How to Be That “Lucky Leader” People Want to Follow: Amundsen’s Race to the Pole | with Marty Lahey [Transcript]

by Cecily Lahey on August 5, 2013

Link to podcast episode: EL 31: How to Be That “Lucky Leader” People Want to Follow: Amundsen’s Race to the Pole

Jesse Lahey:  Welcome to the show leaders! Most people want to be on the winning team and follow a leader that’s winning. You think of southwest airlines, Amazon, Google, and Apple.  From the outside it seems like they’ve had everything going for them.  Many think the leaders of companies like those have simple been blessed with good luck, but are they truly luckier than other leaders?  Today we’ll be discussing the true story of the race to the South Pole, between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott.  These two men led teams that set out within days of each other in October 1911 in a race to become the first explorers ever to reach the pole.  Amundsen’s team not only reached the Pole more than a month sooner, but his was the only team to return alive.  The two leaders we of similar ages with comparable experience and the faced the same weather and harsh conditions during the race through Antarctica.

After the race many people claimed that Amundsen just got lucky, but he himself believed that great leaders create their own luck.  The conversation you’ll hear on this episode takes place in a much less hostile environment, just after a much more enjoyable race.  My dad, Marty, and I were in Southern Florida to race in a half marathon.  After the race, reflecting on out experience, led us to discuss the leadership lessons from Amundsen’s race to the South Pole.  As long time listeners of the Engaging Leader know, dad and I approach these issues from different perspectives that make for a interesting dynamic.  My background is in leadership communication and Dad’s is in finance and operations based on his experience a CFO for a few organizations, and more recently as an owner of a restaurant and catering business. In this conversation, we discuss four lessons we learned from Amundsen about being that lucky leader people want to follow.

Amundsen himself, he realized later, after the fact that people were attributing his great victory to luck and part of that was because in Scott’s diaries which were later discovered after his death.  Scott was frequently blaming bad luck to what was happening to them, he was cursing, his diaries were cursing the weather, “Oh, rotten luck again.  Here we are stuck in out camp.”  And yet the two guys had the same weather, they left within days of each other but here is a great quote from Amundsen when he later recognized that people were attributing his victory, his great accomplishment to luck, he said, ” 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.”

So, were going to be looking today at how a leader can create your own luck.  How you can be that lucky leader that people want to follow. A part of being a leader worth following is creating your own luck. So, were going to look at four ways that leaders can create their own luck to be a leader worth following.

Marty:  OK, the first one is, “own the outcome.”  It kind of takes me back to our race yesterday, Jesse. A year ago, you and I ran in the Miami Beach Half Marathon and the time that we achieved were almost, we are embarrassed to admit was 2 hour and 45 minutes. That’s a very slow half marathon and 3 and I think in a way, at some point in time we finally owned that outcome, probably out of embarrassment.  But the outcomes was that we were not really prepared, we were both carrying some extra pounds, and underestimated the issue with hydration and fueling your body and being prepared for a race like that.  So this year, we came a lot better prepared, you and I had both done some really rigorous dieting and working out, training, we had come down early and did some hot running and we really put emphasis on our nutrition and our fueling and our hydration and consequently yesterday we had a pretty good race.  We were 2 hours flat, about a 27% increase.  The conditions were a little but better but still, it was the same race and all that and to me that’s a good example of owning an outcome.

Jesse:  There was a temptation last year to blame the whole thing on the heat, which of course was big factor but, heat or no heat there were some runners who were over an hour faster than us last year.  So obviously the heat wasn’t as big of a factor to everybody.  Some people managed the heat quite well and so we owned that outcome and said that next time we were going to do this, this, and this better, and we’re going to make it happen.  I learned a friend of mine, Kent Julian, who we actually featured on a podcast episode 26, he’s a great speaker and one of the things he talks about in his speeches is this formula he calls, E + R = O.  Which stands for events plus response equals outcome.  But it’s our response to those events that lead to the outcome and successful people and successful leaders recognize that unsuccessful people believe that E = O, that the events that happen to me create the outcomes in my life.  And Kent says that he learned that lesson from his own daughter Mackenzie.

One day he got a call from the school that his daughter was having a problem and they had to take her to the hospital and they weren’t really sure what the situation was, but it sort of sounded like it could be drug related or anorexia related.  She had collapsed or something like that and he thought, his initial response was, “Somebody did something to my daughter, somebody messed her up or abused her or something” because there has been no sign of anything that would lead to drug abuse or anorexia or anything like that.  I mean, what is going on here? Well, as they got into it, they discovered that she has type 1 diabetes or juvenile diabetes.  Did I get that right?  Type 1 or type 2?  (Laughs).

