In recent years the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton
has often been cited
as a good role model for business leaders.
His friend, fellow polar explorer, sometime chief, and
sometime competitor, Captain
Robert Falcon Scott has, by contrast, been unfairly neglected by management
theorists. Scott is not perceived as ending up a “winner”: he died, with all
four of his companions, on his way home after coming second, albeit a close
second, to Roald Amundsen
in the race to be the first men to reach the South Pole.
Yet to focus on this tragic end ignores the significance of
a career of immense achievement, best described in an excellent biography
by Sir Ranulph Fiennes – himself possibly our greatest living adventurer and,
as another polar explorer, a man with a full understanding of the challenges
It also misses the point that it is precisely the serious risk
of failure, and the consequences of failure, that make any great endeavour – be
it a polar expedition or a business venture – worthy of reward.
As much as any entrepreneur, Scott found success on the very
edge of what was previously thought possible. His first Antarctic expedition, a
decade before his death, was a leap into the unknown. The later achievements of
Shackleton and Amundsen were able to build on what that first expedition discovered,
but Scott was the pioneer, the man who basically invented modern polar
exploration by trial and error.
Indeed, possibly the most interesting thing about Scott’s
career is that when he was selected to lead his pioneering first Antarctic
expedition he had absolutely no experience of polar exploration.
He was notable only as one of the Royal Navy’s brightest
young torpedo officers.
No selection board today would have made such a choice.
Obsessed with covering their own behinds, and in thrall to the Cult of the Specialist,
they would have insisted on paper “qualifications”, references, and a curriculum vitae of
Yet expertise in established thinking is a positive
disadvantage when faced with the unknown. Scott succeeded precisely because he
was forced to improvise and to rely on his open mind, his willingness to learn
from mistakes, his determination to succeed, his ability to organise from
scratch, and his energy, which galvanised those around him – the same gifts
that have often enabled entrepreneurs to succeed where the products of
selection panels have failed.