Entrepreneurship lessons from Roald Amundsen: No map. No guide. No limits.

One hundred and eleven years ago, the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen and his team planted the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, becoming the first humans in history to reach it. They had won against the British team, led by Robert Falcon Scott, who would arrive 34 days later, only to stare in defeat at the flag waving in the wind. Imagine the crushing disappointment. 

On the return journey, Scott and his men laboured on, frost-bitten, hungry, and exhausted. As the brutal winter closed in, they could no longer keep up, and they died in their tent, just ten miles from the next depot of food and shelter.

There’s an amazing list of adventurers – from Britons Ross, Shackleton and Scott, to Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian, Australian Douglas Mawson, American Robert Peary, back to Erik the Red, a wild Icelandic youth, who discovered and settled Greenland. Then there’s Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the first person to have reached both the North and South Poles.

Aside from the mentality of wanting to endure such extreme physical hardship in the pursuit of a dream, the thinking, behaviour and spirit of adventure of these explorers manifests itself in the focus, determination and flair of modern day entrepreneurs.

Successful explorers and entrepreneurs have one thing in common: they aren’t afraid of failure. The fear of failure can easily overpower your ability to take action and secure opportunities, yet faced with uncertainty, odds stacked against them and often an initial plan in tatters, intrepid explorers and entrepreneurs seek to pursue their goals with zeal and endeavour.

Close your eyes, imagine this: a little tent moves in the wind, under a harsh looking dark sky, snow in the air. You’ve pitched your tent becoming the first human ever to reach the South Pole. The image of that tent depicts perhaps one of the most important and dangerous places anyone has ever slept. 

At 3pm December 14, 1911 Amundsen arrived at the South Pole. The tent and the camp surrounding it were given the name Polheim, which translates as Home at the Pole, by Amundsen. It was the temporary home of the pioneering crew. Amundsen won the race to the Pole ahead of Scott, yet poignantly it was Scott’s crew that took the last ever picture of the camp – they rested there until starting off on their tragic return journey. Since they left, the tent has never been seen and probably won’t be seen ever again.

Amundsen left Christiana, Norway in August 1910 with provisions for two years and nearly a hundred Greenland sled dogs that were to be the key in his team’s subsequent success in reaching the South Pole. On his boat, The Fram, Amundsen’s party reached Antarctica and landfall at the Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911 where a winter base was established. Depots were established between then and April when the sun set for the long Antarctic winter night, depots of stores that would be used in the push to reach the South Pole the following spring.

The winter was passed in orderly industriousness while the party prepared for the polar journey as well as settling into winter routines to maintain morale and make sure the men were kept occupied. Amundsen understood the importance of preparation for the winter and of maintaining spirits particularly during the dark days of winter.

The weather however was a constant source of frustration. When eventually Amundsen and his team of five men set off each with a sledge pulled by thirteen dogs. They struggled on against poor weather, blizzards and bad snow conditions, which took their toll on both dogs and men. At 3pm on Friday, December 14, 1911 the party arrived at the South Pole. They erected a small tent and placed inside it a letter and then set off back to their winter base.

The party that had reached the South Pole first was: Roald Amundsen, Olav Olavson Bjaaland, Hilmer Hanssen, Sverre H. Hassel, Oscar Wisting. Truly innovators, truly entrepreneurs. They had done something nobody else had done before.

Amundsen continued his explorations in the Arctic becoming more and more interested in flying and airship travel. Alas he disappeared with no trace in 1928 while searching for the survivors of an airship crash in the Arctic.

So, what are the lessons to be learned from Amundsen and his seemingly reckless cohort of fellow explorers for C21st entrepreneurs in pursuit of their own personal goals? What are the key traits in their attitude to adventure and pushing the boundaries that today’s entrepreneurs can look to replicate?

1. They don’t take a parachute Amundsen spent time learning things for polar exploration. During one trip he experimented with eating raw dolphin meat, just to see if it could be useful if shipwrecked. He lived with Eskimos to learn how to run dog sledges in harsh conditions. When launching, most new business ventures face a significant risk on not knowing what they don’t know with little to no safety net.  

Explorers like Amundsen anticipate a degree of trauma and failure along the way, but don’t have a prepared safety net. Instead they have an eternal optimism and positive mindset in their recovery, and have an ability to harness resources to build their own landing strip to catch themself when they fall. 

