Leadership frozen in time

The management training industry is constantly searching for new ways and techniques to put a “modern” spin on Leadership. Sometimes it is worth taking pause to reflect on how some of the great historically reported acts of leadership took place and how they might be viewed in today’s context.

For instance, what made Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912 such an inspiring example to early twentieth century Britons? That era prized extremely highly the heroism of intrepid teams of men who followed a charismatic identity into unbelievably adverse conditions, often to certain death. In Scott’s case, he and four companions perished in an attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole.

That small group were hailed, in the history books during my primary school years, for their courage, endurance, tenacity and fortitude in the face of overwhelming conditions. Scott was lauded as an heroic leader whose attributes all young boys should aspire to.

More recent writings by some historians and commentators have however called into question whether Scott’s approach to the planning and execution of the expedition was in fact highly flawed and doomed to failure. Notwithstanding the ferocity and persistence of the final blizzard that prevented the party from reaching their life saving supply depot, these critics argue that it was Scott’s singular focus on attaining personal glory and prestige that blinded him to the real risks of the mission which, they say, were more about poor preparation and lack of contingency planning.

Preparing for the journey

In today’s corporations the risks to personal life and limb may not be as severe as those facing Scott’s expedition but the need is still high to consider the impact on the people around us, of our leadership in all its facets, not just the charismatic aura that succeeds in getting a team to “sign on” for the journey.  We see so many stories in the Press about high profile business leaders who come to grief through poor judgement or risky business behaviour, but inflict the greater part of the grief on their employees, creditors and shareholders.

Being a leader is not just about getting people to follow you. An effective leader seeks to ensure that through whatever storms may break upon the enterprise, the primary consideration is the welfare of those that depend on the Leader for their livelihood.  Modern leadership development is therefore about producing well rounded learning and experience that surpasses mere positive personality traits and focuses on successful achievement of organisational goals in a way that enables everyone involved to share in that success.

From a management perspective, the sad aspect of the large white statue of Scott erected in Christchurch, New Zealand from where the expedition departed for Antarctica, is that it extols Scott as the heroic leader but relegates the remainder of the party (Evans, Bowers, Wilson and Oates) to simple names on the plaque below. Were they not equally heroic?

Scott’s party 17 January 1912 – the day after they found out Amundsen had beaten them to the South Pole.

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