of looking at an old story.


Leadership Lessons

I think I need to make clear too what is meant by a book whose title begins with the words ‘Leadership Lessons’.  There are a number of books on the market that begin with these words.  Most of these books follow the same formula.  They look at the lives of some historical character and, by describing various events from their lives, draw general conclusions about how to lead teams, about leadership styles and traits.

This book is a little different, a bit more expansive.  It doesn’t just focus on the leadership styles of Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, though it does certainly look at those aspects.  Rather it focuses on how they led their projects – in other words, how they got things done.  Because this, ultimately, is what leadership is all about – it’s about getting things done.


Professionals and Amateurs

In 1985 I worked on a project to develop a laptop computer.  Today there would be nothing particularly interesting about that.  A laptop is a piece of consumer electronics – I imagine there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of them, produced by development teams every year.

But back in 1985, this was radical stuff.  We imagined our target customer – a busy executive on the road – checking into their hotel room, connecting to a mailbox from where they could download their emails, looking up the Dow, writing documents, working on spreadsheets, preparing presentations – all the stuff we take for granted today.

I’d love to be able to tell you that our project was successful and that we achieved great riches, fame and success.

In fact, it ended in utter failure.

I‘ve had nearly thirty years to ponder this project.  Not that I dwell on it overmuch.  Shit happens, you shrug and move on. But as this project has settled in my mind and just become an amusing part of my history and a good story to tell, I’ve come to realize that our failure can actually be summed up in a sentence.

We were amateurs.  

We were boys trying to do a man’s job.

Sure, our hearts were in the right places and sure, we worked hard and sure, we did what we thought was right and no question, we wanted it to succeed.

But ultimately it didn’t succeed because we weren’t professional enough.  (For a great discussion on this business of ‘turning pro’ check out Steven Pressfield’s wonderful book of the same name.)

There are a handful of things that professional leaders do when it comes to planning and executing projects.  Any projects.  There aren’t that many of these things and they’re not exactly complicated or difficult to understand.  But they are common to all pro leaders and to all successful projects.

Get them all right and it’s hard to see how you could go wrong.  Get most of them right and you’ll have a fighting chance of success.  Get some of them right and with a bit of luck, you might just swing it.

We got almost none of them right.

So the rest of this book is about these things that pro leaders do.


The Structure of the Book and the Ten Step

There are only ten of these things and I’ll you what they are in a moment.  Then the rest of the book essentially consists of ten chapters where I:

  • o Discuss the particular action that pro leaders take
  • o Show how well or otherwise each of Scott and Amundsen carried out that action
  • o Explains how you can carry out that action on your own projects.

Each chapter begins with a little piece of the Scott and Amundsen story, for those readers that are unfamiliar with it.

The final two chapters of the book describe (in chapter 11) the method for running any project successfully – the so-called ‘Ten Steps’ – and finally (chapter 12) a way of using the Ten Steps to assess the health of any project in a couple of minutes.  I also offer a rating of both Scott’s and Amundsen’s projects using this technique.  I’d encourage you to rate their projects yourself.

So first of all then, here are the ten things.  After that, we’ll get going.


To get any project done successfully, there are ten things that pro leaders do.  They are:

1. Figure out exactly what’s wanted – Pros have a laser-like focus on the goal of their project.
2. Figure out the jobs that have to be done – Pros know that the devil is in the detail.
3. Make sure all the jobs get done – Pros trail boss their projects.
4. Get people to do the jobs – Pros pick the right people.
5. Have a margin for error – Pros have a safety margin in their plan.
6. Set the expectations of the people for whom you’re doing the project – Pros set their stakeholders’ expectations.
7. Use the right leadership style – Pros have certain things in common in their leadership styles
8. Track the project – Pros track their projects properly.
9. Report the status – Pros report their projects’ progress properly.
10. Do a post-mortem – Pros learn from completed projects.


Who Should Read the Book? 

This book would be very useful to you if you are involved in any kinds of projects, whether in work or outside of work, whether as a project leader / manager or as a team member.

In addition, if you have no interest in projects but are interested in polar exploration or the Scott and Amundsen story then this book looks at that saga from a new and original point of view.