Leadership in the South Pole

Stephanie Harrington

Reaching the South Pole was once like travelling to the moon.

Antarctica was the last unexplored continent for early 20th century Europeans. And the subsequent race to the remotest place on earth earned Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Captain Roald Amundsen a spot in history. Royal Roads associate faculty and Master of Arts in Leadership alumnus Scott Richardson says we can learn a lot about leadership from these three explorers.

“A century ago the South Pole was about as far removed as the moon is to us today, so leadership styles played out larger than life,” Richardson says. “As a consequence, Scott lost his life. Amundsen is arguably the most successful polar explorer of all time. And Shackleton was the leader of the most extraordinary survival story of the whole century.”

Richardson will present a workshop called ‘The race to the South Pole: What we can take from the unique leadership styles of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton,’ on Saturday, Oct. 5 at the sold-out Leadership Conference 2013: Advancing Leadership Practice and Possibility.

Organized by RRU’s School of Leadership Studies, the three-day conference will highlight new and emerging thinking in leadership. Keynote speakers include best-selling author Barry Posner, Saskatoon Health Region’s vice-president of people and partnerships Bonnie Blakley and Éliane Ubalijoro, professor at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development.

Associate faculty Scott Richardson So what kind of leaders were Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton? Richardson says each explorer had a distinctive style.

“Amundsen is, in my view, the quintessential entrepreneurial leader,” Richardson says. “He was under-resourced throughout his exploration career but from the age of 12 he had an immense passion for his work and career. He was very good at learning what he needed to know to be successful.”

The Norwegian explorer’s expedition reached the South Pole first on Dec. 15, 1911. The British team racing to the pole fared poorly: Scott and four other men died while returning from the South Pole, which they reached 33 days after Amundsen. Richardson says Scott is an example of a “command and control-style leader” whose judgement, in the end, cost him and his team members their lives.

Shackleton, meanwhile, fell 160 kilometres short of reaching the South Pole in 1909, but returned to Antarctica in 1915 to cross the continent from sea to sea, via the pole. Disaster struck when their vessel, Endurance, became trapped in ice. An extraordinary survival story followed and, in the end, all 28 men survived.

“Shackleton saved them all,” Richardson says. “Over and over again, there are examples of how engaged he was in maintaining the discipline and morale of his crew. I think he might be one of the best examples of a servant leader, a leader for the people, in so far as he endured against all odds, that no life was lost.”

Richardson, whose own leadership journey included overseeing the National Energy Board’s move from Ottawa to Calgary in 1991, says the explorers’ leadership styles can be applied to everyday life.

“The average person has their own heroic journey,” he says. “It might not be playing out larger than life in the South Pole but it’s a heroic journey nonetheless. We can draw inspiration from the explorers.”

Richardson, whose background is engineering and project management, built on his experience as a leadership coach during his education at Royal Roads. He now teaches in Royal Roads’ Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching.  Besides sharing the South Pole explorers’ stories, Richardson says the Leadership Conference is a way of sharing what he has learned.

“I feel in some ways indebted to what I have received from Royal Roads,” he says. “I look forward to any and all opportunities to contribute back not just to the institution, but to a community of learners who consider it a special place, who call it an intellectual home.”

Conference chair and RRU Associate Prof. Niels Agger-Gupta says the inaugural conference showcases scholars and practitioners, and gives alumni, who are organizational leaders and scholars in their own right, the chance to share their stories since graduating.

“This conference will create a venue to bring alumni and others interested in leadership together to talk about leadership innovation.”