Anyway juvenile diabetes and that’s what caused it, you know, that is…juvenile diabetes is a very big issue and it defines a lot of people and Mackenzie could have allowed that to define her and say, “well now I’m handicapped and now I’m never going to do anything big and important in life” and as Kent has watched his daughter to see how she has responded to that, he has seen her go on and do amazing things and make something special of herself and he says, “I would never wish juvenile diabetes on anybody.  I would never be glad that this happened to her, but I will say that Mackenzie is a better Mackenzie because of this experience with juvenile diabetes.’

That event that happened to her, she has had a response that has cause her to be a better Mackenzie than she was before. And that is truly living out E+R=O and when you compare what Scott wrote in his diary about “This Rotten Luck” and “I can’t believe this stuff has happened to us”, that is not owning the outcome.  And I’m not saying he’s not a great man, he’s got more manliness than in his little finger than I have in my entire being, just by going to the south pole an doing everything he did, but he did not own the come.  Whereas, Amundsen did and his team fully believed in him to get them to the South Pole and back because he took responsibility and took action, and that’s the fist step in being a “Lucky Leader”.

Marty:  Yeah, I think that’s a great example and it leads into the second aspect of what Amundsen exemplifies for us and that is, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”.

Jesse:  Amundsen, you definitely would say, was an optimist.  He would never set out for the South Pole if he weren’t an optimist, but he planned ahead with the assumption that bad things were going to happen and he was going to prepare for that. So, for example, there was that story about the altitude-measuring thermometer.

Marty:  Yeah, there was a story about some navigational instrument that they need in a journey like that and Scott get’s to the point where their instrument breaks and he’s like…

Jesse: Cursing their bad luck

Marty:  Yeah.  Is bad luck, that the one instrument that they absolutely had to have, it breaks, while Amundsen on the other hand, brought like four or five of these thing?

Jesse: Yeah, he had four of them.

Marty: You’d figure, you know one of these is probably going to break or one of the guys will break it or something, you know?

Jesse:  Or we’re going to lose of them.

Marty:  Right, and sure enough they did and you know he always seemed to have one because he had plenty of them.

Jesse: Another example is they had time in camp when they first get to Antarctica when they’re sort of just holed up in their tents and are just waiting for the right weather.  The way they used that time was amazingly different.  Scott took advantage of some of that time to prepare but for the most part his team was playing cards and entertaining themselves.  Amundsen had has time using that time to test their equipment and make refinements and one of the things they discovered was that their sledges that had their equipment packed in, they discovered things that could make it easier to get in and out of their gear.

Just traveling to get down here, you get to the airport you’ve got to go through security.  Well you and I have discovered from long years of travel that, what you want to do, is your little one quart bag, you have that right up at the top so when you go through the security line it’s easy to get in and out.  You get your electronic devises there, right up on top.

Well, similarly Amundsen discovered that, hey “if we do our sledges in a way so that the lids pop off kind of like tea canisters, we can get, every night when we stop to camp, we can just reach in and get out what we need.”  Scott, on the other hand, his sledges over loaded and unyielding and prone to tip over and every time they’d camp for the night, they wasted almost a half an hour.  They had to totally unstrap them, take these big pack containers off of the sleds to get their supplies. And when they were ready to go the next morning, they had to reverse.  They had to load everything back up.  So remarkably different.

And that all came from this advanced preparation and you think about as a leader that’s not ready to get your people to invest that time and preparing, even if you recognize the importance of preparing.  So, you have to cast a vision.  Like, “I know that you’d rather be playing cards and so forth, but what were going to be the first people to get to the South Pole.  We’re going to be famous forever and we’re going to get there and get back safely and the way we’re going to do that is by discovering these little things that if we prepare now and do them ahead of time, it’s going to make that trip a lot better.

All right, so let’s move on to the third thing.  That’s, “Follow the discipline of the 20 Mile March” this was made very clear to me by Jim Collins in his book, “Great by Choice“.  One of the big learning’s he got from Amundsen’s example, was what he called the 20 Mile March.  Every day Amundsen said, “We are going to go at least 15 miles and we’re not going to go more than 20. I don’t even care if we have great conditions, great weather, when we get to twenty miles were stopping.  And I don’t care if it’s a blizzard out there, were going at least 15 miles.” And that was a discipline, both to make sure had a minimum threshold that you did, but also so that you didn’t go so far that you over extended yourself.  On the other hand, Scott would have on a beautiful day, he would push his team and maybe they would go 30 miles or maybe 35 miles because they could and it would take them 10 or 12 hours and they would just push themselves to the point of utter exhaustion.

