Performance – expediency or lasting legacy?


As is well documented, Scott and his men were denied priority by Roald Amundsen’s team. The Norwegian embarked in a craft stripped of all extraneous ephemera, the team similarly equipped – a reflection perhaps of todays pared back workplaces, designed to maximise productivity and keep cost to a minimum. Scott’s party on the other hand, were fitted out with the grandeur one would expect from an Admiralty-backed undertaking with the Empire at the height of its Pomp and Circumstance. If one were so minded, links could be drawn between success on the one hand and failure on the other. However, what many commentators failed to note at the time (and subsequently) is the numerous scientific achievements of Scott’s men. Cherry-Garrard, along with Edward “Uncle Bill” Wilson and Henry “Birdie” Bowers (both of whom were to perish with Scott on the return from the Pole) undertook a journey of incredible human suffering for nothing more than a penguin egg. On his return to London after the disaster in the South had unfolded, Cherry-Garrard paid a visit to the Natural History Museum in London with his precious cargo. He was dismissed out of hand, the hardships of his small party given little or no consideration. Sadly, the fate of the polar party and the failed relief efforts haunted Cherry-Garrard to his dying day. Only latterly have their discoveries been recognised and they continue to inform many of the most modern scientific theories.
So, what might we infer from the differing approaches of Scott and Amundsen? Well, for short term expediency, the single minded pursuit of a singular objective then Amundsen’s your man. But this approach lacks a certain soul though I’ve always thought. Scott might have been considered similarly single minded but he understood the concept of legacy and of nurturing people all too well. As he lay dying in his tent, crippled by malnutrition and the effects of the cold he wrote “For God’s sake look after our people”. Scott’s reputation has undergone many revisions over the years and omissions and errors have been picked over forensically. Edward Wilson (whose beautiful watercolour illustrates the first post in this series of four) was no fool and a perhaps one of the first true renaissance men. I find it hard to believe he would have followed Scott to his death if he had doubts about the efficacy of his planning even if one takes into account the hierarchical structures in place at the time. In matter of fact it was the informal and implicitly allowed sub-culture within Scott’s team that might have contributed to the cohesive nature of the expedition even while many of its number were working remotely with little or no communication with the main party. Team leaders were give personalised sledging colours. A full colour newspaper, The South Polar Times was produced, a pianola formed part of the cargo as did gramophones and a full library. Men took miniature books with them on arduous sledging journeys and smuggled luxury food items about their person when on the march. These personal touches, purely the result of choice exercised under the eye of a tolerant but clearly defined structure that devolved responsibility to the individual were, we might infer, what made Scott such a respected leader amongst a team of strong willed middle managers and hard-headed lower deck personnel. Another polar hero, Ernest Shackleton, inspired equal devotion from his people and lessons learned from his experiences form the basis of an excellent book on leadership: “Shackleton’s Way” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell (in paperback by Nicholas Brealey Publishing – 2001) which was a New York Times business bestseller.


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