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Leading by Incrementality
January | 2013


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Courageous Leadership

Leading by Incrementality

What do you do if you are planning to be the first person to the North Pole only to find out that Frederick Cook and Robert Peary beat you to it? Your new plan — go south young man, go south. And so it was for Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who began his journey to the farthest southern reaches of the planet on June 3, 1910. Little did Amundsen know, but his leadership plan would be heralded 100 years later by one of today's leading management gurus.

Growing up in a shipbuilding family Amundsen decided early in life to become an adventurer. As a member of a ship's crew he visited Antarctica in 1899. When the ship became ice locked and forced to spend a winter with poorly prepared supplies, he learned the importance of making detailed plans for contingencies.

In 1903 he led an expedition across Canada's Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Having done careful research, he understood that only a ship with a shallow draft would be able to traverse parts of the waterway. He continued to be a student as he learned the wisdom of the native people who showed him how to use sled dogs and to wear animal skins instead of heavy woolen jackets.

These earlier life experiences taught Amundsen two important lessons; one that you can never be too prepared and secondly, respect the environment you are operating within and instead of trying to control it, work with it.

When Amundsen and his crew arrived at what is now known as the Ross Ice Shelf, he set up base camp and distributed animal skin-eskimo styled parkas to his crew. He also travelled with a team of sled dogs and planned to use them for the trip south. He mapped a path directly to the South Pole that was shorter than other paths being considered. And perhaps most importantly, he devised a plan that would create a consistent and manageable travel schedule that would mean getting to the South Pole and back in 97 days. His plan was novel but critical to his success.

Amundsen recognized that the weather would be the major factor that he and his crew of humans and canines would have to face. By creating a single controlling factor, how far they would travel each day, he could maintain an important element of management. As described by Jim Collins in his latest book, Great by Choice, Amundsen decided that he would march his crew just 20 miles per day regardless of conditions. Sunny and comfortable...20 miles; snows and blasting winds...20 miles; gray and quiet...20 miles. When they had down time on their good days his crew would use it to repair equipment and dry out their gear. Amundsen's discipline and planning created routine and consistency and led to his team's success in claiming the South Pole for Norway.

As I was working on this story, one of my CEO coaching clients called me to discuss his latest set of challenges. "It was the best of weeks and the worst of weeks" he started off saying in a voice that sounded like he had climbed Mount Olympus only to be buried by an avalanche a few minutes later. I mentioned Amundsen's journey to the South Pole and his discovery of the importance of consistency, tenacity and steadiness. "Good days and bad days" Amundsen called them. "This is what we all sign up for in our life and our work." We talked a bit further about how Amundsen's singular focus to reach the South Pole drove his preparation, training and actions and how having clarity of direction and purpose can help us navigate the challenging waters of business in 2013.

Consider what your 20-mile march will be in the coming months. Maybe its your goal to read 20 pages a day or meet with your direct reports on a weekly basis or to call 10 customers every month to make sure they are thrilled with your work. Regardless of what you choose, create consistency and enjoyment...and remember it okay to only go 20 miles.

 

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TED Talks

If you are taking some time to consider what you want to achieve in 2013, award winning cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg and Benedictine Monk Brother David Steindl-Rast have the perfect idea for 2013. Check it out here

 

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