But when something bad happened, maybe somebody fell into a crevice, or maybe when they got to a certain point and realized, “maybe this isn’t the greatest spot to set up camp” but by then they were too exhausted to go any further they were like, “I don’t care we’re stopping here!”  They had no energy left over.  Let’s say the next day there was the slightest bit of weather, but you’re so exhausted from having gone 35 miles the day before that you say, “You know, the weather is kind of bad, let’s just stay in and camp.” Meanwhile, Amundsen’s just pushing on because they were well rested, they had margin, “Ok, the weather isn’t great today but hey we’ve got to get at least 15 miles in and were ready!  Lets go!”  Therefore, he get’s there a while month before Scott.  That’s so applicable to leadership and to business, don’t you think?

Marty:  Yea, Jesse. I’m kind of thinking, you know, this is definitely a case, Scott and Amundsen, not only of achievement, but also survival and you think about businesses that start up, and rather than have a more steady approach and say, “I’m going to get to 17.5 average miles per day, no matter what and I’m going to put all my resources out there.  I’m really going to burn the candle at both ends.  I’m just going to get on that course.” You know?  “I’m going to get some ups and downs.  I’m going to have some days where, Wow, this business is booming.  But you know what?  Those days are coming where there’s going to be a big dip and I’ve got to be able to be steady enough to get through all of that.”

Jesse:  Yeah, I think it’s sort of a tortoise and the Hair story.  You look at your business, Dad; you’re in the restaurant and catering business.  You’ve been there for more than 10 years, that’s in one of those industries of high failure.  I bet you it’s got to be 90% of restaurants fail in the first 5 years, but you’re still alive and kicking after more than 10 and you’ve had years where you’ve had pretty healthy margins, and you’ve probably would have been tempted to go spend that and enjoy the fruits of your labors, but you took sort of a healthy profit to live on and then you reinvested of it over time.

So, you’ve made expansions and improvements on the restaurant.  You’ve taken care of your people and you’ve also managed your day to day energy, because the 20 Mile March, it’s both about the discipline of going at least 15 miles and the discipline of not going beyond 20, so that you have margin.  So, if you’re burning the candle at both ends all the time, as a leader, you’re less likely to have that positive energy to lead your people from a position of strength. You’re going to have more of those times when you’ve worn yourself out, or you’ve worn your team out and so you’re not speaking with grace, and you’re more curt.  You’re not really going to have the emotional intelligence at your disposal to lead people well.  You’re going go have those times of grumpiness and it’s going to diminish your leadership ability.

Marty:  No question about it.  You know, without that margin either you’re not going to have the extra energy you need to take advantage if an opportunity comes along, or along comes a disappointment and you’ve failed to prepare for it.  Even after 10 years, I walk in to the restaurant some days and I think, “Oh my gosh.  What’s happening?  We’re so slow!”  And sometimes you get into the middle of a summer and something or you thought you had plenty of cash reserves and pretty soon they don’t seem all that plenty and you just don’t know what’s going to happen.  So, without margin you’re really at risk of not surviving. Which is what happened to Scott.

Jesse:  You hear the phrase a lot.  “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” Surely the race to the South Pole was a marathon, not a sprint and leading any worthwhile cause is usually going to be a marathon and not a sprint.  Of course, you and I ran a marathon yesterday and we saw it as, we’re going 13.1 miles, each mile we wanted to complete in 9 minutes 7 seconds or better.  If we had jumped that like a lot of people do, they start at the front in the beginning of the race really fast and maybe that first mile, they did in 7 minutes or 8 minutes.  He probably wouldn’t have had the energy to finish the race, or at least not finish it strong and we just made sure, “Hey, we want to at least do 10 minute miles and we want to have some that were doing better but on average we’re going to be 9.07 or better.”

Marty:  That’s a really great analogy, the marathon versus a sprint. Well, let’s move on to the number four and the last point we wanted to focus on and that is, “Focus on one goal at a time.”

Jesse:  This is so hard as a leader and we just talked about this in episode 27 about how to use the big little outcome scope to pick your target and how leaders who focus on one to three goals, tend to hit one to three goals, and as you try to have more goals, you actually go backwards and you hit fewer of them. Amundsen had one goal, get to the South Pole safely.  Be the first one to the South Pole.  Scott actually had two goals.

Marty: Yeah, he also had a really strong scientific head, so along the way and once they got there, they were also going to knock a few balls out of the park by advancing the basic science.

