Small Wars Journal

What Two Polar Explorers Teach Us about War and Leadership

Fri, 10/18/2013 - 2:21pm

What Two Polar Explorers Teach Us about War and Leadership

Joe Byerly

In October 1911, Sir Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen raced against each other for the prestige of being the first explorer to reach the South Pole. These two men each led small teams in extreme conditions where planning, preparation, and leadership decided the outcome of the contest. Roald Amundsen not only reached the South Pole 300 miles ahead of Scott, but he also brought all of his men back home alive. The only survivors on Scott’s team, were the journals the men kept.

The story of Amundsen and Scott is powerful because it offers so many lessons for leaders in the military. I’d like to use this post to highlight three of them:

1.) We Must Prepare for Friction

“The good general must know friction in order to overcome it whenever possible, and in order to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible.” -C. Clausewitz On War Book 1, Chapter 7

The use of supply caches was the only way the two explorers could successfully make the 1700 mile journey in this unforgiving environment. In order to alleviate the amount of supplies the team hauled during the expedition, each team established these caches halfway to the South Pole. Amundsen understood that friction would wreak havoc on his team. He knew that weather conditions may not be ideal, that navigational instruments may break, and that fatigue may make finding these critical food sources complicated. Their survival rested on the proper marking of these depots. As described by Roland Huntford, “The method [Amundsen] adopted was a line of black pennants on short sticks running east-west across course. Twenty were laid out half a mile apart; ten on each side, making a transverse marking 10 miles long. This was well within any conceivable instrumental error, so that even in thick weather, the chances of missing a pennant were small.” Scott only marked his depots with a single flag, exposing himself to catastrophe when the same friction that Amundsen prepared for paid a visit.

2.) We Must Take Responsibility for Our Own Development

“The knowledge needed by a senior commander is distinguished by the fact that it can only attained by a special talent, through the medium of reflection, study, and thought.” -C. Clausewitz, On War Book Two, Chapter 2

Amundsen took every opportunity to learn his craft. He was an avid reader, and read every published memoir on arctic expeditions, taking copious notes, and developing his own theories as he went. He also kept a diary of his own personal experiences, which provided a great source for reflection. He complimented his intellectual growth, with seeking out various experiences to validate what he read. From the use of dogs, to the types of straps on the skis- he constantly tested methods to improve the chances of success for the upcoming expedition. On an earlier trip, when his party had a chance encounter with Eskimos, he spent a winter with them to learn the necessary skills for survival in extreme climates. This ability to develop himself proved invaluable during the race to the South Pole.

Scott, on the other hand, failed to learn from the experience of others- to include his own. While Amundsen spent nearly a decade balancing his experience with study, Scott tried to quickly learn everything about polar exploration in two weeks time before his first expedition. While he had copies of memoirs of other polar explorations, there is no evidence that he actually read them. His lack of study and experience caused him to put his faith in untested methods and technology. The horses and motor sledges he brought with him for the expedition were total failure, and were only two of the many errors which led to his team’s demise.

3.) We Must Be Dedicated Professionals

“An Army’s military qualities are based on the individual who is steeped in the spirit and the essence of this activity; who trains the capacities it demands, rouses them, and makes them his own; who applies his intelligence in every detail; who gains ease and confidence through practice, and who completely immerses his personality in the appointed task.” -C. Clausewtiz On War Book 3, Chapter 5

Amundsen dedicated his life to polar exploration and as I’ve already described to you, he complimented his experience with extensive reading and reflection. He treated the members of his team with respect and maximized their strengths. Scott on the hand chose polar exploration because in the British Navy it was a “fast track” for promotion for officers. In his diary, he admitted that he had “neither rest nor peace to pursue anything but promotion.” His heart was never in it. His men were just stepping stones on his path to the top, he belittled them, and blamed them when things didn’t go well. He was more concerned with image and promotion than the accomplishment of his mission or the welfare of those under his charge. Ultimately they paid the price for following him.

Are you Amundsen or Scott?

I highly recommend reading The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford. It’s the best leadership book I’ve ever read that isn’t specifically focused on leadership. If you’re tired of Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale, this is the book for you!



Mon, 10/21/2013 - 12:44pm

In reply to by balaclava


The value of studying what Scott did vs. what Amundsen did is that both were trying to accomplish exactly the same task at almost exactly the same time, getting to the South Pole and back without dying. Amundsen did it. Scott died and so did all the men with him. There are things to be learned there.

From what little I've read Shackleton is another guy whose practices should be studied. Quite extraordinary accomplishments.


Mon, 10/21/2013 - 4:33am

This is very sloppy work indeed, and I am surprised that it appears here.

Knowing perhaps a little about Scott and his background - and certainly a little more than the author of this short piece - I would agree that it's essential for us to study our profession and that in war, the simplest things are difficult. However, to suggest that Scott didn't study the Arctic or prepare fully for the Terra Nova Expedition is complete nonsense. Our author seems to forget, or is perhaps unaware of the Discovery Expedition at the turn of the century.

Bullet 3 and the conclusion drawn is absurd. Pitching Amundsen against Scott in this way is to employ a fallacy. It is my understanding, that seems to be widely accepted, that Scott was not attempting to race to the Pole, for instance.

So, more work needed. It's always good to find new ways to develop junior leaders, but any effort to draw upon historical example to make a point must be based on fact. Efforts to shoe-horn historical example into modern-day relevance to prove a point using Clausewitz is exceptionally easy, but easily riven. Besmirching the character of a great historical figure needs to be based upon something more than a glance at a Wikipedia entry backed up by selective reading of a single book. Of course the irony here is that in writing this piece, the author completely contradicts his third point – the need to study things properly, to apply intelligence “in every detail… .” The challenges in determining Scott’s success or failure is in reality somewhat more complicated, and subjective.

I second the recommendation of The Last Place on Earth. It is structured in a way as to be as much a study in comparative leadership as a history. It is also an extremely readable book about a very interesting (and scary) subject.

I have a question for the author regarding your last sentence, "Are you Amundsen or Scott?". Do you think a Scott can become an Amundsen through training? I don't. I think something that fundamental is a matter of innate character and inborn ability which can only be formed by parents and God. I am curious as to what you think.