When the Going Gets Tough

Think you have challenges? We all do, of course, and it is useless to argue about whose are the most onerous. But even if it is a contest, not many CEOs can compare their tale of woe to those of the explorers who raced to be the first to reach the South Pole — or even one-up that by crossing the continent of Antarctica on foot.

Last week “Antarctic Mike” Pierce was here to speak to one of my Vistage groups. I should say before I go on that Mike has as much cred as anyone to talk about who won and who died exploring Antarctica — and why. He was among the first 12 people to run a marathon in Antarctica and then returned to run an ultramarathon. He has not just studied the stories from afar, but gone to Antarctica to do something that required grit and suffering. The lessons of those explorers apply to those of us in business today, so I thought I would share a few highlights from Mike’s half day with my members.

There is an iconic picture of Ernest Shackleton’s crew playing an impromptu soccer match on what is actually a giant pack of ice. Their ship, in the background, is unexpectedly iced in. When it is evident that they are trapped until spring, Shackleton understands that the game has changed. Instead of racing to cross the continent, he has to keep his crew alive until they can get free. The angle of the photograph puts a tall vertical pole between the football match and the ship in the background, a wonderful metaphor for what their leader understood.

The problem was not that they were stranded — although they clearly were. The problem was that the crew was going to have to endure tremendous hardship to survive long enough to travel back to civilization, and Shackleton understood that keeping their spirits up was critical to survival. That was before the ice crushed the ship. Had the crew already been demoralized, they would not have survived that painful event.

While businesses rarely take on the kinds of activity that threaten life and limb, smart leaders understand that to deal with difficult times, the culture and attitude of their workforce will be critical to survival. While operations and finance may need some re-engineering to survive a bleak economic period, or to stay resilient for a long-slog project, culture will win out (or drag your company down) every time.

Another of the most instructive stories involves the race between Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott, an Englishman. Their expeditions raced to be first to get to the South Pole in 1912. A wide range of factors allowed the Norwegian team to get to the pole a full five weeks ahead of Scott. But the lesson for modern businesspeople was in the way they planned and communicated with their teams.

Amundsen took five men. They all knew from the beginning that they would all trek all the way in (and out). Taking months to study and learn the land, they placed their own food stores along the route, supplying each station with over 20 times the goods needed. They planted large black banners so that they could not miss the stores depots on the route out or back.

Scott was less patient, starting with a team three times the size and staging rations as they traveled out. That meant far more food for men and dogs needed to be carried.

At each station, a few of the crew would remain, and the original plan called for four of the team to make the last leg to the pole. But Scott never discussed or disclosed who would stay and who would travel on until they arrived at the station. And perhaps worst of all, at the last way station, he was unable to leave his friend behind, so he took the unplanned fifth man with him. Mishaps on the return made a weakened and despondent team worse. They perished 150 miles from base camp and 11 miles from the next stores depot.

Few of us reading this will ever face these kinds of challenges, but the leadership lessons of those who did are instructive, even over a century later. All of the teams vying for glory and knowledge who explored in Antarctica shared the same harsh and brutal conditions. While random elements always play a part in the success of any venture, the fundamental distinction between who succeeded, who survived and who died was the character and courage of their leaders.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, February 26, 2018.