Jesse:  Yeah, he had certain scientific measurements that he wanted to take, that were going to be helpful and in fact, after he was dead and they find his instruments and everything that some of his measurements really were useful to science but they weren’t very useful to him when he’s dead.  The fact that he had two goals definitely blurred the focus and that’s what so problematic when you have more than one goal.  And as a leader, that means you’re communicating more than one goal. So, when you’re communication to your team multiple goals, you’re diffusing the focus and the energy.  Instead, you want people to be laser focused on one thing.

At one point on his return trip from the pole, they had only five days of food left and their next catch was five days away, so they needed to get there.  To use that time to get there but instead, even though the margin there was thin, he decided to stop and take geological samples.  He gathered 30 stones, which added 35 pounds to the sleds that he was carrying.  It required 7 to 8 miles of work either way.  It didn’t get them any closer and of course, they died on the way home.

Marty:  Talk about a deadly distraction.  If you were following a leader, you know, it seems you certainly would have a lot more confidence in someone with razor sharp focus, especially if you’re in a race for survival, you would trust that leader with your life, because you are!

Jesse:  Listen to this quote from Amundsen, “Our plan is one, one, and again one alone-to reach the Pole.  For that goal I have decided to throw everything else aside.”  Is there any question?

Marty: Implicitly thought, he also had the goal of getting back safely.

Jesse:  Oh, sure.  Right.

Marty:  Because he intended to take full advantage of that fame and reputation, and that was part of the success, was to come home alive.

Jesse: Right and everything he did was in service of that goal.  So, that same quote he goes on to say, to tell his men, “Sleep and eat well so that we have full strength and are in good spirits to fight toward the goal which me must attain at any cost.” But that’s total clarity on this vision, this purpose, and he made clear to them why were doing this, how were going to do it, what it’s all about. But there was one goal.  That’s why when I teach about the “big little outcome scope”, that’s BIG because there’s one BIG goal that you’re going after and the little part there’s three little objectives that support that goal, but don’t make any mistake about it.  We may have these three objectives, but it’s about one thing that were going after and that avoids any kind of confusion.

Marty:  Well it’s a good model for business because, you know, with everything else that goes on in business there really is still one main goal of all businesses, and that is survival.

Jesse:  I agree and nobody’s going to disagree that a business needs to be profitable, or you won’t survive.  And today we talk about sustainable businesses a lot. So, to sustain a business for the long term requires more than profitability and certainly you could say that’s survival. But, It’s something more than surviving, there’s actual thriving, too.

Marty: Yeah, you know the very first thing a business strives to do is survive, but there’s a lot of implicitly in that.  It’s really sustainability.  Whatever objectives you have, or mission, it might be a non-profit.  Whatever that mission is, in the long run, it’s irrelevant if you don’t have a survival plan.

Jesse:  Right.

Marty:  In other words, you’ve got the sustainability to do all of these things.  To gather the resources, to managing those resources, to optimize, and overcome all barriers, and up’s and down’s and everything else.  If you don’t have a long-term survival plan and sustainability plan then you achieve nothing.

Jesse:  And I think a leader also needs to translate the goal into a higher purpose, so for example, with the race that we ran yesterday of course, we had this goal to get to the finish line and we knew we wanted to have a big improvement on last years time.  Did we really care?  Did that time matter?  Not really.  It mattered to us, but to us it was a measurement of our health and our progress, and we just wanted to feel that we’re making progress in our fitness and our health and endurance and in just being the kind of person that can set a goal and go accomplish it.  That just gives us a good feeling and we did it together.  It’s something you and I enjoy as father and son doing together and so to us, there’s a deeper meaning.  Beyond just, “Hey, let’s finish this marathon and let’s get a good time.”  So we can translate it to our people about something that has enduring value, it creates a lot of energy but in doing so, we still need to keep it simple by actually having a single core to it.

Marty:  Yeah, there is definitely nothing more focusing than a race.  It’s a good practice to focus, I mean when all the really mattered, especially the further we went into the face, was the finish line.  You know, the finish line…the finish line.  It’s really all you really think about, after some point is getting over that mark.

Jesse:  A lot of people, again, look at Amundsen as lucky and they look another leaders as lucky and the fact is he did have some good luck, but so did Scott and they both had bad luck, but ultimately Amundsen created his own luck and people want to follow a leader that knows how to create their own luck and help the team create their own luck.  So, we’ve looked at four keys that we could learn from Amundsen about making your own luck.  Number one, “Own the outcome”, number two “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”, number three “Follow the discipline of the 20 Mile March” and number four “Focus on one goal at a time”

Link to podcast episode: EL 31: How to Be That “Lucky Leader” People Want to Follow: Amundsen’s Race to the Pole

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