Lead Your Business Like A Polar Expedition

Jeff Boss | Forbes

Posted: 5/08/18

Lead Your Business Like A Polar Expedition

In 1911, two teams of explorers set out to be the first to make it to the south pole. One team, led by Roald Amundsen reached their goal. The other team, led by Robert Scott, did not. In fact, Scott’s entire team perished just 11 miles short of their next resupply.

Three practices defined Amundsen’s success. The first was having a process. Every day — rain or shine, sleet or snow  — his team marched 20 miles. If they felt great and wanted to march further, they still maintained “just” 20 miles. On the other hand, if they were tired or the weather was less than ideal (which, to me, seems like it would be every day in Antarctica), too bad. They still had to march 20 miles.

Scott’s team — the losing team  — however, did not. They tried to use weather to their advantage and marched 40 to 60 miles when they had the energy and much less when they didn’t. They were sporadic, inconsistent and didn’t have a process.

Both teams started within days of each other, had the same equipment and similar levels of expertise, so neither weather nor talent were factors that distinguished winning from losing. What did separate the two, was how they worked.

The second practice that distinguished winning from losing was focus. Morten Hansen, one of the top 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50 and author of the new book Great At Work: How Top Performers Work Less, Work Better and Achieve More, shares how Amundsen’s team won by focusing on less.

You see, Scott’s team had three times more men than Amundsen, twice the budget and a greater number of resources–they used five different means transportation such as dogs, motor sledges, Siberian ponies, skis and man-hauling. Amundsen, however, did not. In fact, he relied on just one method of transportation: dogs.

The third defining characteristic was effort, or rather, as Hansen puts it, obsession. Optimizing one’s focus isn’t just the byproduct of working on fewer items, he argues, but rather narrowing the scope of work on which to focus and “obsessing” over the process for getting there.

Amundsen didn’t win because he had less to focus on (i.e. dogs). After all, he was in Antarctica. He won because he had a clearly defined objective, a process to win, he obsessed over the quality of dogs and narrowed down, with extreme precision, a single methodology that helped him stick to the prescribed process and worked hard every day to maximize his efforts. He used his goal to focus.

I recently shared the above story, as well as other stories from my former life as a Navy SEAL and from coaching leadership teams today, in a keynote to a financial services firm about how to navigate chaos and stay focused amidst uncertainty while remaining elite in one’s profession.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter your industry, your job role, your title or how “steep” of a career climb before you. If you want to make it to your “south pole” (metaphorically speaking here), you need the same mental tools as Amundsen.

Here are three implications for leaders:

1. Have A Plan.

One team hoped to win, the other team planned to win. Amundsen’s team had a process and a clearly defined scope of work for how they would execute their plan. Scott’s team did not. Never in my SEAL experience did we ever use hope as a planning methodology. Decisions came from having a clear focus on what winning looked like and a clear process for how we’d get there. Having said that, clarify your goal(s) first.

2. Say "No" To Do More.

When you say “no” to one thing you say “yes” to another, but that’s only part of the equation. Having less is ideal, yes, but it won’t matter if you don’t work diligently–obsess–to get there. Identify what’s important to you based on your values and exclude anything and everything else in your way. There are no “buts” here. You either adhere to the process, or you don’t. When I shipped off to BUD/S (SEAL training) after college, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind I’d make it through, and it was because I put myself through a grueling training regimen that prepared me physically, yes, but mentally even more. I said “no” to a lot of things in college because my focus to become a SEAL was that narrow.

3. Check Your Progress.

Having a plan is one thing, sticking to it is great, but if you don’t have a plan in place for how you’ll stay on track with feedback loops along the way, you might find yourself winning the wrong race. Spend a few minutes every week reviewing your progress and how they align with your goals.

Whether you’re Amundsen or Scott, you still need to march toward your objective every day. The only question is, how will you get there?



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