2. Don’t hold out for better opportunities Amundsen seized the moment, beating Scott to the Pole with better strategy, planning and execution. He endured terrible weather conditions. Entrepreneurs take advantage of new opportunities even when the conditions aren’t optimal, and when others don’t make a move. It gets them a step forward first, ahead of the game. Savvy entrepreneurs understand that it takes a little elbow grease and sharp elbows to achieve success.

3. Work effectively under pressure Neil Armstrong was for me, the modern day Amundsen: there’s nothing riskier than riding on top of a Saturn V rocket with enough chemical energy to be the equivalent of a small atomic bomb, not to mention the threat of being sucked into the vacuum of space. In 1969, that’s what Neil Armstrong faced as part of his journey to become the first person to walk on the moon.  Similarly, entrepreneurs focus on the bigger picture, they push through the pressure and ignore the side stories to get closer to accomplishing their goals.

4. Don’t compromise hiring into your team Unlike Scott, Amundsen had gone to extraordinary length to pick the best people, those with the highest skills and experience. But even more importantly, Amundsen emphasised unity and teamwork over individual competence.  For sure, Amundsen was not nice, warm, and fuzzy. However, he didn’t take the easy path but made difficult choices ahead of time. In selecting people, it is not about being nice, but rigorous.

5. Don’t let stuff cloud your vision The way you perceive challenges affects your ability to conquer them. The most successful entrepreneurs find work arounds when faced with apparently immovable barriers. Amundsen showed you have to plan meticulously, but then be prepare to jettison your plan in the face of unforeseen challenges.

6. Take the road less travelled Amundsen documented every step of his expedition, yet it was a step into the unknown, with only his own thinking to shape the direction. For entrepreneurs, the road less travelled often holds the hidden opportunity. They are driven by curiosity and chart their own path to success without following the steps of others.  

7. Channel paranoia Amundsen planned for everything going wrong, while Scott relied on everything going right. Unlike Scott, Amundsen built buffers and safety margins wherever he could. For a primary supply depot, he placed twenty black pennants around it so that they would not miss the depot on the return journey (in which case they would die). Scott, in contrast, put a single flag on his primary depot.

Like Amundsen, the best business leaders had productive paranoia, being hyper-vigilant about potentially bad events that can hit your company and then turning that fear into preparation and clearheaded action. Andy Grove of Intel went around looking for the black cloud in the silver lining. 

8. Not all time in life is equal People often get stuck in routine work and fail to see disruptions and big changes. It turns out that Amundsen’s entire expedition was aimed at the North Pole. Yes, the North. But as he was planning, he received crushing news: The North had fallen to explorers Cook and Peary. A big change indeed. Amundsen, in secret, decided to go south. Only when the ship was at the port of Madeira, Portugal, did he tell his crew. 

Like the best business leaders, Amundsen ‘zoomed out’ –  what’s the new situation?, then ‘zoomed in’ – to redirect to the South). When a big change or opportunity comes along,  take a step back, assess the new situation, ask whether it calls for a change, and if it does, make the change and execute.

9. Accept failure with open arms It only takes one customer to say ‘yes’ to make launch of your startup a success, but don’t be surprised if your journey takes you somewhere different than where you set out for. Amundsen had to conquer whatever unexpected obstacles they encountered along the way. As an entrepreneur you must be willing to take risks in order for your business to succeed. The biggest risk is not taking any risk – that is guaranteed to fail.

10. Desperation drives creativity Known as ‘the last of the Vikings’, Amundsen was a lifelong adventurer with a gift for organisation and planning. I think you the parallels between an entrepreneur and Amundsen are quite clear. It’s about having a fire in your heart and ice in your veins, being bold, being brave and being true to yourself.

Antarctic expeditions in the early 1900s were exceedingly dangerous, and they faced a perfect storm of terrible conditions: blizzards, scurvy, starvation, hypothermia, frostbite, snow blindness, and falling into a crevasse, among other constant perils.  For entrepreneurs, constraints of money, time and expertise go with the territory, but they’re also a beautiful thing because they force creativity and innovation.

Challenges will arise that no planning can anticipate, but in the end, success is more than a customer invoice. The ‘how’ of the ingenuity and grit shown along the way can be just as important. No one is so brave that they are not troubled by something unexpected, anyone can be bold from a safe distance, but explorers and entrepreneurs embrace adversity: No Map. No Guide. No Limits.

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